So, here we are. The last of the stations on my travels with Ingmar. (Or not, as there are some epiloguy bits to follow.) The theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander, about a month after having watched the TV series in its full, 5+ hour glory, and a couple of weeks after Christmas, so close enough to the film’s natural habitat, seasonally speaking.
We’re almost at the end of this journey. I’ve now, for the first time, watched the TV version of Ingmar Bergman Fanny and Alexander, and only the film version is left. It’s a fitting time for this, as Fanny and Alexander is always on television in Sweden around Christmas the way that other countries might show Czech fairy tales or Frank Capra’s darkest movie, and it’s easy to see why: it begins with one of the greatest family celebrations ever captured on film, a bourgeois, early 20th century Swedish Christmas. Food, festivities, fart jokes: everything that comes to a cinephile’s mind when they hear the name ‘Ingmar Bergman’.
Is it fair to say that Ingmar Bergman was his own greatest rival? There are a number of films in his filmography that are good, interesting films featuring strong performances – but when you watch them, you think of other, better films that Bergman made. Autumn Sonata may be one of those films; it is certainly not his strongest psychodrama centred on a conflict between women too close for their own good. But it has something that none of the other films have: that other iconic Bergman in 20th century cinema.
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.
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.
While the supposed heaviness of Bergman’s filmography is frequently exaggerated (or am I the only one who finds The Seventh Seal with its snarky Death entertaining, even if the film undoubtedly isn’t a laugh riot beginning to end?), it is certainly true that many of his films deal with heavy themes. Mortality in the abstract is a frequent motif, but so is death in the very concrete. And death in Bergman’s films may never have been as harrowing as in his 1972 film Cries and Whispers, the first half of which depicts the suffering and agony of Agnes, one of its four main characters.
Port of Call doesn’t make a great first impression. In the context of Bergman’s complete oeuvre (if movie watching had a progress bar, we’d be somewhere between 80% and 90% through his filmography), its first fifteen, twenty minutes or so is more striking in its images than its storytelling, as the latter seems oddly impersonal, almost generic. Once past the initial hurdle of a decidedly middling beginning, however, there’s more to like about Port of Call than is immediately apparent.
It’s a difficult act to follow Persona, and Criterion probably made the right choice when it decided to follow Bergman’s monolithic masterpiece with a number of his earlier, smaller films, in which he was trying to find his voice as a director. Thirst is one of those films. It’s by no means bad – in fact, some of the later films that are more clearly Bergman’s work are probably worse films (and yes, All These Women, I’m looking at you). However, it is a film that in the context of Bergman’s filmography feels like he was trying his hand at themes and techniques that he’d later use to better effect.
And here we are: perhaps the film by Ingmar Bergman that is most famous, apart from The Seventh Seal, and probably the one most written about in film studies. Persona may not be as immediately iconic as the film that brought us a medieval knight playing chess with Death, but it is undoubtedly one of the films most responsible for the director’s reputation – as a master of his craft, but also as a storyteller who did tremendous work especially with his female protagonists (sorry, Max von Sydow, but it’s true) and whose films explore harrowing psychological and metaphysical territory.