Tag Archives: Liv Ullmann

INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of , , and . Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that this site asked me to; I did it to myself.

Still, Bergman was by no means a one-note filmmaker. Like Mahler, whose 4th symphony is as sunny as Mahler can get and still be Mahler, Bergman had a more pleasing side on occasion (i.e. The Magic Flute). So, I’m glad to be ending this Bergman series with Autumn Sonata (1978) followed by Fanny and Alexander (1981) next week. As pleasurable as these examples of late Bergman are, I’ll still look forward to something a tad lighter, perhaps a camp fest or a dumb summer blockbuster.

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman cast Casablanca actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation). It proved to be her last film before succumbing to cancer. She plays the famous pianist Charlotte Andergast who has abandoned her family to pursue her career. Charlotte accepts daughter Eva’s () invitation for a visit, despite not having seen her for years. Having recently lost her longtime lover, Charlotte wants to stay at her daughter’s Norway parsonage for emotional support. Married to the reserved clergyman Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s world is a far cry from the celebrity and glamour of her mother’s life. The complexities of their relationship are incandescent, and this may well be the most well-acted film of Bergman’s oeuvre.

Ingrid’s casting was poignant on numerous levels. She had longed to make a film with her namesake. Both she and Ingmar had been in exile from Sweden (the director for tax evasion—he was later found innocent). Ingrid had been harshly criticized for abandoning her family to purse an affair with the married Roberto Rossellini and, after her films were widely picketed and banned, she fled Sweden. Ingrid was initially skeptical because the parallels between actress and role were so disconcerting. She overcame her trepidation, however, to deliver a tour-de-force swan song. Ullman is, in every way, Ingrid’s equal, and although this is ultimately an ethical and psychologically healthy chamber film, it is inherently Bergmanesque.

At first, the reunion seems to be a joyful one. Charlotte has barely settled in, however, when old tensions between mother and daughter arise. Eva, a writer, is also a pianist, but she is angst-ridden with an inferiority complex that she blames on her mother. Eva’s fear of playing Chopin to her hypercritical mother is validated. Even the musically illiterate can detect the difference between Eva’s subpar performance and Charlotte’s sublime interpretation. The brilliance of Bergman lies in divided sympathies. We can identify with Eva feeling patronized and shamed, but we also acknowledge Charlotte’s valid aesthetic criticisms.

A more painful source of contention is the surprise of Eva opening her home to her sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Suffering from a degenerative disease, Helena is a provocative reminder of Charlotte’s neglect and narcissism.

Srill from Autumn Sonata (1978)The scene in which Eva confronts Charlotte throughout the night is lengthy, riveting, and drenched in emotion. Charlotte’s propensity for bragging and her lack of humility, her inability to listen and perhaps even to fully love, is punctuated by Eva’s demand of silence, and, ultimately by her mediocrity. Yet, we also see Eva’s strength as a giving savior/saint to both her husband and sister—a role that Charlotte is utterly incapable of. Lesser filmmakers would have taken sides and painted the scene solely in hues of pathos, but Bergman is not so monochromatic: he uses humor, awe, and sensuality. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nyqvist opt for intense extreme closeups, filmed in gorgeous oranges and browns. It’s called Autumn Sonata for a reason, and the engrossing music (Chopin, Bach, Beethoven) is of equal importance to the theatrical-like visuals.

Björk is, as usual, superb, but ultimately it’s not his film. We go through the wringer with Eva and Charlotte, and there is no sophomoric resolution, because reconciliation sure as hell isn’t microwaved. It’s sacramentally built; and Bergman leaves us with the hope, and the feeling, that it will be built. In that, I find Autumn Sonata to be as close to Catholicism as Bergman comes.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SHAME (1968)

I only vaguely recall 1968. What I do vividly remember was both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy being assassinated within the space of a few months. Even the majority of the bigots at mother’s church (not all, by any means) were horrified, and during those moments, at least, practiced an extremely rare shut-mouth spirituality. It was surreal as hell. Things only became more nightmarish in the years immediately following, with the escalation of Vietnam and Watergate.

