Fanny and Alexander (1982)

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I think the first section – the Christmas celebrations – are up there with the beginning of The Deer Hunter for absorbingly sprawling, festive spectacle. It’s a world of chiming clocks, moving statues, glittering decoration. Houseplants and baroque furniture block the blood-red backgrounds; this chamber-dream is a lavish and embellished reimagining of the interiors of Cries and Whispers. We get 12 hours (from the Christmas dinner, at 4.30 every year, till preparations for breakfast at 4.50am) of engorgement, exploration of the “little world” which ailing central father Oscar labels his theatre; a Mannian miniature which can either mimetically reflect the “large” world outside or provide escape from it (“not for pleasure alone” reads the inscription on the toy stage in the opening shot). There’s a bawdy array of characters: Uncle Isaak who complains of “worse people, worse machines, worse wars… worse weather”, the wastrel Carl who lights his farts to entertain the grandkids and breaks down over his failures in the bedroom, the knowingly pessimistic grandmother Helena, mischievous maids, rapacious brothers, and wide-eyed children. Eyes Wide Shut in the sexual side-plots, the seasonal mall opulence; I was also thinking of Wes Anderson’s nostalgia (the facade of the castle is very Grand Budapest). At the centre is Alexander, who seems to produce much of the ostentation through his quiet imagination like Danny from The Shining. Before the credits he is seen with his hand pressed against a frosted window, surely a reference to the beginning of Persona. He seems to will the Hamlet plot into existence through his midnight slideshow of Arabella’s ghostly parent (he will eventually will it out of existence, too).

There’s a second section which initiates the central plot, and in which A begins to learn about death and suffering. There’s an apocalyptic ring to his father’s collapse onstage as Hamlet’s ghost, as the image of him being carried through thick snow on a wagon while friends, in costume as soldiers, push and shout recalls Isaak’s prophecy of war. A is reluctant to witness the suffering on O’s face but is completely transfixed with F by the absolutely nightmarish vision of a cracked door, O behind as if in a mausoleum, mother Emelie pacing between letting out animalistic screams (very CaW). I found this to be absolutely terrifying, a limited perspective that maintains a child’s completely alien experience of grief. A swears profusely at the funeral procession but his father continues to haunt him in peripheral apparitions.

His propensity to make stories out of his situations is thrown back at him by his mother after she marries a spiteful bishop, warning A to “stop playing Hamlet” in this most sentimental section, which takes a distinctly Dickensian turn as it introduces the Bishop as an analogue for IB’s own father. “Love cannot be commanded,” he says, hypocritically attempting to seduce F and A while instructing them to accept God as their real father. This austere middle-section feels the most personal (introducing the atmosphere and themes of Winter Light etc.) while also the most fantastical: there’s an obese aunt that we mustn’t look at like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Harriet Andersson puts in another amazing turn, this time as a snitching maid who encourages A to take centre-stage with his Hamletian schemes (“I don’t want to frighten anyone…” he whispers). His mother claims she married to truly feel pain but it is A who ends up on the floor of the attic, beaten and bruised beneath a statue of Christ on the cross.

There’s basically an escape through magic and the imagination. Another terrifying moment where God threatens to show his face to A in a darkened shop full of puppets and staircases. “The unknown makes people angry” – Fellini-esque detour into fantasy, maybe even Lynchian. Eventually a retreat to the “little world”, though not without continual haunting of A, disquietingly hinting at a Knausgaardian creative impetus for IB to outrun his demons. But it’s all justified, as in the lesson of the final Strindbergian line: “On a flimsy framework of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.”

If there’s one blemish I think its the fact that the almost accelerating plot-development does abandon some particularly appealing side-characters – Carl and Isaak, especially (the latter plays a central role liberating the kids from the bishop, suffering antisemitic abuse for his troubles, before being dumped altogether). This only makes me want to watch the TV cut even more.

Knocks the spots off Wild Strawberries as an exploration of personal memory; rubs shoulders with Summer With Monika on youthful, escapist imagination. I think CaW is the real precursor, though from what glimpses I’ve seen of the early comedies it seems like they’re important reference points too.

