Ingmar Bergman Round Up

In which we hide the razor blades before settling down with some of the depressing as fuck challenging films of the legendary Swedish director.

Let’s start with a confession. I’m not a fan of Bergman’s films, a standpoint which has brought me into conflict with many of his acolytes, resulting in finger-pointing, name-calling, fist-fights and sobbing in the toilets. It’s only fair to admit that the weight of evidence lies on their side, with Bergman regularly hailed as one of the all-time great directors, whilst his films come festooned with awards and critical acclaim. These are fair points and I would agree with them if they were right.

However, in the interests of peaceful relations, I extend an olive branch and start with one Bergman film I do like. Wild Strawberries (1957) is a gentle, accessible film about old age and fear of death, as an elderly man reflects upon his life during a road-trip to his home town. The action moves between past and present, dreams and reality, as he takes his personal journey of self-discovery, prompted by encounters with several people along the way. Victor Sjöström (himself a famous silent movie director) gives a lovely, dignified performance in the lead role, whilst the film is careful not to stray into sentimentality, opting instead for a more subtle and honest emotional outcome. If you see only one Bergman film, make it this.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963) are the first two parts in a loosely connected trilogy on faith and doubt in the existence of God. Both are beautifully shot and bravely tackle big, challenging themes like faith, life, death, madness, religion and a God that actually turns out to be a malevolent spider. But, dear God (dear Spider God), did they have to be so dull? For completion, I really should check out the third instalment The Silence (1963), but I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm.

Even if you haven’t seen The Seventh Seal (1957), you’ll know the iconic scenes featuring the chess-match between a crusading knight and Death, spoofed in everything from Monty Python to French & Saunders, Family Guy to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure. And those scenes really are inspired, powerfully symbolic and delightfully chilling. The rest of the film, however, is a rather uneven mix of farce, horror, religion and philosophical discourse.  Yes, it deals with things such as faith, life, existence etc, but so did Jerry Springer and that was much more entertaining and it had more comedy punch-ups.

In The Virgin Spring (1960), a girl is raped and murdered by a gang of goatherds, who then unwittingly try to sell her possessions to the girl’s family. As embarrassing mistakes go, that’s a pretty big faux-pas. Non-hilarious results ensue. Cries & Whispers (1972) is also a tough watch as we follow two sisters as they visit a third sister on her deathbed.  Each woman struggles with repressed memories and feelings in a film which is effectively about physical and emotional suffering. It’ll probably make you cry and whisper ‘please, make the bleakness end'. Slightly happier is Scenes From A Marriage (1973) which merely deals with the story of a disintegrating marriage. It’s well acted, hard-hitting and honest, but you’d be better off with Woody Allen's similar Husbands & Wives, which was inspired by the former film, but is much better. Then there’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), of which I made the unfortunate error of watching the 5 (five!) hour director’s cut. That’s five hours of interminable, existential, dysfunctional Swedish family drama. And this is supposed to be one of Bergman’s more uplifting films! Never again. Good acting from the kids though.

Persona (1966) is regarded by many as Bergman’s masterpiece and whilst it is never less than interesting, it is ultimately too obscure and inaccessible to be actually enjoyable. By turns bewitching and bewildering, there is some startling imagery throughout and Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann turn in excellent performances, but the story itself of the relationship between a nurse and her patient (and their shifting, blending personas) is open to several interpretations, which can make for frustrating viewing. We are also constantly reminded we are watching a film, as Bergman explores the nature of movie illusion and reality and it’s interesting to note the obvious influences on recent films such as Fight Club and Mulholland Dr. There is much to ponder on, but many will find it just too heavy going.

Let’s finish with another effort I did like. Autumn Sonata (1978) has a simple story stripped of any ruminations on faith, religion or spider Gods. Instead we are left with a searing emotional family drama, brilliantly acted and smartly scripted. There are no easy answers here, just a thoughtful, intelligent drama on relationships and family. It’s still bleak, though.
There we have it. Whilst others fall over each other to praise Bergman, I tell it how it really is. Reminds me of the time I was in a marching band and I was the only one in step. But in fairness to him, Bergman did try to address some of Life’s Big Questions with his movies, which is more than, say, Michael Bay does, so why not judge for yourself during some of your more contemplative moments. But be warned, there’s a reason these films struggled to make money and even Bergman himself says they depress him. Happy viewing!

No comments:

Post a Comment