Good Men, Good Women
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, Sony Pictures Classics
The early seventies was a terrific time for European art cinema directors to explore dysfunctional relationships. Fassbinder, of course, cornered the market in that tenuous subgenre with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which quickly followed his breakthrough The Merchant of Four Seasons, a similarly aching study of cruel partnerships. '72, the year that saw the release of those films, also featured Maurice Pialat's We Will Not Grow Old Together, in which a Pialat surrogate and his mistress go through an agonizing cycle of break-up and reconciliation over the course of 110 minutes (not surprisingly, Fassbinder must have found the film pertinent, for he featured parts of it in a sequence from In a Year of Thirteen Moons). Even Godard, at the peak of his Maoist phase, placed a troubled relationship at the heart of his dialectical-materialist Tout va bien. Was something in the air? Perhaps due to the receding turbulence of late-sixties/early-seventies European political and social upheaval, and the disillusionment left in its wake, artists looked in other directions, confronting romantic crises that related to a different sort of universal and personal malaise.
Then, in 1973, came the mother lode: none other than Ingmar Bergman brought to television Scenes from a Marriage, a six-part, five-hour series chronicling the disintegration of a bourgeois couple's love (a two-and-a-half-hour film version was also released). Scenes was the highpoint of Bergman's seventies work, captivating audiences with its devastatingly realistic fights, evasions, passive-aggressions, and acts of mutual destruction. It also found the director, after a period of visual and dramatic experimentation, returning with conviction to the economy and precision that marked his masterpieces of the late fifties and early sixties. Subtle shifts in camera distance and framing reinforced the slow unraveling of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne's (Liv Ullmann) marriage. Likewise, Josephson and Ullmann represented the apex of onscreen emotional vulnerability-their performances feel so lived-in, so much inseparable from their very physical existences that the characters nearly leapt off the screen with desperation and urgency.
This might be why Bergman has chosen to end (presumably) his unparalleled cinematic career by returning to Johan and Marianne . . . sort of. Those going into Saraband expecting a sequel to Scenes from a Marriage might be baffled, but such a warning is testament to Bergman's ability to still surprise and challenge audiences after all these years. Saraband does indeed begin with the couple: Marianne speaks into the camera, updating the audience on the last 30 years of her life and Johan's. The two never did reunite after Scenes' hopeful, ambiguous ending-Marianne stayed on in divorce law, while Johan inherited a fortune and settled down at the family retreat in rural Sweden. Neither have had much contact with their two daughters, and have not even spoken to each other for many years. Marianne decides to pay Johan a visit at his retreat.
The film's first ten minutes are disconcertingly awkward: while Bergman mastered the art of direct address during the peak of his career, Marianne's speech to the camera-at a table covered with photos, from which she shows us the ones relevant to the story-never transcends its contrived expositional function. When Marianne walks through Johan's maroon-painted house, leading the camera along to surprise her ex-husband, the muted, playful tone feels off, contrasting harshly with the mysterious slamming doors and the solemn tune Marianne plucks on the piano-hardly the ominous or melancholy intro Bergman might have intended. Only when Marianne and Johan begin talking to each other does Bergman recover his handle on the film. Nobody's better at capturing the natural rhythms and cadences of conversation, traversing the profound and the mundane with such ease and unself-consciousness. At the same time, nobody's better at throwing an audience for a loop with a well-placed existential zinger: “My life has been shit,” Johan sighs, with a frightening air of acceptance along with regret.
After this first section (of ten in total, structured as “sarabands,” or dances meant for two partners), Bergman changes gears, introducing an entirely different familial dynamic. Johan's sulking, pathetic son Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), from his first marriage, and Henrik's 19 year-old daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), become the focus of attention, and Bergman's final representation of generational conflict. Henrik's wife Anna has been dead for several years, and her absence forces Henrik to cling desperately to Karin, not only his daughter but his talented cello pupil. When Karin is given the opportunity to study at a German conservatory, Henrik's dependence comes into question. In a crucial scene, Karin reads a recently discovered letter Anna wrote to Henrik, warning him of forming an unhealthy attachment to his daughter as a replacement wife. As Saraband progresses and Henrik's sanity becomes undermined, Bergman presents his thesis gradually and insidiously: one person's freedom is another person's crippling loss.
Along the way, each sectional duet adds another layer to the skeleton of the drama. While Marianne takes on a maternal role in gently listening to and guiding Karin, Johan's relationship to his son is revealed as a bitter, Oedipal conflict. Bergman traces the development of their feud over Anna (Josephson conveys the sick jealousy Johan feels toward Henrik so perfectly that his sour facial expressions-emphasized by trademark Bergman close-ups-are almost painful to watch) to the fetishistic, incestual obsession Henrik harbors for Karin. Bergman brings the sexual tension to a boiling point so subtly and dryly that the climactic confrontation between father and daughter is not only genuinely startling but unnerving. While it's impossible not to compare several scenes unfavorably to similar, classic ones in the Bergman canon-the direct address to the camera (Hour of the Wolf), the church scene (Winter Light), the uncanny outdoor excursion (The Virgin Spring)-the showdowns in spare, haunted interiors display the director's consistent strength, and they hearken back to Bergman's mastery of domestic space in Scenes from a Marriage, where love dwelled but slowly suffocated. Equally remarkable is how well Bergman's eye for austere color compositions has adapted to the world of digital video, which, while not as vivid as celluloid, adds a dreaminess all its own in terms of grain and texture.
As for Johan and Marianne: while they often function as characters peripheral to the central drama, the conflict between Henrik and Karin places into relief their unresolved questions concerning love, which Bergman addresses at the beginning and end of the film. Johan remains profoundly disillusioned, hardened by his jealousy and regrets but nonetheless still needing solace. Marianne-always searching, always open despite her stubbornness-provides it for him, and her return confirms that her independence and lightness both comfort and torture those made of lesser stuff. The final scene between the former partners-two admitted “emotional illiterates”-undressing and cuddling together in a small bed is an image of tenderness and mortality only Bergman could have conceived.
At the end of Scenes from a Marriage Johan states that he and Marianne share an “earthly and imperfect” love, one that suggests something achievable and human in the face of enormous romantic expectations. What has Bergman learned in the intervening years to addend to this in Saraband? Anna, shown only in a ghostly photograph, puzzles Marianne with the pure love she had for those close to her-most of all Karin, for whom she sought freedom and innocence. In the epilogue Marianne tells us she finally understood this selflessness when visiting her dying, catatonic daughter in the hospital-the last scene shows Marianne touching her, on the face, for the first time in her life. During the question and answer session following Saraband's screening at the New York Film Festival, Liv Ullmann suggested that this final scene parallels Persona, in which she played an actress withdrawing from the world through silence, unable to connect with the nurse assigned to care for her. Only the mysterious little boy, a character remaining outside the story proper, attempts to make physical contact in Persona, but with a picture of Ullmann projected on a screen. The parallel describes the tentative existential step Bergman has made in the intervening 40 years between these two films, as well as between Scenes and Saraband: from his characters' emotional incertitude and physical coldness to their burgeoning acceptance of redemption through personal connection. Humankind being what it is, Bergman is generous to offer us even this cautious hope.