A continent or so away, produced what most of us felt: Shame. Bergman was normally not an outright political filmmaker. The extremists certainly sniffed out the moderate artist within him. Not that they would watch his films anyway, being put off by subtitles (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to bite my lower lip after hearing camo-clad bumpkins proudly proclaim that they didn’t want to read a movie).

The focus of Bergman’s anger is war, but reeling from the criticisms he had received from utilizing the infamous footage of a Vietnamese monk’s immolation in 1966’s Persona, Bergman is more ambiguous here. He doesn’t state that his subject is Vietnam per se, which is why Shame is not as well-known as that previous film. Bergman’s ambiguity in a way neuters his own work, preventing it from becoming an equivalent to Picasso’s “Guernica,” which still provokes war-minded leaders (George W. Bush’s lackeys had a replica of  that famous painting covered up with a black curtain at the United Nations). We could see Shame one way: like , Bergman is a consummate artist lacking the courage of his ethical and social convictions (which were hinted at in Persona, although that film did not overtly subscribe to any specific ideology). In the case of both artists, their aesthetics are undermined by fear of being labeled political. In the case of Keaton, it took an artist of more elementary aesthetics (Charles Chaplin) to call out racism, sexism, and eventually Fascism. Likewise, Bergman’s Shame is rendered less impactful compared to his earlier opus and to the wave of anti-Vietnam films to come. Bergman plays it safe, indirectly shifting blame to a God in the sky instead of any persons or factions. Of course, we could also look at Shame as a desolate parable that transcends a specific time and place. It’s not an either/or assessment as much as it’s both/and.

In his later 1990 biography, “My Life in Films,” Bergman writes that he had previously been very proud of Shame, feeling that it exposed the personal violence of war, but added that he had come to be disappointed in it after realizing the his intentions were self-defeating.

Regardless of one’s view, Shame is aptly not a comfortable experience. The story centers around a musical couple, Jan () and Eva () Rosenberg. Although loving, they are tormented by Eva’s barrenness, poverty, and the civil war surrounding their dilapidated home on an unnamed island.

Despite its enigmatic qualities, Shame is still superlative Bergman and startling. Having fled larger society, the Rosenbergs have become recluses, but their imperfect and monotonous  tranquility is consumed by warfare.

The killing of a parachuter, arriving militias, arrests, incarceration, and torture are not typical Bergman themes, yet all are prevalent here. Smartly, Bergman’s focus is indeed a personal one.  When Jan witnesses his wife flirting with another man, he is aroused; probably for the first time in a long time. Later, after she has sex with an interrogator, Jan becomes jealous and exacts revenge. In the beginning of the film, it is he who is weak. However, after being engulfed in despair from the barbarism that has engulfed them, he mantles fierceness. In contrast, Eva, once the romantic, is utterly crushed.

There are no battlefield scenes typically associated with war films, and that’s refreshing. The path of Shame is highly idiosyncratic; paradoxically pragmatic in its psychology and yet, pensive.

By the time we become desultory refugees with the Roenbergs, we are as drained as they are. Although Shame avoids direct political commentary of the era, it oddly become more poignant today because the one pointed portrayal of Bergman’s that is relevant today lies in that of the shameless authoritarian and his knee-bound sycophants, along with the effect of that demagoguery on ordinary lives.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)

The iris of ‘s Cries and Whispers (1972) is a red deathbed of intense and frightening passion unequaled in the whole of cinema. As the filmmaker himself indicated, Cries and Whispers is a film predominantly told by color. I first encountered Cries and Whispers in the early 1980s and it lingered: an unforgettable, altering experience. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I stood before one of Pablo Picasso’s rose period paintings of a maternal subject. It stirs you in a way that makes you feel simultaneously alive and small, and glad to be small before an authentic artist whose mastery is so expressively humane as to be hypnotic and humbling. As filtered through the abdominal lensing of Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers imparts a vision of infinite beauty.

This is a female world, taking place over a period of two days in the life of four women. Yes, it is also about the dying process and death, but accompanied by resurrection and endowment.

