Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, with Gunnel Fred
Rated R; 107 minutes
Not for the first time, I’m feeling a bit like Woody Allen: both awed and intimidated by the master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Woody responded to the Sorrowful Swede’s anxiety-producing influence by writing and directing the gloomy, pretentious Interiors (1978), breaking from the clever comedies he had made his name with and taking his first stumbling steps toward the comedy/dramas he is now known for. My assignment is a lot easier: I simply need to write a review of Bergman’s latest film Saraband. So why does this feel so difficult?
Part of my problem lies in the film’s subject matter: the disastrous hole that the death of a beloved spouse and parent creates in an already dysfunctional family. Not that I object to strong themes or family dramas, but in Saraband the emotions are so raw, and the characters’ reactions to the death so extreme, that they penetrated my usual “it’s-only-a-film” defense mechanisms. In one way this is high praise for screenwriter/director Bergman’s psychological acuteness and unflinching approach, but it does make it difficult to judge the film on its aesthetic merits.
Problem #2: Speaking of gaping holes, there’s a big one marked “Foreign Films” that blots my reviewer resume. My own ignorance is, in this case, unfortunately common: if a Classic Book is one that, as Mark Twain said, people praise but don’t read, then Bergman could accurately be labeled a Classic Filmmaker. He also seemed to drop off the map after 1982’s Fanny and Alexander. I asked a culturally literate person about 15 years my senior what her thoughts were on Bergman, and she asked “Is he still alive?”
He is still alive, directing theater, writing screenplays and making films for Swedish television, such as Saraband. A saraband is described in the press materials as an erotic dance for two that was popular in royal courts during the 17 th and 18 th centuries, but was prohibited in Spain for being indecent. Future “Jeopardy!” champs among my readers can thank me in cash.
In the film, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), once married but with no contact now, meet up again after 30 years when she, on what seems a whim, travels to Johan’s country house in western Sweden. Living close by, and rent-free, is Johan’s son from another marriage, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and Henrik’s daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Henrik’s wife Anna, only glimpsed in a photograph, died two years before, and it’s her absence that has created an odd triangle among Johan, Henrik and Karin.
All three of the older actors have worked with Bergman before on numerous occasions: Ullmann and Josephson were the battling couple in 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, and Ahlstedt has portrayed Bergman’s uncle Carl in no less than four films, including Fanny and Alexander. Bergman’s comfort level with his actors was apparently crucial, since much of the film is told in often agonizing close-ups and revealing two-shots, as Henrik’s cruel dependence on Karin intersects with Johan’s contempt for Henrik, a failing musician and resentful son who is trying to preserve his own artistic ambitions by teaching his 19-year-old daughter Karin the cello.
Saraband touches on a number of familiar Bergman themes (he not only likes working with the same people but also re-examining the same issues): both the burden and the joy of being an artist; the bonds of marriage transcending divorces, infidelity and time; the power of music to express the inexpressible; and egotistical parents squeezing the emotional juice out of their kids.
But is Saraband good? Well, to not answer that question, it’s an experience. Some scenes are so intense (a confrontation between Johan and Henrik makes it clear that for some, old wounds not only never heal, they get more painful) that they take your breath away. Other scenes are so boring that you wish you’d brought a crossword puzzle and lighted pen into the theater.
Bergman’s famous close-ups can be incredibly revealing but they can also be opaque, especially in scenes involving Liv Ullmann’s Marianne. I don’t blame the actress: the character is less a real person than a useful dramatic device. She is our guide into the story (the film starts and ends with her facing the camera from behind a table covered with scattered photographs) and her visit to the country sets some of the plot in motion, but she’s never really explored in any depth.
Bergman uses the simplest of cinematic techniques (there’s one “special effect,” when a cello-playing Karin, alone on a white screen, becomes smaller and smaller until she is swallowed up by the blankness) and about a half-dozen scenery shots of the lovely area that are such throwaways Bergman bunches them all together rather than using them to divide up the film’s 10 “chapters.”
Appropriate to a movie named after a dance, Saraband is more musical than cinematic, mostly in the sense of providing variations on a theme. Yet it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful in any other form than a film (unlike, for example, Mike Nichols’ recent Closer, which tried to open up a stage play but only succeeded in emphasizing the static nature of the characters’ conflicts). Saraband is the work of a filmmaker confident in both his own artistry and in the skills of his actors. If it’s at times over-explicit and at others underwritten, it’s also undoubtedly the work of a master.