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July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman


I don't really like writing eulogies; instead, I think this review of Bergman's last film, composed two years ago and reposted below, might suffice. It's more of a memorial than I could probably muster now, in any case.

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Ingmar Bergman retired from the cinema for the first time in 1984, after making Fanny And Alexander. Of this decision, he wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern,

Bergman was aware of the value of legacy, and understandably did not want to end on a minor note, nor to have his last film be subjected to the unplanned excavations for meaning subjected upon unexpected final works like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Fanny And Alexander, his most literally autobiographical film, would have been an admirable bow.

But perhaps he called it quits too early, for over the next twenty years, during which the theater (his first love) once again became the primary outlet for his creative passion, he strayed now and then towards cinema. He wrote screenplays, and some of them were directed by friends or confidants, including one, Faithless, helmed by his longtime muse Liv Ullmann. And throughout the nineties he made films for Swedish television, loosely based on his parents' relationship. He'd made TV films in the past, and the results included Fanny And Alexander and, prior to that, Scenes From A Marriage.

Over the past year Bergman has retired again - first, and perhaps more momentously, from the theater; and now, with Saraband, a sequel to Scenes From A Marriage, from film. He is eighty seven years old and one suspects that this time, he means it. This picture seems to be, almost by implicit design, a very real swan song.

The characters of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Ullmann) from 1974's Scenes are perhaps the only two in Bergman's repertoire whom a sequel truly befits. In the original film (both its three and five hour versions), the two go from husband and wife to enemies to adulterers to distant friends, over the course of a decade. Because through all this they remain (in a way) in love, so it is that when the screen fades to black one longs to spend more time with them, with this couple who seem to voice every feeling the sexes can share - including those they normally hide from each other. Bergman made this film towards the end of that extraordinary run that frequently dealt with other facets of marriage, relationships and sex - Cries And Whispers, Shame, The Passion Of Anna, among others - and everything he learned about himself in the making of those films (for indeed, his films are nothing if not self-exploratory) ended up on screen in Scenes From A Marriage.

Three subsequent decades of love, life and marriage have given Bergman more material to explore; accordingly, when the film begins, Johan and Marianne haven't seen each other for thirty years, and their first glimpse of each other is one of bittersweet joy. Perhaps there is less flux in the twilight years, for Saraband is under two hours in length, and Marianne and Johan are catalysts for much of the plot, rather than the sole focus of it; but the first time they see each other in the film, on a porch dappled with autumnal sunlight, after Marianne has awakened Johan with an innocent kiss - perhaps to see for herself which of the emotions given rise by the reunion are real and which are simply nostalgia - the weight of their shared lifetime is palpable.

In Scenes, the couple had two daughters who were scarcely seen. Those girls, now grown, are mentioned here and there by Marianne, and seen in photograph. They've disappointed her, in their various ways; one has married a lawyer and lives in Australia, and the other suffers from intense dementia and no longer can recognize her own mother. They represent the part of her that died when she separated from Johan. She married again, more than once, but had no more children; and then she had an operation. "They took my my uterus and my ovaries," she tells Johan. "Does that make you sad?" he asks her and she nods, smiling that sort of smile Ullmann has always excelled at, the type that conveys an entire history of feelings. And who but Bergman could write an exchange like that, so understanding of women, and so aware of the way such understanding dawns on men so suddenly and simply?

Johan, on the other hand, had several more children after leaving Marianne. One of them, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), is middle-aged now himself; he's a failed musician who has moved back to his father's property with his teenaged daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), following the death of his wife Anna. He's pushing Karin to become a solo cellist, to fulfill his own shortcomings, and their lessons frequently end in violent outbursts. Theirs is a relationship that has crossed some sort of line; aside from the physical abuse, there is the uncomfortable discovery that Henrik sleeps with Karin. Nothing literally sexual occurs between them, but one senses that she came to occupy some perversely amalgamated place in his life after Anna's death.

