Carl Theodor Dreyer's Michael is pretty good melodrama. It also has interest as an early (1924) screen treatment of homosexuality. But it rarely achieves any of the highs of the filmmaker's later work, the five feature films made between 1928 and 1964 which comprise arguably the most impressive body of cinematic work yet created. A love triangle between an aging painter, his adopted "son"/muse and a penniless princess, the film's romantic geometry plays out along more or less conventional lines, but the work is complicated both by the ambiguous nature of the male-male relationship and the role that painting assumes in underlining the film's various interactions. While these hardly allow Dreyer to transcend his material, they do add interest to what would otherwise stand as an ordinary, though expertly staged, screen romance.
The relationship between Michael (Walter Slezak) and the Princess (Nora Gregor) registers as little more than a plot contrivance, the necessary element that disrupts the more interesting interaction between Michael and Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen). The ostensible association between Zoret, a "master" painter, and Michael is that of father and adopted son, but the effeminate younger man clearly inspires a passion in Zoret that discounts a strict filial interpretation of the relationship and which has allowed the painter (using Michael as his sole model) to achieve his greatest artistic success. When the Princess arrives and demands that Zoret paint her, he reluctantly agrees, but the process becomes an unexpected struggle for a painter who generally effects his works with minimal difficulty. In order to successfully depict a subject, the film suggests, one has to understand it sensually. The painting of Michael (especially in the semi-nude state in which he poses) offers little trouble for Zoret and inspires him to great achievement. Unable to work up the same passion for the Princess, he spends three sleepless nights working on the canvas and eventually, sensing Michael's growing attraction to the subject, calls on him to complete the work.
The scene in which Michael finishes the painting is one of the few that hint at the potentialities in Dreyer's filmmaking that were to find full expression in just a few years. Having finally completed the majority of the work, Zoret laments his inability to paint the Princess' eyes, the last remaining element and the one whose successful depiction would indicate the painter's full understanding of the subject. As Dreyer frames Zoret and Michael in a two-shot, he fixes a spotlight on the older man, leaving the rest of the screen in darkness. The spotlight then switches to Michael, suggesting an imminent transfer of power in their relationship due to the Princess' arrival. Frustrated, Zoret asks Michael to try his hand at painting the eyes. In a series of softly-lit close-ups, Dreyer alternates views of Michael and the Princess (pictured first in full face and then simply as a pair of eyes), shots which solidify cinematographically the connection between the two and whose vivid depictions of human physiognomy prefigure Dreyer's greater achievement in that area in 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc. As Dreyer's camera seems to capture whatever inherent substance is to be found in the Princess' eyes, so too does Michael's brush. When the newspaper reviews of the painting come in, the critics declare the work Zoret's worst, with only the eyes (which the critcs correctly intuit come from a different painter) earning appreciative reviews. The film suggests that for an artist to successfully depict a subject, he must have a passionate engagement with that subject, which is why Zoret's painting of the Princess fails where his previous paintings of Michael proved to be so successful.
After Michael leaves Zoret's house to live with the Princess, the painter attempts one last work, a despairing self-portrait that ranks as the artist's final masterpiece. Called The Vanquished, the painting's central panel depicts a nude Zoret collapsed on a rocky surface framed against a cloudy sky. The side panels show Michael and the Princess, also naked, eyeing each other across Zoret's prostrate body. Returning to a subject for which he can muster sufficient enthusiasm, Zoret succeeds in winning back the art world's favor after the misstep of his previous effort. Interestingly, the film seems to take the critical response to a work of art as an accurate gauge of its aesthetic success. Zoret's final work is not only greeted enthusiastically by the press, but Dreyer grants the painter an ultimate moment of recognition in the form of a fixed shot grouping hundreds of appreciative guests, all raising a toast to the painter in his final triumph. That his triumph is a triumph of despair becomes clear as the desolation that allowed Zoret to achieve his artistic success quickly leads to his death. The film abruptly moves to its conclusion with Zoret calling pathetically for Michael on his deathbed, while Michael luxuriates in the Princess' embrace. As Zoret dies and Michael registers his final indifference, the cycle of melodrama is complete. From here, it was four years to Joan of Arc and the start of Dreyer's "mature" career. While there may be little in Michael to anticipate such a startling achievement, the earlier film stands up quite well on its own merits. Content to make use of an untranscended melodramatic framework, Dreyer works within the genre to achieve an effective exploration of homosexual longing and artistic creation that succeeds in achieving a lasting power.