Back to the Future: Ingmar Bergman’s “Saraband”
by Nicolas Rapold, with Michael Koresky and Michael Joshua Rowin
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
Have you seen the new Bergman? It’s about time that I get to write that. For all who loved “Fanny and Alexander” but found childhood a pat trope for his official farewell, “Saraband” is a surprise gift — our “alternate ending” to a monumental career.
It is an ending that consists of returns. Middle-aged Marianne (Liv Ullmann) revisits the past in the person of her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) reenters his father’s toxic orbit by moving to his estate, and relives his dead wife Anna through daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Johan sits around reviewing an autobiographical “answer sheet” that he says he has achieved, manifest as a predictably acidic hindsight. And in presenting “Saraband” as sequential to “Scenes from a Marriage” (which reviews like this dutifully mention), Bergman makes even his critics mimic the characters and begin by looking back. Everyone of course expects to compare a late work to the oeuvre, but Bergman goes further, getting us involved again with an old relationship. (“I know I shouldn’t, but…”)
“Saraband” opens with a scene of unsettling artifice: Marianne sits at a table talking to the camera and presenting family photos. Unsettling because it plays so awkwardly: one fears the words “I remember it like it was yesterday…” will follow with a blurry-wave cross-fade. But the method is the same as the interview that opens “Scenes from a Marriage” — a kind of trompe l’oeil of attention and representation that allows the chord change that ensues (to adopt the title’s musical metaphor). Marianne’s bit is an undrama that renders the primary drama both a jarring contrast and a return to a reality all the more convincing and surprising. (Admittedly, a Bergman reality of ravaged souls-this is the man who wrote that he undertook Scenes “mostly for fun.”) Such foreshadowing pervades the film’s interwoven structure, with characters describing other characters at length and Bergman meticulously alternating our perspectives. Here is Henrik creepily in bed with Karin (how, uh, Scandinavian) but honest enough to call his self-pity (and self-hatred) “explanation, not excuse.” Then he is unavoidably sympathetic when Johan, an inveterate sadist, verbally annihilates him in his study. But finally, here he is toying with vulgarity with Marianne in a church, and the cycle continues.
The foreshadowing fits in a larger structure of displacement, whose iconic image comes when Karin describes her fight with Henrik to Marianne. A brutal flashback shows father and daughter in flat close-up composition, struggling against a red background, that Bergman visual of the soul twisting before us so memorable from “Cries and Whispers” (with which “Saraband” also shares a Bach suite). The displaced relation in an image: Only the back of Henrik’s head is visible, and it blocks Karin’s. They switch; she flees. She has been living other people’s lives, both as some model cello pupil and, worse, as substitute wife and emotional receptacle. Repetitions and recognitions, emotions and shadows of emotions (regret and resentment), and memory and its lived experience-every moment in “Saraband” carries a dual valence.
The moving image itself competes with its static forbearer, from the opening pile of snapshots to the omnipresent image of Anna, Henrik’s dead wife. She appears in a framed photo by Henrik and Karin’s bed, but by the end Bergman is simply cross-fading her image into and out of a scene in progress. Her photograph bears her forth as an idealized embodiment of perfect love; she is a figure both angelic and, predicting her husband’s homeless love, prophetic. Henrik’s own photographic entrance to an immortal plane is by contrast fittingly brutal (and an example of Bergman’s ability to make a formal solution feel fresh).
Describing “Saraband” in terms of structures of displacement and the photographic image may seem a dry way to approach a filmmaker who is anything but bloodless. But a dip into formal considerations reminds how Bergman films outlast dramatic fashion and belie popular stereotypes precisely because, however overwhelming, their power is always grounded in specific technical decisions, from the striking to the self-effacing. “Persona” defined the vocabulary of two shots; the calculus of the relationship in Scenes is inseparable from patient, subtle editing; and so on.
All that, of course, brings us to the most obvious feature of his last work: it is shot in digital video. For a director for whom light itself amounts to a kind of spiritual reflexivity and is repeatedly charged with ontological significance-well, what gives with the megapixels? Instead of the crisp Northern light and shadows of his past work, we get a uniform, diffuse glow and baby-pink flesh tones. (The worst offense is a series of hollow landscape shots which inexplicably cross-fade at the automatic pace of a screensaver.) Yet these weaker, tender images seem to fit the raw wounds that the characters by turns struggle to heal and aggravate. Some critics (among them, Bergman’s closest, Liv Ullmann) have located in Marianne’s epilogue about her near-catatonic daughter a hope that fulfills something missing in his work till now. But (if one can get sentimental about objectionable cinematography) I prefer to find it in the vulnerability of this his final, fading winter light.
[ Nicolas Rapold is an editor at Film Comment and a Reverse Shot staff writer. ]
By Michael Koresky
No matter how many times Ingmar Bergman retires, he will never cease to set the cinephilic world spinning every time something is released with his name attached. His re-emergence has once again created waves, although it must be noted that since the Forties there hasn’t been a decade of cinema not somehow imprinted with his indelible mark. More than anything, his screenplays for Bille August‘s version of his delicate personal folklore “The Best Intentions,” son Daniel Bergman‘s lyrical and autobiographical “Sunday’s Children,” and especially Liv Ullmann’s anguished “Faithless” have proven that the movies are barely ready to wrench themselves free of his iron grip. So if his grand return to feature filmmaking doesn’t seem to be as noteworthy as it should, it’s a great testament to the power and intelligence of “Saraband” that watching it we feel as though everything in film is once again in its right place. Bergman’s supposed final gasp moves back and forth from tender reconciliation to shocking brutality with such efficacy that it often seems like a film made during the great one’s prime; its 10-part structure, swift and tumultuous, surveys the dramatic familial fallout of “Scenes from a Marriage”‘s Marianne and Johan not as a sequel but as a furtive glimpse into intergenerational destruction and dysfunction. And by utilizing a particularly vivid hi-def video, Bergman here shows the vitality of the divisive medium; every close-up feels like a piercing x-ray, and the crispness of the digital image hides nothing.
“Saraband” is overtly theatrical yet there’s a confidence here that doesn’t allow for the pageantry of some of his strict chamber pieces (“The Rite,” “From the Life of the Marionettes“). Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann are especially responsive to the more lightweight video technique — in their reunion they seem to have been given a newly airy breathing room. Bergman has relied so much on the new shooting method and texture of the video that he initially refused to allow the film to screen if not from a digital projector so as to maintain the integrity of the image; somehow despite all of George Lucas‘ insistence on the same, it only makes sense to me for the first time in the case of “Saraband.”
[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment. ]
By Michael Joshua Rowin
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 film’s first 10 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. 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.
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 (“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. 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. Humankind being what it is, Bergman is generous to offer us even this cautious hope.
[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon. ]