The Compleat Ingmar #37: Brink of Life (1958)

One of the things Ingmar Bergman is famous for is the great parts for women in his films, and consequently his work with great actresses. So many of the films feature complex roles for women, and while Bergman must often have been a terror to the women in his life, both in private and in his professional capacity, many of his leading ladies have said again and again that it was a gift to be in a Bergman film and to portray those characters. As much as Bergman can be criticised, and rightly so, for his behaviour towards women, we have several actresses who nonetheless were eager to work with him repeatedly – sometimes even after they had been in a relationship with him that had ended badly.

Most of the films in question, the likes of Persona and Cries and Whispers, are very recognisably Bergman films: the writing is very clearly his, as are the themes and tone. Brink of Life is different, and it’s the first film by the director where I found myself watching the movie and wondering whether it had been written by a woman – which turns out to be true. For Brink of Life, Bergman collaborated with the author Ulla Isaksson (who also wrote The Virgin Spring, which came out two years later), and indeed there is a different quality to the film. Brink of Life feels like it stems from actual, lived experience – and as the experiences depicted in the film are specifically female, it makes sense that this is reflected in the result. Brink of Life is about three women who share a hospital room: Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) has just had a miscarriage, Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) is close to giving birth, and Hjördis (Bibi Andersson), the youngest of the three, is pregnant but uncertain whether she even wants to keep the baby.

I’d not heard of Brink of Life before embarking on this multi-year journey through Bergman’s filmography, and quite frankly, at this point in the collection I’d expected a film that is clearly lesser Bergman: not necessarily bad, but something included more for completeness’ sake, before the double whammy finale of Autumn Sonata and Fanny and Alexander. What I found, however, was intriguingly different: a Bergman film that reflects some of the director’s main strengths – all of his female leads are frequent flyers on Air Bergman, and the performances are strong and engaging – and that nonetheless feels untypical. Brink of Life fits in best with the films that feature collectives of women, where the male parts are supporting roles at best, such as Cries and Whispers, Waiting Women or, obviously, Persona (which has a different feel and dynamic to it due to being a duet between two increasingly antagonistic female characters).

Thulin’s Cecilia feels closest to a regular Bergman character; she is middle-class and more immediately intellectual than her two companions, and her concerns following a painful miscarriage resemble those of other characters in the director’s films. They are heartfelt, but they are also neurotic, in that specifically Bergman way. (It is not surprising that she is married to a man played by Erland Josephson, who cranks up the Bergman neuroses to 11.) Hjördis, Andersson’s character, isn’t entirely different from some of the younger Bergman women in Port of Call or even Summer with Monika, but as part of a female ensemble her plight takes on a different quality and finds a different resolution. Stina, the character played by Dahlbeck, is the one that’s least familiar in Bergman, doubly so in combination with her husband Harry, played by Max von Sydow in a part that could barely be more different from other roles von Sydow has played for Bergman. Stina and Harry are giddy, at times almost manic, in anticipation of the new addition to their family, and there is no trace of the more neurotic qualities that Bergman often endows his characters with. None of the characters feel idealised, but their concerns reflect the existential angst that Bergman is renowned for to a much lesser extent.

There is also a naturalistic, at times almost documentary quality to the film that, if anything, is there in some of Bergman’s early films (Port of Call also shares this), but much less so in his later ones. The films that carry Bergman’s signature style are largely the ones he’s remembered for, and the naturalism of Brink of Life doesn’t feel familiarly Bergmanesque, but it’s exactly the fact that this particular brush on the director’s palette is so rare that gives films like Brink of Life a special appeal, in that we see him trying out different versions of himself. There are a handful of scenes and shots that feel like that other Bergman peeking in, moments that feel heavy with symbolism; these stand out, almost to the detriment of the film, which is at its best when it just lets the material breathe and the actors inhabit the characters, when Bergman gets out of their way.

In the end, Brink of Life feels like a what-if, a path not taken: a Bergman film where the director gives his actors material with depth and nuance, but where he lets them determine the tone and the feel of the film, more so than giving his own stylistic preoccupations full reign. The approach works wonders for Brink of Life, even if it clearly wouldn’t have worked for the likes of Persona. The film feels like a more humble, more modest type of storytelling, and this humility is a large part of what makes Bring of Life stand out as an exception in the collection.

Next up: Autumn Sonata, a film I’ve seen before, but I suspect it will be a different experience to return to it after having seen practically all of Bergman’s works.

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