It had to happen sometime. Twenty-four films into Criterion’s big Bergman box set, we’ve arrived at the first film by the director that I would call bad. And I’m not alone in this: Roger Ebert called the 1964 comedy All These Women the worst film Bergman ever made (in his 1978 review of Bergman’s ‘American’ film, The Serpent’s Egg). Now, it might be tempting to say that good old Ingmar, he should’ve stuck to what he knows to do best: brooding psychological drama. But, frankly, that’s rubbish. Bergman was perfectly capable of delivering delightful comedy, and while it is often of the sardonic kind, humour is not infrequent in the director’s work, from the way he pokes fun at male insecurities to the deadpan cheekiness of The Seventh Seal‘s Death. Bergman used humour throughout his films, and the cliché of Bergman as a dour dramatist becomes all the less valid the more you look at his work.
Having said that, the main reason why All These Women is not a good film is that it largely fails in its comedy. The film tells the story of Cornelius, a foppish, arrogant music critic and composer played by Jarl Kulle. The actor had previously played Don Juan in The Devil’s Eye, also a comedy, though Kulle’s performance as the legendary lover couldn’t be more different from what he delivers in the 1964 film. See, it’s quite clear that Bergman isn’t a fan of critics, and All These Women is largely dedicated to presenting the critic as a pathetic figure, the kind of man who wishes to be an artist but does not have the talent, so he dedicates himself to spending time basking in the sun of other, more talented men – and while Bergman seems not to take Felix, the cellist whose biography Cornelius wishes to write, altogether seriously either, there never seems to be any question that any of the titular women could be the kind of genius that is deserving of critique or biography.
Instead, what we get is a harem of wives, lovers and servants who all seem to be at Felix’ beck and call. Many of them are played by Bergman regulars, such as Bibi Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck and Harriet Andersson, and they’re not altogether ridiculed – at least not when compared to Cornelius -, but neither do they have much agency (beyond wanting to sleep with Felix and doing what it takes to get some) or indeed more than a single dimension. For a film called All These Women by Ingmar Bergman, it is almost unsettling how little justice the film does its female characters or indeed its actresses.
However, the failure of All These Women cannot be blamed on them. They are not offensively unfunny the way that Kulle’s mugging, farcical Cornelius is most of the time. Bergman can be funny, but if this film is anything to go by, he is not the right man to direct or write farce, however cod-Freudian it may be. (Bergman co-wrote the film with his long-time collaborator Erland Josephson, who famously played the husband Johan in Scenes from a Marriage – apparently as a parody of Fellini’s 8½, but that is another story and might be told another time.) Admittedly, there are scenes that are quite funny, such as a black and white tango that is accompanied by an intertitle noting that an explicit depiction of lovemaking might incur the wrath of the censors, and the film has a nice line in surreal visual humour that at times reminded me of the Czechoslovak New Wave oddity Daisies, but whenever we get Kulle’s buffoonish Cornelius mugging for the camera or farcical chase sequences, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking that few 80-minute films feel this long.
It is a shame, as there are definitely scenes, ideas and performances that work, or that at least suggest that All These Women could have been, if not a better film, then at least a more interesting one. The film was Bergman’s first to be shot in colour, by Sven Nykvist (who frequently worked with Bergman and won two Oscars for Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander), but it doesn’t show – All These Women is striking and confident in its use of colour, as well as the absence of colour, creating a fascinating, stylised aesthetic that deserves a better film. There are also glimpses in the performances especially of Harriet Andersson and Eva Dahlbeck of stories that would be more interesting than the one we are watching, and while Bibi Andersson may be firmly in farcical mode throughout the film, she may come closest to making the material work.
All in all, though, I’m not sure I would have finished All These Women if it hadn’t been as part of the collection, or if I’d gone to see it at a cinema. There are possibly interesting angles in the film to discuss in the context of Bergman’s work, but the experience of watching it was definitely the least engaging of all the Bergmans we’ve seen so far. But, hey! If this is truly the nadir of Bergman’s oeuvre, it means that the worst is behind us, right?