At one point Helena talks about old people being like kids, with a lost excursion in between. At the end of his career, Ingmar Bergman made another grand, personal, idiosyncratic masterpiece, situating his imagistic creativity at the heart of his difficult childhood.

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Summer With Monika (1953)

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Like Persona, SWM is a film concerned with image and film itself: there’s a sooty, neorealist opening in which Stockholm looms crookedly like Dickensian London, before the central theme of a blooming youth generation – a “touch of spring” – pushes through the soil in a sleepy cafe, old men grumbling in Ozu generational balance. Monika is far more taken-in than Harry by the cinema (as we see in an amusing juxtaposition of their reaction to silverscreen melodrama). Bergman foreshadows her lack of commitment through teenage vanity: she breaks off their first kiss to inspect her image in a portable mirror, and settles definitively on H the day after with the line “You’re just like someone in a film!”

H’s motivation seems (especially by the end) more wholesome and admirable, but we’re encouraged to remember the kitchen-sink circus-clatter of M’s chaotic bedsit, especially when H ultimately unwittingly repeats the domestic violence by which her father had forced her into his arms (H has actually escaped quite a cushy home life). Moving from this economic observation at escape velocity with babbling laughter to a shimmering coastline put me in mind of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and sometimes also of La Haine (it’s tempting to read the cinematic self-consciousness into some of the slightly hammy domestic strife scenes at the end of SWM, as if they’re both blowing up in the way they imagine adults might – M’s adultery is ironically foretold by one of H’s co-workers on the sleeper train back into S)

S looks amazing in this; it has a great sprawl, which we aimlessly but restlessly track across under the cloudy spring skies. H and M find their own route (love the boat leaving under the bridge carrying cars), escaping the high walls of the venetian waterways into the port in some satisfyingly unadorned and patiently edited shots.

They pitch up on a glittering shore with the confident abandon of Sheen and Spacek in Badlands (the moment H realises “I haven’t overslept!” is perfect). The slow peaking and sinking of summer in this middle section is idyllic and very free (particularly the dialogue, which is devoid of the sometimes overly dry and stilted rumination that peaks in Through A Glass Darkly), spliced with dreamlike natural shots that made me think of the river pursuit in Night of the Hunter and Ivan’s first dream in Ivan’s Childhood (particularly M’s escape after being held hostage at a fancy home). Amid this blissful lolling they hatch a strangely traditional, nuclear dream – “You and I will make something of life,” breadwinner and homemaker, peace privacy and happy children. It’s a strange conservatism but also a view still soaked in summer’s naïve glow, as if social ideals are themselves born from this imagined utopia.

Very heaven, but the comedown is urban and cold (“we can’t afford to see a film”), clouds returning (this is Bergman) – H plugging away at a mechanics like the almost-unredeemed nadir of Fear Eats the Soul (the straightjacket of legal proceedings in suits also recalled Fox And His Friends). Importance of perspective resurgent (H having realised that the summer was a dream): H peering through a window onto his ominous newborn future; a spectacular shot of a shared cigarette but M slowly turning to the camera with a darkening background as if realising that she’s trapped. This is emulated when H finally catches a glimpse of himself and his swaddled daughter in a mirror outside his new employment, flashing back to the summer on the shining waters. Unlike the recalled peace which closes Cries and Whispers or the confusingly reclaimed image that ends Wild Strawberries, this dream seems to have died, swallowed into a town patrolled by street-hawkers scavenging spare furniture and childhood toys.

Pretty hilarious that this was the angle pushed by US promoters in a stateside edit:

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It’s Bergman’s second-most glowingly beautiful film behind Persona.

Why do some people have good luck while others never do?
We have each other don’t we?

