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!
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.
The cliché of an Ingmar Bergman film seems to be that of a melancholy, existentialist treatise on the meaninglessness of life and of relationships, most likely in black and white. You know the kind of thing: people standing at the beach, being depressed. I’ve said so before, but that’s not the Bergman I’ve found, even in films such as The Seventh Seal, and most definitely not in Fanny and Alexander (both of these are yet to come in our journey through Criterion’s amazing box set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema). Look at something like Scenes from a Marriageand alongside the acrimony, emotional cruelty and existential despair that doubtlessly fuel the conflict between Marianne and Johan, you’ll definitely also find warmth, humaneness and humour.
I rather wish there had been more of the latter in Shame, a film that, while recognisably Bergman in its concerns – and obviously in its cast -, reminded me of Michael Haneke in its relentless grimness. It is perhaps telling that one of the rare scenes where the film displays a sense of humour shows one of its characters to be such a bad shot that he fails to kill a chicken that’s barely half a metre in front of him.
By the end of the film, the chickens have lost their lives nonetheless and that character has become both able and more than willing to use his gun on a human being.
For the last week or so, my wife and I have been mostly at home, except for the occasional trip to the shops or a short walk every day to get some fresh air and catch some sun. Other than that, we’ve been good, keeping our social distance, barely seeing, let alone talking, to others. It’s just the two of us.
What better time than this to visit our old friends, Marianne and Johan, everyone’s favourite dysfunctional couple?*
We recently watched the Netflix-produced Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach. It’s a tough watch: you quickly develop sympathy for the two likeable main characters (played beautifully by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson), and when a legal system that seems to prioritise making a buck over helping two people separate as amicably as possible starts working on them it hurts to see how they are twisted into nastier, pettier, crueler and more antagonistic versions of themselves, particularly when a child is involved.
Where Marriage Story is about the film’s leads becoming the people they never wanted to be due to the legal system, though, the two main characters of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage don’t need lawyers to become enemies: intimacy, fueled by insecurity and resentment, becomes a more cutting and more precise weapon than the sharpest scalpel.