A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K
First Look: Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband
By Phillip Lopate
For the 41st New York Film Festival, Phillip Lopate takes on Ingmar Bergman's latest film, Saraband
Saraband is the latest and, we can assume, the last motion picture directed by Ingmar Bergman—his parting gift to the medium that made him world-famous. Though Bergman is fortunately still with us, he has announced, yet again, his retirement from filmmaking. Not a surprising decision, given the fact that he is in his mid-eighties; in recent years has turned his screenplays over to others. Engrossing, worthwhile and respectfully helmed as the resulting films were, they all lacked the master's edgy, patient ferocity. The difference is obvious, now that he has taken over the directorial reins one last time. Saraband is an astonishment: vital, powerful, magnificent. Granted, when a great filmmaker, however ancient, makes a sublime work of art, it should not come as such a surprise. We can place this film alongside Dreyer's Gertrud, as a fellow Scandinavian's uncanny last word on the capricious power of love, in its positive and destructive aspects.
It might be said that Bergman shifted his emphasis from "Does God exist?" in the Fifties and Sixties to "Does love exist?" in the Seventies. Marianne spent much of the five-hour TV series, Scenes From a Marriage (73), worrying whether or not she truly loved Johan, or even knew what love was. Saraband has been billed as a sequel; and up to a point it is, since it returns to the same duo, Johan and Marianne (played by the older but still incomparable Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman). They have not seen each other for many years, when Marianne gets the sudden impulse to look in on her ex-husband, who has inherited millions from a rich old aunt and now lives in "the wilderness" by himself, in his grandparents' summerhouse. Marianne, competent, compassionate and controlling as ever, still practices family law on occasion; Johan has long since retired from academia, and has grown more crochety and intimacy-averse. Though their old relationship wounds are touched upon, the film wisely spends little time revisiting them. By now each is supremely unillusioned, and they get by with a testy forbearance that is not without tenderness.
But they, as it turns out, are no longer the main story: rather, Bergman shifts his focus to a new power struggle, this time between a father and daughter, who live in a cottage on Johan's property, and whose contest of wills Johan and Marianne watch like speculating, meddling Jamesian bystanders. The father is Henrik, Johan's son by his first marriage: at 61, chubby, needy, coming to the end of a disappointing career as a cellist, and despised by his father as a weakling, Henrik is full of confusion, rage and self-pity. At first we are inclined to pity him as well, but eventually we realize this guy is a nasty piece of work. (Borje Ahlstedt's performance as Henrik is a phenomenal piece of acting.) His beautiful 19-year-old daughter Karin (strongly acted by Julia Dufvenius), is a talented cellist herself; the problem is that her widowed father, who has taken on the role of her music coach, won't let her go, and is using her as a wife-surrogate. It is alarming enough to see them sleeping in the same bed (though presumably, without sex); when father kisses daughter hard on the mouth, we think, Now wait a minute! The plot is the reverse of Ozu's Late Spring: in this case, what happens when a father will not relinquish his grown daughter to the world? As with Moliere's classic comedies, the plot revolves around efforts to separate greedy old man from innocent young girl and restore the natural order of things.
Slowly, the pivotal character in the story turns out to be one who makes no actual appearance: Anna, Henrik's wife, who died of cancer two years earlier. Anna, by all accounts, was a loving wife; and it was the "miracle" of her love, all the more saintly as it was bestowed on someone so seemingly unlovable, Henrik, that sets each of the others brooding. Johan, who seems to have been more than a little smitten with his daughter-in-law, keeps a framed photograph of her in his study. "It's incomprehensible that Henrik was given the privilege of loving Anna. And that she was so devoted to him!" he snarls jealously. Marianne remains an agnostic when it comes to love. She, too, finds herself staring at the dead Anna's enigmatic photo smile and wondering what this woman could have been thinking and feeling—what gave her the power to love? Henrik is so obsessed with his late wife that her loss has left him feeling disabled and suicidal. Karin finds a letter from her mother addressed to her father, which prophetically warns him not to abuse Karin's youthful affections, by transferring his all-consuming conjugal love from mother to daughter. This letter, this deathbed effort to free her, "is what love is," Karin asserts confidently, though the older Marianne is still unsure.
The film is structured as a series of 10 duets, with the dyadic personae shifting from scene to scene: first Johan and Marianne, then Marianne and Karin, then Karin and her father, then Johan and Henrik, then Henrik and Marianne, and so on. Each scene is introduced by its number and chapter title, reminding us that we are watching a self-consciously made narrative, with the theatricality of blackout skits. In addition, a prologue and an epilogue both show Marianne alone, addressing the camera with her thoughts. All these distancing formal devices, however, melt away in the face of the dramatic intensity and internal psychological reality of the unfolding dialogues.
Part of the power of Bergman's writing is that he takes scenes beyond their conventional climax, certainly beyond the trappings of civility. Marianne enters a deserted church and hears Henrik playing Bach on the organ, they converse amiably, he, charmed by her, impulsively invites her to dinner and she accepts, only to realize she can't make it, at which point he starts spewing out uncontrolled, poisonous hostility. In another remarkable scene, Henrik visits his father, sitting in his library surrounded by books, to ask to borrow some money; the two men spar angrily, and Johan says he prefers to see this "healthy hate" from his son rather than the usual mealy mouthed response. Henrik demands in wonderment, "Father, where did all this hostility comes from?" Johan reminds Henrik of how his son rejected him when he was 18. Henrik draws close to his father and hisses, not unreasonably: "Words uttered 50 years ago are no excuse." Hate seems as much a mystery to Bergman as love.
In the last scene, Johan awakens with an anxiety attack (reversing Scenes from a Marriage, which ended with Marianne waking from a nightmare and Johan reassuring her). This time it is he who stands baffled in his nightshirt, saying, "My anxiety is bigger than I am—I'm too small for my anxiety!" Could anything be more Bergmanesque? Marianne, who had been sleeping in a guest room, invites him consolingly into her bed. Erland Josephson rips off his nightshirt and we see the old actor in all his splendid, foolish nakedness; then Liv Ullman takes off her dressing gown as well, and the sight of her nude body calms her ex-lover's anxiety attack—a wonderful moment, even if a trifle too gallantly unlit for this viewer's curiosity. As so often in the past, Bergman brings us to the edge of existential despondency, then mocks it with a human—all-too-human smile.
Intelligently framed, well-lit, mobile, crisply edited, and entirely adequate for its purposes, Saraband began as TV film shot on digital video. Bergman is reportedly dissatisfied with the look of the tape-to-film transfer, and his perverse perfectionism has kept him from allowing it to be shown theatrically. What a shame—many of those who have seen it already hail it as a masterpiece. We can only hope that the "old goat," as Liv Ullman fondly calls him, will relent and soon make the film universally available. Meanwhile, Sony Classics has picked up the U.S. distribution rights just in case.