Before getting Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman set, I don’t think I had heard of Dreams, a 1955 drama directed and written by Bergman. Certainly, it doesn’t have the striking, dreamlike imagery of Wild Strawberries or the sexual frankness of Summer with Monika, but I was still surprised to read on Wikipedia that “Dreams is one of the few Ingmar Bergman films to have received lukewarm reviews”. It should come as no surprise that the performances are consistently strong, and especially the female leads make it well worth watching.
Dreams focuses on two women: Susanne (Eva Dahlbeck, who would go on to play the actress Desiree Armfeldt in Smiles of a Summer Night), the owner of a Stockholm model agency, and Doris (Harriet Andersson of Summer with Monika as well as many other Bergman films), one of her models. The two travel to Gothenburg for a photo shoot, but after the shoot is cancelled due to Doris’ tardiness, both she and Susanne experience a dramatic day: Susanne tries to meet with her former lover, a married man, while Doris engages in a flirtation with an older man that turns sour as the day proceeds.
Structurally, Dreams is underdeveloped. The two parallel stories – one centred on a young, immature woman barely out of her teens, the other focusing on her employer, a woman who has seen more of life and who knows disappointment – suggest that the women will somehow reflect on one another, but if that was Bergman’s intention, it remains vague. Doris finds herself the target of attention of the Consul (played by another Bergman regular, Gunnar Björnstrand). His interest is ambiguous: does she remind him of his wife, who was committed to a mental institution after their daughter’s birth, or is she a daughter figure? Doris is flattered and more than a little receptive to his attentions and his willingness to indulge her by buying her fancy clothes and jewelry, but she is also wary of where this is going. Later, at the Consul’s home, she finds herself in an uncomfortable situation as his prodigal daughter makes a visit and the day ends in biting acrimony. Doris’ story finally ends on a deflating note that doesn’t really gel with what we’ve seen up to that point. The Doris we see at the end of the film seems to be largely the same person she was at the beginning, which renders what happens to her in between oddly meaningless – which is a shame, because Andersson’s scenes with the Consul are engaging and emotionally complex, yet the glib ending to Doris’ story would seem to undermine the nuance we’ve seen, acted beautifully by Andersson.
Susanne’s story is about the difficulty to let go: she is trying to get her erstwhile lover Henrik to meet her after he ended the affair months ago. She first goes to his house and watches his wife and children from a distance. Later she calls his place of work and finally cajoles him into a meeting at the hotel where they used to meet. When they do meet, though, their tryst is interrupted by Henrik’s wife, who delivers a cold, ironic verdict on her husband and his cowardice. While this story may not be particularly original (and probably wasn’t even back in 1955), Dahlbeck’s performance is strong. In someone else’s hands, and with a different director, Susanne might have ended up a weak, vacillating character, but Dahlbeck’s portrayal is complex, making her far more than the clichéd abandoned lover who can’t accept that it is over.
There is a stage-like quality to much of Dreams which, even if Bergman often brings a sense of the stage to his films, isn’t entirely to this film’s benefit. Similarly, the two main parts, Susanne and Doris, can come across as audition pieces, compelling in themselves but not altogether well anchored in an overall story arc. Nonetheless, there is a lot to like here, and Dreams deserves better than a lukewarm reception. It may cohere less well than some of Bergman’s other early works, but even as ‘lesser Bergman’ it offers engaging, nuanced performances from its leads as well as its supporting cast. It also has an impish sense of humour that lets us laugh at the characters without making them outright ridiculous, and it is that richness in characterisation that made Dreams more immediately enjoyable for me than, say, A Ship to India or To Joy with their self-pitying manchild protagonists. Though I’m beginning to think that all of the Bergman films I’ve watched gain a lot in the context of his other works – so unless Criterion comes up with a similar box set dedicated to one director’s oeuvre (Kurosawa, anyone?) in the meantime, I may end up watching this one all over again once I’ve got to the end. I guess there are worse loops to be stuck in than an endless cycle of Bergman.