Anna is the fifth character in the film. She is seen in photographs, spoken of in long soliloquies, and represents a serene, unattainable sort of love. A love too pure to live. Johan certainly loved her, and he loves her daughter, Karin (who shares that name with Bergman's own mother), but he hates Henrik with a resolve that seems almost unnatural for a father. At first we think we understand why, for Henrik is a shameful, shambling wreck of a man; indeed, I think he is the most pathetic character Bergman has ever created. But then a mirror is held up and the root of Henrik's failure and Johan's hatred for him is shown to be Johan himself. This man, so majestic in stature and so copious with his studies, is still capable of the same pettiness and cruelty he was when we first met him thirty years prior.

This, paradoxically, is why Johan is a more sympathetic character than Henrik, and why Henrik's eventual fate is pitiable but not heartbreaking (although it should not be considered as dismissible as Bergman makes out to be - that he does is the movie's greatest flaw). When Marianne learns, along with us, what Johan has done to his son, she weeps and shakes her head disapprovingly; she's saddened, but this man has saddened her before, and she knows him too well to be surprised. We, too, know what Johan is capable of; he's capable of leaving his wife of ten years on a whim; of returning to her, and leaving her again. He is, in many ways, a despicable man, but he's a part of her, and as much as Bergman casts his sympathies with Marianne's perspective, he's a part of us as well. Hate is based in ignorance, and while Johan himself may be ignorant, we are not.

Bergman's dialogue, in concert with his camera's lens, has always cut with exquisite precision to the heart of the matter, opening up wells of sadness and memory, or drawing deep wounds with a knife so sharp that one fails to notice the incision until the pain is, suddenly, almost unbearable. There is a great deal of that pain here, but there also seems to be an acceptance of it; Marianne and Johan have lived twice and triple the lives of Henrik and Karin, and are aware of some things that must come with old age. Perhaps they know that pain may define life but need not rule it; or perhaps those mysterious smiles of Marianne's simply mean she's learned all the better how to bear it. I'm aware that I, viewing this film at the age of 24, may realize one day that the pleasure of the prolonged embrace the characters share together at the end of the film is not mutual. Bergman could not have made this film in this way when he was forty or fifty; likewise, I will not look at Saraband the same way when I am the age of the characters it is about.

It is, in that sense, timeless, and only in a way that can be achieved when an entire lifetime is available for retrospect. That is why this is the perfect curtain call for Bergman's career, although, considering that he has never made an impersonal work, any film would have sufficed. But this return to the familiar, the beloved, has a resonance to it that would be lacking in a purely original film. Although Scenes From A Marriage and this, its postscript, are not autobiographical in the manner that Fanny And Alexander was, it is almost too easy to recognize that Johan, the brutal but sensitive man, is Bergman himself, and Marianne his many loves. This is his love letter to Her, his apology, his profession. Indeed, the film is prefaced with a simple dedication: to Ingrid (this would be Ingrid Van Rosen, the woman to whom he was married from 1971 until her death in 1995; it is telling that he wrote Scenes From A Marriage just a few years after their own marriage).

As a postscript: in his literal autobiography, in the same chapter from which I quoted at the outset of this review, Bergman wrote of a shot that he was particularly pleased with.

"Sometime there is a special happiness in being a film director. And unrehearsed expression is born like that, and the camera registers that expression...The agony, the intangible, was there for a few seconds and never returned. Neither was it there earlier, but the strip of film caught the moment. That is when I think days and months of predictable routine have paid off. It is possible I live for those brief moments."

Saraband, like all of Bergman's best work, is full of the moments that have kept him alive. While it may be his final work, one hopes that the passion it contains overflows for as long as it needs to.

Posted by David Lowery at July 31, 2007 1:13 AM


Now that that's done, you can have fun writing an obit for Antonioni.

Posted by: mutinyco at July 31, 2007 9:30 AM

Good job, Mr. Lowery.

I'm almost relieved at Bergman's (and Antonioni's) passing. I don't know what the lament is, the two have left this earth with a rich history that will continually be mined from future generations. The rest of gang who had their glory in the heydays of the 1960s and 1970s will pass right along with them.

Posted by: Jake at July 31, 2007 9:46 PM