In a famous video excerpt of her real life performance The Artist is Present (2012), we see both Marina Abramovic and her ex-husband, Ulay, moved to tears when they find themselves eye to eye. It might be one of the most profound works of art about the nature of eye contact, and yet so simple. Visitors could have a look for several minutes in the eyes of Abramovich. For many people a moving experience, in which they experienced an unspoken dialogue. Intense eye contact resulting in a sense of a deep connection, something rarely experienced in daily life.
Some of the best film scenes benefit from the power of eye contact, as the tension is heightened by the look the actors give each other. In a peculiar way, the power of eye contact can even be experienced at frontal shots of actors looking in the camera. This simulated eye contact between the viewer and the character, results in a feeling of connectivity. In conventional films, eye contact between actors is such a natural part of acting and a regular way to create a sense of connection or conflict between characters, that it is not often commented on.
Carl Dreyer’s great masterpiece Ordet (1955) shows a remarkable counterpart of these conventions. In his drama about a farmers family in the 1920’s, the characters almost completely avoid eye contact. The result is opposite; the viewer will notice an extreme lack of connectivity between the characters. This makes it difficult for the viewer as well to connect to the characters. It is almost as if Dreyer directs the viewer to the same introspectiveness as the characters, not distracted by the subtle ‘language’ of the silent dialogue between the eyes.
In Ordet, two crisis meet, thereby testing each of the family members on a spiritual level. The young farmers son, Anders, has been refused marriage with the daughter of a tailor, because of a different view on Christianity between both heads of the family. At the same time, Inger, the wife of the eldest son, Mikkel, encounters complications with her pregnancy. In this adaptation of Kaj Munk’s play, each family member has a different view on Christianity. The father is engaged in theological disputes with members of his village. His son, Johannes, is seen as mentally confused, since he proclaims he is Christ. Mikkel seems good at heart, but is an atheist, while his daughter represents a naïve, childlike way of believing.
The different opinions on faith are discussed throughout the film. But it is not really an exchange of thoughts, as the characters stuck with their own views. The characters and their views seem like small islands in a sea, hard to be abridged. It is therefore appropriate that the members seldom connect. Dreyer uses several methods to visualize this isolation.
Just as in earlier films such as Day of Wrath (1943), Dreyer uses a lot of pan shots, preferring this to hard cuts. A typical dialogue scene shows two people in a medium shot. When a third person enters the room, instead of the expected counter shot, the camera will pan to this person. The others will momentarily leave the frame. This shift in focus emphasizes the fact that we don’t see all participants of the dialogue in one frame. It is as if this third person is now making a monologue, especially as Dreyer usually doesn’t switch quickly between the participants. This is especially the case with Johannes, who is very seldom to be seen within a frame with the other family members, or at least is not looked at when he enters the room. This makes his presence almost ghostly.
Another way to accentuate the separateness of the characters is the composition of actors in dialogue scenes. In a way reminiscent of old fashioned theatre, the actors approach the set as if it is a stage in front of public. No matter their position, their faces are directed at the ‘public’. In a typical scene between two people, we will see one seated in the front, his face in the direction of the front. Behind him, stays the second actor, looking alternately to the back of the first actor and the front. It may seem this second character shows some interest in the first by looking at him. But this gaze seems rather introspective, as if one is absorbed in one’s own thoughts.
Besides these typical set ups of dialogue scenes, there are some scenes in which eye contact is avoided in a rather extreme manner. During a discussion about marriage of the youngest son, Inger and her father in law, differing strongly in opinion, are reorganizing a bundle of wool. An act that figuratively connects both persons. Although standing closely and opposite each other, they manage to not look each other in the eye for one moment. Meanwhile, Anders is visiting the father of his girlfriend, to ask for her hand. Although he is constantly looking at him, the old man manages to not only point a sharp refusal, but also sending him away without even looking one time at the poor young man.
But even in the dogmatic set ups of scenes, there are sparse moments of eye contact. This is usually during less important moments of conversation, such as greetings and introductions. During these moments of courteousness, the characters seem capable of ‘normal’ communication. More strikingly, Dreyer inserts a few moments of eye contact to heighten the dramatic impact. Some are during moments of real conflict, especially between the father and his rival on theological issues. This approach results in some passion that (intentionally) lacks in the usual interaction.
Dreyer also makes use of moments of eye contact in the build up to the famous climax. I think the climax makes such a great impact, because of its contrast with the rest of the film. Even the lighting is opposed to that of the previous. The room in which the final scene takes place is white and strongly lighted, a great contrast to the darkness we witnessed before. The act that takes place, is also opposed to the verbal routines. Everything is opposed to maximize the effect of the extraordinary. It is therefore appropriate that characters pay attention to each other, just as they didn’t do that sufficiently before. Even father notices the different look in the eyes of his son Johannes.
One of the most moving moment of the films follows shortly thereafter, when Johannes looks the little daughter of Inger in the eye and asks her a profound question of faith. It is a key moment in Dreyer’s treatment of the theme of real faith. The enigma of Ordet is why the almost unashamed extraordinary climax, is yet so convincing. I think Dreyer successfully directed the viewer in an introspective modus, just as the characters, making him or her longing as well for a spiritual catharsis. This moment of spiritual power is not only achieved by the visual oppositions to the earlier parts of the film, but also by the awareness of connections between the characters, highlighted by the fact that their eyes finally meet.