The Compleat Ingmar #29: After the Rehearsal (1984)

I’ve said before that I greatly enjoy the film historian’s approach that Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema allows me to take to the director’s work. While the films are largely organised thematically rather than chronologically, just having the vast majority of Bergman’s works in one handy package means that I’m not just seeing these films in isolation but in relation to one another. That comparison adds another dimension to my appreciation of the films that is often fascinating and illuminating.

Mind you: the flipside of this is that sometimes it can get quite tiresome to watch yet another Bergman film obsessing about the same concerns and voicing the same attitudes. We’ve now had a series of films of his focused on art and artists and especially the theatre, either literally or metaphorically, starting with Sawdust and Tinsel. By the time we get to After the Rehearsal, a 1984 TV movie starring Bergman regulars Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, and Lena Olin (who looks much younger in this than her actual age of 29), it’s difficult not to give an exasperated sigh: All right, enough with all the theatre!

In fact, there are a number of topoi that feel quite shopworn by now: the older, male director and the younger actress, with all of the power games (sexual or otherwise) that this usually entails, or acting on stage versus the acting we do in our everyday lives, or even just that old Bergman chestnut: men who think and women who feel. At his best, he reinvigorates these notions, subverts them, highlights the self-serving hypocrisy of such ideas. There is some of that in After the Rehearsal, but not nearly enough. The main novelty here is Lena Olin as a leading Bergman woman (she’d had a smallish part in Fanny and Alexander two years earlier), but other than that, the film can’t help but feel like reheated Bergman.

Admittedly, I am not familiar with Strindberg’s A Dream Play. It is possible that the frequent references to the play – director Henrik Vogler (Erland) is staging a new production and actress Anna (Olin) is his lead, years after he had directed her mother Rakel (Thulin) in it – would have enriched my viewing fo After the Rehearsal. But this too, the overt intertextuality, feel like a weight on material that is already tending towards the turgid in exercising various clichés that Bergman had done more interesting things with elsewhere.

There are things to like here, definitely: especially once Ingrid Thulin enters the scene as Henrik’s former lover and Anna’s dead mother Rakel, she brings an energy with her that is more engaging than that of Josephson’s ageing director, and a question that is introduced concerning Anna and Henrik adds ambiguity and ambivalence to their uneasy flirtation, but these cannot distract from the clichés underlying it all. After the Rehearsal largely feels like an etude, something knocked up as practice, when there’s more substantial, more nuanced fare right there in Bergman’s oeuvre. Which makes it all the more surprising that critics at the time liked it a lot. (Roger Ebert gave it four stars at the time, writing that the film “consists of unadorned surfaces concealing fathomless depths”, which makes me wonder whether he hadn’t seen many Bergman films, or indeed any single story in any medium about actors and about how all the world’s a stage, more so for some than for others.)

However, it seems that I am lucky. After the Rehearsal is the last of the films in this sequence that is about performance and performers in a literal sense. Next up in Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema are the director’s two English-language films, The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg. Neither are among Bergman’s most respected films, but they should make for a change of scenery. And then: Persona, the third of what the box set calls its “centerpieces” (the first two being Scenes from a Marriage and The Seventh Seal). We’re entering the final third of the collection and of our Swedish odyssey. Even if not every single stage is equally compelling, I’m very much looking forward to what is left.

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