At her English manor, the 40-ish, matronly Agnes () is dying, and this is not a stylish, incandescent death. She is in unspeakable agony amidst her kitsch surroundings. Watching this film again recently, it gripped me personally, having spent two days with my father dying of the cancer that brutally and unmercifully took away his life; quickly, but not quickly enough. And that’s why Cries and Whispers is intimately affecting.

Surrounding Agnes are her sisters, Karin () and Maria (), along with her loyal peasant servant, Anna (Kari Sylvan), who maternally responds to Agnes’ needs. She cradles Agnes and attempts to comfort her. Yet, this is also a film about pain; like a late Edvard Munch painting of feverish icy dreams. As a motherly figure, Anna cannot ease Agnes’ suffering. Like Anna’s biological daughter, Agnes will die.

Still from Cries and Whispers (1972)The sexual symbology is as vivid as those various shades of (red). Agnes, never knowing intimacy (white) is dying of ovarian cancer. Maria’s adulteries drove her husband to suicide. Karin performed a bloody self-mutilation in revenge against her husband. All this segues into the pain of distance, of touching and withdrawing from touch; neither Maria nor Karin can look upon Agnes as she gasps for life. Familial emotional distance parallels the impotence of religious comfort (black). The cleric, there to give extreme unction, utters a prayer that betrays his faithlessness and cluelessness, because before him is the Pieta to which he is blind. Agnes attempts repeatedly to vomit in a basin, but it is to no avail. She parallels the Corpus Christi, cradled by Anna’s Madonna: the sole beacon of faith and the sole embrace who draws her lifeless charge to dry breasts. Yet, Anna gifts a renewal from cancer of the womb.

Although faithless herself, Agnes receives absolution, and we hear her alive again in the startling finale. Her voice rises from her journal, and we see the sisters together again in a paradisaical setting: “I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought, Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection.”

232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

“Directors always say—and I think they mean it—that they’re telling a story. They tell a story and they don’t want to have an interpretation of what it ‘means,’ symbols… I think, for example, Hour of the Wolf, it can look like it was a lot of symbols. I don’t think it is. It’s a scary story, narrated very simply, even if the persons are very surreal.”–actor Erland Josephson (Baron von Merkins)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: The prologue explains that the artist Johan Borg disappeared from his home on the Frisian islands, and that this film is a recreation of events from his diary and the recollections of his wife. Borg has disturbing dreams, and the characters from the dream, along with an old flame, appear before him in real life. As the days wear on, the hallucinations become so intense that his wife seems to share in them, and the ghostly party invites the couple to visit them at the local castle.

Still from Hour of the Wolf (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • According to the film, “the hour of the wolf” is the time between midnight and dawn when most people die and most babies are born.
  • The film began life as a screenplay entitled “The Cannibals.” After Bergman was hospitalized with pneumonia, he stopped working on the script and instead produced Persona.
  • Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann had an affair during the making of Persona, and Ullmann became pregnant with Bergman’s child. The actress did not want to relocate to Fårö to live with Bergman (who was still married to concert pianist Käbi Laretei at the time), and stayed in Oslo until Bergman sent her the script for Vargtimmen and convinced her to come to Fårö to make the film. She gave birth to the child before the movie was completed.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When describing the figures that appear to him in his nightmares, Johan Borg mentions “the old lady, the one always threatening to take off her hat. Do you know what happens if she does? Her face comes off along with it, you see.” That’s not just a tease; although we never see Borg’s sketch of the character,  Bergman later comes through with the literal vision of the old woman removing her face along with her hat.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy at the beach; walking on the ceiling; face-off hag

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Themes of creative frustration, infidelity, humiliation, forbidden sexual impulses, and existential angst manifest as a court of demonic aristocrats who lure the artist and his love into a web of madness and self-destruction in Hour of the Wolf. Gothic imagery fits Ingmar Bergman like a comfortable shadow, and his only outright horror movie is every bit as philosophical, eerie and inscrutable as you could hope.


