Bergman's Last Words: Saraband?

Leonard Quart



 began to attend Bergman’s films in my late teens—an insecure, confused adolescent hungrily seeking explanations and solace for my existential angst. Bergman films like Wild Strawberries and The Magician so powerfully affected me that I began to reflect on my own life in a different light. Here was a director who made films that didn’t adhere to Hollywood’s conventions— which even when produced by the most stylistically striking and richly archetypal of directors (e.g., Hawks, Ford, and Hitchcock) left the center of my being untouched. Bergman saw film, not as a well-shaped narrative, but as “a form of art that goes beyond ordinary consciousness, straight to our feelings, deep down into the dark room of our souls.” Fifty years later— with my having evolved into a much more confident and less anguished person—his films continue to shatter any pieties that I still hold about personal relationships and existence itself.

Saraband, the 86-year-old Ingmar Bergman’s putatively final film—though he has retired from the screen before—is in the tradition of Bergman’s best work about complex human relationships like Winter Light, Persona, Passion for Anna, Shame, and Scenes From a Marriage— Saraband’s prequel.

Scenes From a Marriage (1974)— a less pared down work than Saraband— was a commercial and critical success, and originally a six-part television film that reached millions of people. After cutting almost 120 minutes it was given a theatrical release—without the film ever feeling diluted and incoherent. Dependent on psychologically penetrating close-ups and searing dialog, Scenes was arguably the most moving and complex dissection of marriage ever shown on screen. Its central characters, Johan (Erland Josephson), an egotistical, womanizing academic scientist with a stalled career, and Marianne (Liv Ullman), a more selfless but passively controlling divorce lawyer, ostensibly have a happy marriage. But Bergman quickly disabuses the audience of that illusion when their relationship begins to unravel. Though at the film’s conclusion, Johan and Marianne, who are now married to other people, are having an affair with one another. The film closes with two people, incapable of living together, but cleaving to each other in the warmth, sexual attraction, and alienation of an “earthly and imperfect” love.

Saraband opens with the 63-year-old Marianne making an impulsive visit to an embittered, cynical 86-year-old Johan, who has retired to an isolated villa in the mountains. She hasn’t seen him for more than thirty years, despite their “imperfect love” (and he has lost contact with their two daughters—one of them institutionalized), and unknowingly enters a tangled familial world riven with conflict and alienation. Johan’s cellist son Henrik (a stunning performance by Borje Ahlstadt), from an earlier marriage, whom he treats with contempt, lives nearby with his 19-year-old pure-looking, student cellist daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Both grandfather and father dote on her, though Henrik’s relationship with his daughter goes far beyond mere affection.

At the heart of this emotionally volatile chamber piece is the relationship between Henrik and Karin, and though Johan and Marianne’s renewed connection in old age is powerfully evoked, it’s not foregrounded. Henrik wants to totally control Karin (whom he teaches), and reshape her in the image of Anna—his much loved wife who died two years before. Karin has become the only thing in Henrik’s life that gives it meaning. They even sleep in the same bed, and in one instance he kisses her passionately on the mouth, which initially she doesn’t seem to resist, but then abruptly recoils from. Though the film never suggests that actual incest ever takes place. And Karin, in turn, feels utterly oppressed by his emotional demands and rages, but is tormented and guilt-ridden about separating herself and leaving him bereft. It’s clear that when she chooses to assert her freedom, he will not be capable of accepting her decision with equanimity.

Saraband (a saraband was an erotic 17th and 18th century dance) is conceived by Bergman as ten movements, with no more than two characters in each sequence, plus a prologue and epilogue. And Bergman constructs it as a self-reflexive film with Marianne directly addressing the camera in the prologue and epilogue, and with chapter headings for each duet. Shot in digital video, generally in tight spaces, and using two-shots, close-ups and long takes, the film sacrifices expressive imagery and movement to clarity.