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Wild Strawberries (1957)

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After first seeing this a few years ago (perhaps second Bergman after 7S) I’d largely forgotten the tone, thinking it was a nostalgia trip. Truth is its more all over the place than most people seem to think. So many loose ends (mostly concerning Isak’s parents – remembering them helps him rehabilitate his own parental instincts but his mother is left hung out to dry, and his father is almost completely absent) and his late wife. Religion makes a blurting appearance through the rather ridiculous teens but is dismissed with a wistfully ambiguous poem. The role of the unhappy couple is unclear, especially because they trouble the relationship between intimacy and companionship as elements of a successful marriage. Inclusion of I’s divination of narrative continuity to events is accordingly somewhat frustrating.

What saves it is the narrative flow and the dream sequences, especially the haunting opening and the Rashomon assault on I’s wife. M and I ultimately agreed that WS is unusual for IB because it is best enjoyed as a character study (a short story) and a personal illustration, rather than a thematic meditation (running similarities for me with T’s Mirror, another canonical disappointment). Settling for this reveals a beautiful and drily amusing tale with philosophical clothing rather than entrails. Still, uncomfortably between the direct questioning of Winter Light and the investigative experimentation of Persona. Better than the dour but equally weird Through A Glass Darkly but doesn’t hold a candle to P, WL, 7S or Cries and Whispers (29 June: or Summer With Monika) (29 July: or Fanny and Alexander).

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The Seventh Seal (1957)

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Picked this poster because its a) Swedish and b) hilarious. Looks like a crappy sitcom with a peppy slap-bass theme tune and studio laughter (also starring Death).

What surprised me (revealing that I had reverted to the assumptions I held before I’d seen it the first time; which in turn reveals that I should watch this more often [although it is interesting returning to this now after having seen Winter LightThrough A Glass Darkly, etc.]) and perhaps (therefore) impressed me the most was the writing – this must be Bergman’s best script. “Wait a minute” says Block as Death bears down on him on the beach; the latter: “That’s what they all say.” This is much funnier than people give it credit for – I especially like D’s response to A revealing his strategy, which manages to be sinister and ridiculous at the same time: “I’ll remember that.”

Although: SS is distinctly chilling. Each scene slowly unfolds like a flower; no line is wasted. Often tableaux of vitality (the actors doting on their young child Mikael; the little play-within-a-film among the trees ending in Skat’s reflections) are curtailed by D’s appearance, the spool of tape snipped cruelly short. D himself is hauntingly implacable, complicit in God’s Silence. His most terrifying line, capped with a camera zoom toward his staring, blank eyes:

“You’ll reveal your secrets?”
“I have none.”
“So you know nothing?”
“I am unknowing.”

That familiar scene structure of ‘long life –> brief death’ plays out grandly in the central sequence: the pageant interrupted by the stalking crowd of monks, hysterics, self-flagellants. Blood-curdling, and the central soliloquy by the wide-eyed monk is up there with the priest’s terrified spiel in Cries and Whispers and HA on the spider god for most shocking Bergman monologue – we feel implicated as his gaze roams, as indeed we are implicated in SS‘s bleak roll call.

IB manages to craft what feels like a very realistic middle ages world (the squalor, the conversation, the imaginative traditions) and imbue it with his own modern existential angst. Tonally entirely congruent with Winter Light, which discomfortingly belittles the temporal difference (and notions of progress) that separates us from this crusading past. That thick, supplicatory fear that I associate with the religiosity of this period returns in both elemental and ineradicable fear of mortality and a specifically modern questioning bereavement.

Questions of performance and entertainment: Jof’s morning routine in acrobatics; Jons scripting Plog’s melodramatic confrontation in the woods (those woods, btw, are half-Rashomon half-Ulver); the church painting (Rublev) of death at which Jons scoffs – the one of the plague from which he recoils; the actors’ song about Death’s constant presence followed by the marching penitents. Only a true artiste can keep one juggling ball in the air indefinitely – not even AB can pull it off.

Interesting gender stuff here too: Jons’ rescue of the young girl and subsequent boasting of restraint from rape is blunt, and she follows meekly. She seems entirely pointless for most of SS, silent until the penultimate scene: coming slowly forward to kneel before Death with almost Marian and beatific purity, cutting through the inane prating of the others (to which both Jons’ cynicism and AB’s desperation are thereby almost reduced). The wagon rolling off inland, Mia and Jof in arms, is a comforting image, but the young girl is more enduring. (besides, of course, the danse macabre) “It is finished”

Persona is his most engaging, for me, but this deserves its throne for its script, imagery, historical imagination, and variety.

