The Compleat Ingmar #36: Waiting Women (1952)

There have been times over the course of Criterion’s Bergman collection where I couldn’t really say why they went from this film to that one, but those instances have very much been an exception. Obviously a chronological sequence would’ve been very easy for them to do, but it’s clear that they had ideas about how these films fit together: relationships on the rocks, theatre and actors, God’s silence. Having such a curated collection may be somewhat leading, suggesting certain approaches to interpretation over others, but this gives the collection a shape that mere chronology does not (leaving aside that chronology isn’t a neutral approach either). At the same time, the sequence chosen by Criterion’s curators can work against a film – watching the fourth or fifth variation on one of Bergman’s insufferable husbands vacillating between expressing smug superiority and neurotic inferiority towards the women in their lives, the Bergman tropes can become a bit tiresome, especially if the strongest film featuring this particular trope has already come up. After Scenes from a Marriage, many a Bergman male seems yet more tiresome because they cannot have the nuance that Bergman and his actor Erland Josephson brought to Scenes‘ male lead, Johan, in five hours of material.

Waiting Women (also known as Secrets of Women, though I prefer the one Criterion chose to go with, which is a direct translation from the Swedish title) suffers somewhat from where it comes in the collection. Like Cries and Whispers, it is a film that focuses primarily on a group of women, and the male characters are arguably supporting parts, but Waiting Women seems slight compared to the rawness of the film Bergman made thirty years later. More than that, the film and its storylines sometimes foreshadow other movies that Bergman would make later – there is one particular plot strand that feels like a trial run for A Lesson in Love, not least due of its comedic tone and because it features Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand as a married couple -, but we’ve already seen these later, more developed attempts at similar stories earlier in our Tour de Bergman. Seeing how at this point we’re only four films away from the end of the collection (five, if we count Fanny and Alexander twice, once for the TV version, once for the theatrical edit), Waiting Women can feel somewhat like filler. It is amusing, but Bergman later shows in other films that he can be considerably more funny. It centres on a number of female performers, but the material it gives them is less substantial than in many of Bergman’s later films. So what does Waiting Women have to offer? Is it just a part of the collection for completeness’ sake?

I won’t defend Waiting Women as a forgotten Bergman gem, and it’s not one of the director’s films that I already know I will revisit. It is pleasant enough, but it is certainly not great. It is a decidedly milder take on themes that Bergman would revisit repeatedly. But this mildness is rare enough in Bergman, and it gives the film an appeal that deserves to be acknowledged. Where so much of Bergman’s oeuvre communicates an existentialist disillusionment with everything – God, marriage, family -, Waiting Women has a lot of the same critique of bourgeois values but comes to a different conclusion. Its women, who narrate the stories of their relationships, are aware of the flaws inherent in their specific marriages and in the institution of marriage as a whole. They know that their husbands are imperfect, and while the men tend to come off more negatively (which is true for a lot of Bergman, though I think this is a cultural critique rather than a biologistic one), the women by no means exclude themselves from their critical perspective.

And yet, the women of this film come to different conclusions than you’d expect, based on having watched most of his films. Marriage is flawed, as are men and women – but Waiting Women seems to come at this from a perspective of acceptance. Not at all costs, but with open eyes and a certain grounded pragmatism. Other Bergman films, and especially the men in them, tend to have views that are either more cynical – in brief: everything sucks (except in Swedish), so we may as well resign ourselves to the suck – or more absolutist – if people are flawed, then relationships are flawed, and therefore they’re a bad idea and we should all stew alone in our existential despair, because persisting with the imperfect is hypocritical and/or delusional.

Ironically, this means that while Waiting Women suffers from the context it’s in, it also benefits from this context. Its appeal lies in showing an alternative to the worldview so many of Bergman’s films seem to embody. The film isn’t alone in this, and other, later takes on similar material are generally stronger, but as an early indication of another side of Bergman, and as a female-centric short story collection, it is not without its appeal. Though it does make me think that if I ever was to revisit the entirety of Bergman’s oeuvre, I might try a chronological approach next time. The thematic structure that Criterion went for is helpful, but having seen all the films before, it would be interesting to see how Bergman’s handling of these themes changes over time. Though, seeing the Fellini and Varda collections that are waiting on my movie shelf, I doubt I’ll be returning for a complete tour of Bergman’s films before I retire.

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