Karen Blixen is a rich 63 year old Baroness who seduces a promising 30-year-old poet, Thorkild Bjørnvig. She is blithely intelligent, clad in a headscarf and heavy makeup, and famous for her autobiographical novel, Out of Africa. He is in a happy but boring marriage, carries a typewriter, and recites Goethe from memory. While this setup sounds like the premise for a corset-ripper, Director Billie August’s The Pact is based on a true story. The titular pact occurs when, capitalizing on his reverence for her novel, Baroness Blixen (Birthe Neumann, In a Better World, The Celebration) makes Thorkild (Simon Bennebjerg, The Guilty, Borgen) vow unwavering loyalty to her. In return, she promises to excavate from his untapped potential a writer of equal renown. The Pact is about the snare of toxic relationships and the destructive blast radius of a hurt person.
Billie August builds and releases tension between characters against a tableau vivant of cinematic beauty. Visually stunning shots function as tools for character development, situating the Baroness in her elegant manor house. Some scenes accentuate her loneliness, showing her in a sepia-toned sunbeam smoking a cigarette in the company of her stately wooden furniture, vigilant clocks, and ornate tea cups. Other scenes show her as the wily and manipulative hostess of candlelit formal dinners, where guests clink brandy glasses and sneak hushed conversations in the garden. These romantic visual trappings frame a compelling villain who, despite her bravado, longs to be seen.
The script, however, buckles under the responsibility set by the beautiful cinematography. The dialogue is sometimes inauthentic, stilted with emotional shortcuts meant to make the audience feel something quickly. As a consequence, characters advance to states of relationships and declarations of devotion that feel unearned. The Baroness demonstrates infatuation with Thorkild’s writing before even reading his work. Some of her lines read as downright creepy, and yet are met with Thorkild’s fawning response in a way that is hard to believe.
The relationships nonetheless come to life, propped up by spectacular acting performances. Birthe Neumann beautifully showcases how the Baroness’ painful past, marked by a lost love and recovery from syphilis, turned her into a walking open wound bent on ruining the lives of those around her. The Baroness becomes a puppet master, drawing Thorkild closer to her by isolating him from his wife and child. Finding herself too ugly and old to be a mistress, she manipulates a beautiful young married woman, Benedicte (Asta Kamma August), into having an affair with Thorkild. When her plan backfires and the two fall in love, the performances are magnetic, mostly because they don’t rest on dialogue, but in the subtle micro-expressions of the actors.
Benedicte and Thorkild’s movement from flirtation to love affair is marked by moments of wordless tension. When Benedicte feeds him a spoonful of soup or the two stand up to dance, their faces belie an attraction twinged with guilt, as they weigh whether to betray their spouses. When Thorkild jealously watches Benedicte and her husband at one of the Baroness’ formal dinners, his jaw is clenched, face flushed, and the rage beats through a vein on his forehead. In the background, the Baroness is pulling the puppet strings so she can bring Thorkild closer to her.
Remarkably, Billie August makes us feel the Baroness’ pain while we watch her deceive and manipulate. Her desperation to be truly seen comes to a heartbreaking conclusion when Thorkild finally wrenches free of this pact. She asks him whether he had ever thought about her and he casually replies “perhaps not.” In the most beautiful performance of the movie, we see Birthe Neumann’s eyes go from round with heartbreak to steely with rage. She stands up, leaves the room, and returns with a gun.
The Pact shows the emotional wreckage that can be caused by a person in pain. It draws an empathetic thread connecting a villain and her casualties, underscoring the fundamental human need to be seen and understood.
The Pact will be in theaters in New York on Friday, February 11, 2022. It will expand to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Rafael on February 18, 2022.