Matt here, waving at you wearily from that little country in the centre-left of Europe. So, for what will soon have been two weeks – but what feels like at least twice that – Switzerland will have been on partial lockdown. We’re still allowed to leave the house, though if we congregate in groups of more than five people, the Corona police will descend on us and… cough on us, perhaps? I’m not quite sure, because I’m being a good little boy, which means I’m practicing social distance with the best of them. My wife and I still go out to catch some sun and fresh air every day, but we stay at least two metres away from others, eyeing them cautiously.
It helps that we’re not exactly the biggest extroverts in the world. Our idea of a fun evening out rarely involves other people, at least not actively. Sure, before the Coronavirus epidemic we’d often be found in groups of dozens, sometimes even hundreds – but that’s what you get when you go to the cinema several times a week.
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.
A Lesson in Love doesn’t exactly start very well, at least from a contemporary perspective: after an arch voiceover telling us to prepare ourselves for a comedy for grownups, we first meet a comely but angry young woman, Susanne (played by Yvonne Lombard), listing the failings of her older lover, the gynaecologist David Erneman (Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand). The lines are sharp, even witty, but it still seems that we’re watching what is essentially a male fantasy: obviously the young, attractive patients of a middle-aged, jaded gynaecologist would fall over themselves to undress for him in private as well as in his practice. It’s not that Bergman spares his protagonist, but whatever criticism is leveled at David, in the end it doesn’t matter. Young women seem magically attracted to him, and even as Susanne berates him for his cynicism, she still can’t help begging him to continue being her lover.
Before getting Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman set, I don’t think I had heard of Dreams, a 1955 drama directed and written by Bergman. Certainly, it doesn’t have the striking, dreamlike imagery of Wild Strawberries or the sexual frankness of Summer with Monika, but I was still surprised to read on Wikipedia that “Dreams is one of the few Ingmar Bergman films to have received lukewarm reviews”. It should come as no surprise that the performances are consistently strong, and especially the female leads make it well worth watching.
Summer with Monika (1953) is an odd yet fitting film with which to continue our Tour d’Ingmar. Like Crisis, A Ship to India, To Joy and Summer Interlude, its protagonists are flawed young characters in the process of becoming adults, though unlike many of the Bergman films earlier in the collection, the young man, Harry (Lars Ekborg), is selfless and arguably the more mature one, while Monika (Harriet Andersson), the female protagonist, is self-serving and at times downright unpleasant.
Summer Interlude (1951) came out only one year after To Joy, and in some ways it’s a remarkably similar setup. Again, we have an older character looking back at a youthful romance and its consequences. Again, the protagonist is an ensemble artist: where Stig (Stig Olin), To Joy‘s protagonist, was an orchestra violinist, Summer Interlude‘s Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson, who also starred with Olin in the earlier film) is a ballerina. In both films, love and death become intertwined. However, while To Joy is an often bitter film that suffers from a grating manchild protagonist, Summer Interlude is a much more joyous film and perhaps the first of Bergman’s early works in the collection that is not just engaging in parts but a pleasure to watch as a whole.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the second and third film in Criterion’s Bergman collection, Crisis and A Ship to India, but they were interesting as stepping stones towards the director’s more accomplished later films – and Wild Strawberries is definitely an illustration of those works and, after Smiles of a Summer Night, the second highlight of the collection.
Apparently Bergman wasn’t a huge fan of the first film he directed, Crisis (1946), which he called “lousy, through and through”. He wasn’t much kinder to his third, A Ship to India (1947), referring to it as “a major disaster” – except when his producer Lorens Marmstedt called to urge him to cut the worst parts, at which point Bergman rose to his film’s defense: “I informed him that I had no intention of cutting even one foot from this masterpiece.” Bergman may have been young and relatively inexperienced, but obviously he already had an ego to match a much more accomplished director.