This silent Czech tale of seduction continues to mesmerise with its sensual portrayal of female sexuality.
Erotikon tells the tale of first love – the mad kind that makes a good girl throw away all caution. Andrea (Ita Rina) is living a quiet life with her old father at a country railway station. One stormy night, a suave stranger appears and her father kindly invites him to spend the night, only for the man to seduce his daughter while he’s out on his shift. Naturally, the stranger departs the next morning, leaving Andrea with an unwanted pregnancy and an irrational devotion to the slippery playboy. When their paths cross again in the city, will she give up her secure, conventional marriage to risk everything with this womaniser, even as he’s being pursued by another lover’s angry husband?
Gustav Machatý’s film was famous for its edgy portrayal of sexuality, female sexuality in particular. When Andrea goes to bed after first meeting the stranger and is in the throes of torrid dreams, we observe her through the camera’s (male) gaze, which takes in her upper body, with its erotically extended neck and arms thrown wildly above her head, as well as her bare calves sticking out from under the covers. But when she is actually seduced, the crucial part of the action takes place from her perspective, with delirious point-of-view shots of the man’s intense kohl-lined gaze as he advances on her, and diagonal whip-pans across the walls and furniture as she falls back onto the bed.
Our sympathy centres on Andrea, while the stranger is a caricature of a vain, opportunistic hedonist with little to recommend him apart from matinee idol looks. Accordingly, it’s Andrea’s actions that are the backbone of the film’s drama, while the stranger’s antics and their effect on jealous husbands are a source of comic relief.
One of the peculiarities of silent storytelling is the importance it lends to objects. The ‘Erotikon’ of the title fits the overarching theme of passion, but only appears in the film on the label of a bottle of perfume that the stranger gives to Andrea, the first step in his seduction – and how interesting that a film that can only directly appeal to one of our senses, sight, uses scent as a catalyst to advance the story. The stranger initially tries to apply the perfume to Andrea’s neck himself; she at first refuses both the gesture and the gift, but finally accepts the bottle. She tries the perfume when she is alone in her room, and we wonder whether it has some kind of magic effect on her, inspiring her wild dreams. When she emerges from her room to answer the phone, the stranger intercepts her, and recommences his seduction by smelling the finger she used to apply the perfume.
Later, the narrative continues to revolve around objects: Andrea and her husband are thrown together with the stranger when they meet in a piano shop where the stranger befriends her husband by allowing the couple to take the last model of a piano. When Andrea is on the point of deciding between her lover and her husband, the story ricochets between two objects: the goodbye letter that Andrea has instructed a servant to give to her husband at a set time, and the compact that another woman has left on her lover’s bed: one object threatens her conventional life, and the other her dream life of romantic passion.
The 20th ‘Made in Prague’ Festival offered a rare opportunity to see this film on 35mm (recently restored by the Czech National Film Archive), with flawless live accompaniment by pianist Thomas Ang, and Lydia Kavina on theremin. One of the earliest electronic instruments, the theremin has a ghostly sound and wonderful range: Kavina (who studied under the instrument’s inventor, Léon Theremin, himself) was able to evoke the deep rumble of a train, piercing notes to accentuate moments of high emotion, and even play jaunty dance tunes – no easy task when you have no physical contact with the instrument you’re playing. The theremin is an instrument whose vibrato seems very much of its time and perfectly suited to the melodrama of silent film, yet it also feels contemporary: not only is it electronic, but effectively a wireless form of music.