Of all the topics available to new American independent directors, “middle class malaise” is the most difficult to pull off. A skilled screenwriter and director can turn it out beautifully – hiya, Noah Baumbach – but all too often the subject just reeks too strongly of First World Problems, and so it should. Really, who gives a shit if your mother is distant or you have trouble connecting when more and more people are being thrust into poverty every day? If you’re going to attempt writing about the pitfalls of your privileged life, then you better have something new to say or at least a new way to say it.
The first time I saw Ordet, it was within a week of my father dying. Even though I was watching it on a small laptop screen on my bed in my parents’ house, I still found it a devastating experience, not because of any similarity to my own recent experiences but because of Dreyer’s uncanny ability to make death a vivid, living character, stalking and dancing around his actors as they cope with the hardest thing we humans have to go through. I may have been aware of it before, but watching Ordet snapped into focus the idea that what I was going through was something universal. I leapt at the opportunity to see it in a cinema when the BFI announced its season of Dreyer films, not just because it had had such an effect on me when I had seen it before, but also to see how much of my impression of it was a product of my own grief.