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Cries and Whispers (1973)

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Sixth time with Bergman, the greatest.

Opening with the estate. Leaves and shade, steep lines, mist – present absence. A wreathed statue with a lyre – facing away – cuts to distance then disappears completely. Apollo? often depicted with the instrument – his association with music accounts for his balance and self controltwo maxims carved at his Delphi temple: ‘Nothing in excess’ and ‘Know thyself’. CaW, in which B’s experiments in identity and faith converge, dramatises failure of these virtues, uses them to look right into us. (music and masculinity recede almost entirely, too)

Cut to clocks. Ornate, silver, mechanical, figurines and flourishes. A pendulum just visible inside. Then Agnes awaking: an extended shot of her tortured emergence from unconsciousness – her shapeless pain legible in her gasp, her twisted brow. Later Maria awakens silent next to a doll that looks almost exactly like her, surrounded by toy houses, wooden figures, tiny pianos. ––– Encasement, repression, something occult behind cracked masks. (Agnes’ true voice released from her diary: recurring riffs on the best moment in PersonaCaW is a procession of tortured faces but we never return to the transfixing mute expressiveness of Agnes awakening.

Agnes unseen watching her mother in the garden. Maria and the Dr in the mirror, reading the face: perverse joy in violent interpretation of lines, smile, eyes. Karin the opposite: with inquisitive Anna, “don’t look at me” – a slap “Forgive me!” Anna shakes her head, teary. With Maria: “I know you. I see it all, nothing escapes me” – infliction, but Maria’s entreaties to introspective connection are as toxic to her. “Pity” is their last word at parting.

Agnes’ back to us, tended to at the bed, lank brown hair falling over angular shoulders – christlike. At her death, the vicar’s astonishing plea: we suffer that live; bear our grief to God; bear our supplications – “ask him for a meaning to our lives.” Always abandonment with Bergman: in Winter Light it is suffused into mood and mise-en-scène; in Through A Glass Darkly it is vocalised in barbed introspective dialogue; in CaW it is movement, glances, wordless expressions. Maria: “I can’t stand the distance and the silence.”

This film is extremely unsettling: the cries cut through you at jagged angles, the whispers trickle through the wall behind and burn your ears; but in the clockwork, the blood and wine, the empty wealth, the gothic immurement there is something else that refines the baroque horror of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the oneiric illogic of the black lodge. Ebert was right to note that “we want to look away … we don’t want to know.” Yet it slips through your fingers, sometimes resolving itself into a formula: guilt, repentance, haunting (with Anna’s piety and Agnes’ sacrifice). This elusiveness is epitomised by Maria here:

Sometimes here in our childhood home, where everything is strange yet familiar, I feel I’m in the middle of a dream; I get the feeling something decisive is about to happen to us.

Yet there is in every scene something unspoken by the characters, the director. The breathless confidence after dinner is a resolution, but one muted by music, a mime show. (Apollo intervening? Bergman’s hand over the mike) The elliptic flashbacks are no more  tidy set-ups than the incredible pietà tableau is a conclusion. This something else, it won’t go away – this is the absent presence, the unheimlich ambiguity, the turn of the screw. (Christine Brooke-Rose against “this urge for transforming possibility into certainty” in A Rhetoric of the Unreal) This isn’t the “broken and anamorphic mirror” of Persona, a puzzle that challenges us to assemble it; this is irreparable.

Breathtaking final scene: purity, devotion descending a hill amid Klimt leaves, Agnes’ reverie: “connection … happiness … perfection.” (latter weirdly given as ‘consummation’ in the Tartan subtitles) Despite her symbolism, this is the uncomfortable reclamation of religion in TaSD recast: Harriet Andersson again sacrificed, but now present as we have seen she will remain – then snip tape cut to red truth: “and so the cries and whispers go away.” It is the almost forgotten moment of ecstasy in which she escapes.

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