Okay, he’s pulled it off: I’ve finally got to a film on my Bergman odyssey that has left me entirely non-plussed: The Passion of Anna. Obviously there are elements here that I recognise and that I have an idea what to do with: we have the old Bergman staples, shame, despair, marital unhappiness, infidelity, as well as the stock characters, male cynics who only see senselessness and react with an aloofness that makes you want to slap them, women who in turn cling on to a belief in something real and pure in the face of shallow existentialism under the guise of worldly intellectualism. The faces, too, are very familiar – Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson – as is even the landscape, Bergman’s beloved island of Fårö.
But where Bergman can tend towards the cryptic, none of the previous films were this elliptic. I like it when filmmakers don’t feel they have to spell out every single thing and fill in every single gap in the narrative, but The Passion of Anna is so fragmentary that it almost feels like the film is unfinished or that Bergman’s frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, had dropped a couple of reels of material and they were damaged beyond repair. The scene and voiceover sentence it ends on results in a final impression that The Passion of Anna doesn’t so much end as just stop.
In spite of these qualities, The Passion of Anna is engaging, the performances are strong – if not necessarily surprising, as we’ve seen most of the leads in similar roles before – and Nykvist’s colour cinematography makes the film a striking aesthetic departure from Shame, the film he and Bergman had collaborated on just a year earlier. Watching Criterion’s Bergman set has made me realise that there are very few directors transitioning from black and white to colour where I’ve been aware of seeing this transition (though Bergman had previously done one other colour film, All These Women in 1964), and usually those directors transitioned to the Technicolor of the 1950s, with its sometimes almost surreally vibrant colours. The Passion of Anna‘s use of colour cinematography couldn’t be more different from those: its colours are generally earthy and naturalistic, with the few uses of strong, vivid tints standing out all the more.
There is one sequence in The Passion of Anna that is filmed in black and white, though it is striking in more than one way: Anna, the character played by Liv Ullmann, dreams of being a refugee on a boat arriving at a foreign shore. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it picks up where Shame ends: with Ullmann’s character as a boat-bound refugee. This dream sequence made me more keenly aware of how Bergman and Nykvist’s use of monochrome film stock often has an almost hyperreal quality that the collaborators use to achieve a dreamlike effect, especially in films like Hour of the Wolf and of course Wild Strawberries. There is something too stark and sharp-edged to Bergman’s films in black and white. They often feel like they are set in the more expressionistic world of their characters. Bergman and Nykvist would later find strange and dreamlike qualities in colour as well, for instance in Fanny and Alexander, but the naturalistic use of colour of The Passion of Anna meant that Bergman and his collaborators found a defamiliarising quality in the aesthetic of many of their earlier films. (There is another strikingly stylised scene, a conversation between Anna and Andreas (Max von Sydow), in which we see the characters against an inky blackness. While the scene is shot in colour, it is the absence of colour against which the two characters are filmed that makes them look like actors on stage, giving the scene an unreal feel.)
So, The Passion of Anna may have left me puzzled and frankly somewhat fatigued due to its combination of overly familiar themes and motifs with a highly fragmentary structure, but this is once again where the nature of Criterion’s Bergman set comes in: there is a joy in seeing the stylistic and thematic continuities and breaks in Bergman’s oeuvre, and the jump from black and white to colour definitely constitutes such a break. I’m looking forward to revisiting especially Fanny and Alexander and watching other later films that Bergman and Nykvist collaborated on, to see how their use of colour photography changed, and to explore whether there is such a thing as a Bergman aesthetic that is there in both the black and white films and those that are in colour. Hey, what else is a man supposed to do with his time during a pandemic?