The Pact: Nothing poetic

C drama
Written by Christian Torpe, from Thorkild Bjørnvig’s memoir
Directed by Bille August

There’s nothing cinematic about writing poetry. It’s not like painting or composing music. Unless the poet reads their work aloud, the audience doesn’t experience it. There’s little reading aloud in The Pact. Instead of the art of poetry, the filmmakers managed to make only a tepid story about an up-and-coming poet and the woman who has plans for him.

The Pact is based on a true story. I don’t know how close it is to the real events, and I don’t care. I do know that the two main characters were real people. When the film is set, Thorkild Bjørnvig (Simon Bennebjerg) is about 30. The film is mostly his story, and he’s just beginning to be famous. The other main character, Karen Blixen (Birthe Neumann), has been famous for years. She’s been getting along in years, and along with Danish poetry, she writes English-language books under the name Isak Dinesen. Her most famous work in America was Out of Africa.

You’ve probably already figured out that this film comes from Denmark, and the dialog is all in Danish. Sometimes, that becomes a problem – poetry rarely works in translation. Worse, the white subtitles lack black outlines, making the words disappear when the background is bright.

As the story begins, the young Bjørnvig agrees to work in the older poet’s mansion, to help him become the great poet she believes he can become. But there are problems. Bjørnvig has a loving wife and a young son. The older Blixen doesn’t consider family life to be part of becoming a great poet.

Blixen decides that her protégée’s poetry would be better if he had a wild affair. She’s not delusional enough to think she can have an affair with a handsome man less than half her age. But she continually puts one young woman into his path, even to the point of putting them on the same train to attend the same poetry festival in Germany.

The older woman’s mind is clearly no longer working well. When she invites Thorkild to a party, she offhandedly tells him that his wife is welcome, too. But she makes it clear that the wife and child should really be left at home.

In a film about poets creating their works, there’s very little poetry in the entire film. Occasionally, you see Bjørnvig pick up a notepad and a pencil. Even when we hear the young man writing his work aloud, it still wouldn’t help much in American audiences.

The Pack is by no way a good film, but it’s not entirely a flop. Maybe it would work better if you’re familiar with Danish poetry and the people who write it.

The film will open in San Francisco on Friday, February 18.