Clip from Hour of the Wolf

COMMENTS: According to Liv Ullmann, when, pregnant, she fled Ingmar Bergman’s arms after completing Persona, he convinced her to Continue reading 232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

139. PERSONA (1966)

“[The persona is] a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual… one result of the dissolution of the persona is the release of fantasy—disorientation.”–Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Without explanation, Elisabeth, an actress, suddenly decides to stop talking and checks into a mental hospital. Alma, a young nurse, is assigned to take care of her, and even travels with her to vacation at the psychiatrist’s summer home as part of her therapy. Once there, Alma grows attached to the mute actress and begins confessing secrets to her; but as the two women spend time together, their personalities seem to merge, and Alma finds herself being mistaken for Elisabeth…

Still from Persona (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Ingmar Bergman wrote the script while in the hospital recuperating from a viral infection. He was partly inspired by seeing a photograph of actresses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann together and noticing how similar they looked.
  • Bergman said that “Persona saved my life… if I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up.” He also said that “…in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go… I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
  • Although they were both married to other people at the time, Bergman and Liv Ullmann fell in love on set and had a child together after the film was completed. Bergman had previously had an affair with Andersson, as well.
  • An almost subliminal shot of an erect penis (it lasts for about one-eighth of a second) was cut from most prints during the film’s original run. The film also occasionally ran into censorship problems due to Bibi Andersson’s long erotic monologue.
  • Persona was ranked the 18th greatest movie of all time on Sight and Sound’s 2012 critics poll, and came in 13th on the director’s poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Beautifully lensed by Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Persona is justly celebrated for its many doubling shots where the faces of the lead actresses overlap; at one point, their images are overlaid in a mirror, and at another we actually see a composite woman made up of half Liv Ullmann, half Bibi Andersson. The most meaningful of these effects comes near the very beginning of the movie, then recurs again near the very end. A mysterious, gangly young boy looks at a glowing screen with a face on it; the image blurs, then resolves into Andersson, then defocuses and morphs into Ullmann. The boy caresses the screen as if he’s trying to feel the face.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The first five minutes bring us an erect penis, a tarantula, a sheep being eviscerated at a slaughterhouse, nails hammered into palms, and corpses in a morgue. It’s an assault of images from a boiling id, but mixed with formalist reminders that we are watching a film: the first shot is of a projector’s arc lamp lighting in an incendiary burst, followed by film spooling, cartoons projected upside down, and so on. All of this before the title appears. Are you convinced the director has weird intentions yet?

Original U.S. trailer for Persona

COMMENTS: If you are a fan of the identity-morphing brainteasers Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), or Performance (1970), or Continue reading 139. PERSONA (1966)

CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman

FEATURING: Max von Sydow,

PLOT: An artist is haunted by memories of his past. While isolated on an island with his pregnant wife, his demons catch up to him. Madness and delusion creep deeper into his mind as a gang of mysterious island dwellers intervene in the couple’s life. A secret, scandalous affair surfaces, and when supernatural forces intervene, the couple’s relationship and sanity is strained.

Still from Hour of the Wolf [Vargtimmen] (1968)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a tough film to decipher. The ending is certainly weird, but the lead-up to that point is too ponderous and ambiguous. Bergman is a master and his lone foray into the horror genre is an excellent piece of film-making; his artistry in delving into the lower depths of the human psyche is better established in his other well-known masterpieces, however.

COMMENTS: The older I get, the more I appreciate Ingmar Bergman films. There is something about Swedish movies that encapsulates human existence like no other country. Scenes are left dangling on a thread waiting to snap. The slow, or still, images can verge on monotony, but are usually necessary to convey the pathos of the souls here. Sometimes watching scenes slowly transpire is the best way to fully grasp how life can unravel around us. A scene in this film actually plays out for an entire minute with the main character staring at his watch to express how even sixty seconds can feel like an eternity. Time can sometimes lay heavy on a burdened mind. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Bergman is amazing at capturing exactly what it means to be human. We sin and regret, yet we still long for penance and understanding. Even when our existence feels loathsome, it sure is nice to have someone else around to share in our misery. Modern Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, The Living) knows this as well and, like Bergman, his films are wrought with longing stares of sadness.  Both Swedes capture these depressing moments and bring them alive with precise balance and well thought out execution.  Even dialogue is matter-of-fact.  Nothing said in their films seems to be unimportant or drivel; it’s Continue reading CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)