However, despite the film’s transparency it remains a profoundly layered work. As usual, Bergman creates characters that can’t be reduced to one or two qualities or whose conduct is schematic or predictable. All four are nuanced complicated figures whose behavior can shift from moment to moment.  For example, the overweight, self-loathing, suicidal Henrik has eyes that are permeated with despair. He is both odious and vulnerable. In one scene Marianne enters a deserted church where she hears Henrik playing Bach on the organ. At first, they talk affably, though he cries when talking of his wife Anna’s death. But abruptly he shifts gears, and displays suspicion and then naked hostility towards Marianne. Henrik’s rages can be frightening in their intensity. And like many Bergman characters, he is totally conscious of how repulsive and insane his behavior is, but his self-knowledge does not make him any more palatable a person.

In fact, it’s hard to conceive that anything else but Henrik’s helplessness and futility could have elicited the love his saintly wife Anna felt for him. And Anna’s ghostly presence and enigmatic smiling photo hovers over much of the action—mourned by all who were linked to her. Though we have only the word of the other characters that she offers some light in this angst-ridden world.

Bergman is not a director who indulges in physical violence, but Saraband’s emotional violence is much more potent and disquieting than George Lucas’ brilliantly empty special effects in his Star Wars franchise, or Michael Mann’s beautifully kinetic bloody murders in Collateral. In one scene when Henrik comes to borrow money from Johan, one viscerally experiences the unwavering hatred the father feels for his son, and his reveling in his power to thwart the son’s desires.

All of Saraband’s characters are flawed, though Marianne, who is outside the familial turmoil, is seemingly more compassionate and serene than the others. She is taken aback by Johan, whom she remembers being “a touch pitiable and vulnerable,” because he has turned into so vindictive and pitiless an old man (which Josephson strikingly embodies by the malice he conveys through his eyes). And why she lingers on in the house remains puzzling to her and the viewers, for even as a sounding board for the other characters’ despair, though somewhat reassuring, she is of little help.

Watching Ullmann in close-up, one is aware that over the years she has gained weight, has wrinkles under her eyes, and her characteristic radiance has faded a bit. But she remains inalterably who she is— indulging in none of surgical make overs that are the stock in trade of Hollywood stars’ trying to stem the aging process. And Ullmann’s talent for registering a wide range of shifting emotional responses—melancholy, irony, sympathy, and tenderness— is stunningly sustained, as well as her capacity to still evoke memories of her luminous presence in past Bergman films.

In the film’s most striking scene Johan and Marianne are sleeping in adjoining bedrooms, and Johan wakes up in the middle of the night in tears, having had an anxiety attack and drenched his nightshirt. He cries out to Marianne “that my anxiety is bigger than I am—I’m too small for my anxiety.” It’s one of those classic Bergman scenes where a character, without a false note, conveys the depths of his emotional being.

In the scene Marianne is warm and consoling, and invites a frightened, suddenly very human Johan to sleep in the same bed with her. They both get undressed, and Josephson standing there, naked in all his aged fragility and defenselessness, enters her bed in order to get through the night. It’s a profound emotional shift in a film that contains only rare moments where a tender connection between characters is expressed.

The film’s brief epilogue provides one more powerful emotional revelation. Marianne visits her catatonic daughter, and touches her face. In response she opens her eyes in recognition, and then shuts them. Marianne then addresses the camera, her eyes filling with tears, informing us that it’s the first time in their life together she has truly “touched” her daughter. Even the relatively steady Marianne carries her own profound incompleteness and alienation. In a Bergman film—no character is free from despair. Though even in dark works like Saraband , Bergman conveys empathy for even his most abhorrent characters.

If Saraband is truly Bergman’s final film, the maestro has exited losing very little of his genius for emotional immediacy and honesty. In Liv Ullmann’s opinion, it’s “the most personal” film he has made. Personal—in the nakedness of its emotions, and the sense of an old man trying to deal in his last years with a life he now sees as utterly repugnant (“shit”). And though Saraband has moments that feel too explicit—Henrik explaining away his psychic states—and where the film’s level of rage seems excessive and repetitive, none of my cavils really matter. Bergman is a giant whose gift for exploring the human psyche and soul make most other directors working today look like pygmies.