Victor Sjöström directs, stars, and adapts The Phantom Carriage. He gives himself a great showcase. Most of the film is a breathtaking character study of an abject bastard. The film throws reason after reason for Sjöström being an irredeemable, abject bastard, and none of them stick. He’s always ready to deliver more bastard. It’s his entire character.
It’s not supposed to be his entire character, of course. But the film intentionally skips when he’s not an awful person.
And even though the whole point is Sjöström, it doesn’t start with him. Because—and here’s one of the film’s most significant failings—Carriage isn’t actually all about Sjöström, it’s all about why women need to save Sjöström. Sure, it’s 1921; sure, patriarchy; sure, Christian morales (read: the subjugation of women). But Sjöström—as director and adapter—repeatedly sets women up for character development then knocks them down. The film rejoices in failing Bechdel. What the hell would women talk about if it wasn’t a man?
It opens with Astrid Holm on her deathbed. She’s a Salvation Army worker in the slums, and she’s dying of consumption because it’s 1921 or so (the novel’s from 1912, so pre-war, pre-influenza). Through a series of flashbacks, we get the whole story, how Holm met Sjöström the night the mission opened and became obsessed with redeeming him. Only Sjöström’s not a bastard because he’s a poor drunk; he’s a poor drunk because he’s a bastard. It’s not his fault. At this point, it’s wife Hilda Borgström’s fault for running out on him with the kids an indeterminate length of time before. Before it being Borgström’s fault, it was Tore Svennberg’s fault. Svennberg’s the college-educated drunk tramp amongst tramps, who sort of manipulates all of them. Or at least takes credit for it. Before Svennberg convinced Borgström to become a drunken tramp, he was a loving father and husband, with a good job and a fantastic kid brother (Einar Axelsson).
If only it weren’t for the drink.
Pretty soon, everything’s gone to hell, and everyone Sjöström is condemning him publicly. Borgström running out on him is the last stray. How dare she run away when he’s in jail and harboring murderers at her house. Wives and children are very much property in Carriage.
Anyway, after we get some of Sjöström’s backstory—but not his initial hunt for his family or how exactly Svennberg convinced him to descend into poverty with a single drink—there are more flashbacks with Holm.
Turns out Holm dedicated herself to meddling with Sjöström’s life—and the people in it—without regard for the consequences.
Sjöström is great, Holm is excellent (with some delay, with the initial sickbed stuff just okay), and Borgström is fine. Ish. When Carriage is just about Sjöström being a monstrous asshole, it doesn’t need Borgström to be particularly good. But by the third act, she needs to be great, and she isn’t. Mainly because the part’s weak. It’s an inglorious arc. Or whatever the Swedish word is for an arc when it’s just for the glory of your abusive husband. The Christian arc, I suppose.
Starting in the fourth part, so the latter half of the second act, the didactic religiosity starts boiling over, and it’s a race to see if the Carriage is going to make it before it submerges.
It does not.
Also doesn’t help the best filmmaking is all before the finale. There are some exceptional effects sequences, but Sjöström also does an excellent job directing the dramatic scenes. Right up until the finish, when he suddenly runs out of ideas and just starts churning through the scenes. It’s disappointing. But it’s also a 1921, patriarchal Christian movie. It does really well considering those constraints.
And when Sjöström and Holm are great, they’re profoundly great.