Melancholy Danes: A Scandinavian ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in Bille August’s ‘The Pact’

Academy Award-winning Danish director Bille August’s screen adaptation of Thorkild Bjørnvig’s (played by Simon Bennebjerg) memoir The Pact, about his experiences with the celebrated Out of Africa novelist Karen Blixen (portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 1985 Sydney Pollack-directed film of the same name, but here played by the Copenhagen-born actress Birthe Neumann), is a movie meditation on the nature of celebrity, wealth, power and how they affect (and afflict) artists. Endowed with fame, Blixen, a baroness ​whose pen name is Isak Dinesen, takes Thorkild—who’s less than half her age—under her wings, arranging for businessman Knud Jensen (Anders Heinrichsen) to subsidize the handsome aspiring writer.

As part of his eponymous “pact” with Blixen, Thorkild moves from his home to reside at the famous author’s estate so he can pursue his writing unobstructed—and so the lonely Blixen can have a young male companion. But not necessarily a lover per se, as Blixen has been afflicted by venereal disease that causes her great pain and renders her, alas, apparently unable to consummate her amorous longings.

But this doesn’t keep Blixen from meddling in Thorkild’s sex life. She scorns his marriage and parenting as bourgeois convention, insisting upon a credo whereby artists are an exceptional breed set apart from ordinary people as talents who must be wild and free to pursue passion. Family, Blixen insists, is antithetical to artists’ need to devote themselves solely to creativity and their desires. The Pact reveals the impact this has on Thorkild and his literary process, as well as on his wife Grete (Nanna Skaarup Voss) and their little son. One almost expects the much put-upon Grete to write a rejoinder to the meddling Blixen entitled: Get Out of Africa!

Thorkild is caught in a web woven by the string-pulling Blixen, whose pact with her young mentee provides the wannabe writer with subsidization, access to Denmark’s glitterati at dazzling soirées, plus a place to live and work. Thorkild’s benefactor, Knud, actually says that financially successful people without talent are obligated to support those who are gifted—a dream come true for starving artists everywhere! Blixen even manipulates Knud’s wife, Benedicte (Asta Kamma August), to seek a romance with Thorkild. It all seems to be too good to be true—and it is, as it comes with Blixen’s idiosyncratic strings attached and at too high a price.

The Pact is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, wherein the has-been silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) interacts with the “promising young writer” Joe Gillis (William Holden). Swanson played the “over-the-hill” Norma as being the same age Gloria actually was when she shot Sunset Boulevard, about 50. In The Pact, Blixen is meant to be 63-years-old, although Birthe Neumann (who co-starred in artsy European films such as 1998’s Festen, or The Celebration) is really about 75. I realize that in the postwar period being 63 was not the same then as it is now, but to be candid, although she retains some of her beauty, Neumann’s Blixen does look much older than 63.

Onscreen Blixen resembles Norma Desmond, and I imagine that some of the Dane’s headgear is deliberately intended to evoke memories of Gloria Swanson’s, who was Oscar-nommed for her role as the fading film star enraged at being displaced by talkies and then TV, because: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Sunset Boulevard was a Hollywood Noir, and Blixen, too, uses the marksmanship she presumably learned in Kenya in a way similar to how Norma did.

Bille August directs The Pact with a deft eye, depicting the highfalutin world of the high arts, where artistes are meant to be philosopher kings, above and unlike the rest of us mere mortals, in a naturalistic style. One thing that I didn’t find to be realistic is that this movie set in 1948 in postwar Denmark has absolutely no reference at all to the then-recent Nazi occupation of the Scandinavian nation. Be that as it may, August is a gifted filmmaker who previously directed Max von Sydow in 1987’s Pelle the Conqueror; von Sydow was Oscar-nommed for Best Actor, while Pelle scored the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. August’s star-studded1993 adaptation of Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits featured Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

The 73-year-old Danish helmer’s almost two-hour The Pact is a thought-provoking, moody movie. It reminded me of other films about how celebrityhood affects writers and other artists, such as the 2021 documentary The Capote Tapes. Neumann’s Karen Blixen is, like Norma Desmond, “Ready for her closeup.”

The Pact opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 11 and in San Francisco on February 18. The trailer can be viewed here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.