Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017

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Criterion Sunday 101: Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972)

The experience of working through the Criterion Collection is one of having a slightly patchwork introduction to the ‘great directors’. We’ve had a few Fellinis, a bunch of Kurosawas and a clutch of Bergmans, amongst smatterings of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger, so I’m by no means an expert on these grand old men of the artform. However, my feeling is that for Ingmar Bergman, having largely moved on from his early, funny stuff (and I’m a fan of his 50s comedies like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), he went through a more bleak period of introspective psychodramas, and amongst these Cries and Whispers is perhaps a good — if not the archetypal — example. It’s a chamber film, largely set in a single home in the late-19th century, as two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), take care of their dying third sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson), with the help of the family’s maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan). No one really has much love for anyone else, save for Anna’s love and affection towards Agnes, as we learn in flashbacks. These depict each of the four struggling with earlier relationships, such as that of Karin with her husband, or Maria with a young doctor, and each is bookmarked by a brief image of the woman’s face in close-up, looming out of a red-filtered darkness. Indeed, red is a key colour in the film: formally, Bergman employs frequent fades to red to mark scene transitions, and in terms of the set design, one of the room’s in the home is the “red room” — truly a vision of bourgeois hell, though at least each of the sisters makes sure to wear white when they’re in there. It’s hardly genteel either, as under this etiquette-ridden formally-dressed exterior are all kinds of roiling emotions, expressed most forcefully by one scene of Karin’s self-mutilation in order to escape her husband’s attentions (which I’m sure didn’t escape Michael Haneke either). It has a certain cumulative force to it, though whether you love it depends on how you respond to Bergman’s moralistic hand-wringing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Harriet Andersson | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 71: Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute, 1975)

© The Criterion Collection

This is a slight oddity in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, being essentially a film version of a staged opera, albeit one staged specifically to be filmed for television. Therefore, it largely works on the quality of the staging (of Mozart’s 1791 opera) and the singing, which is in the Swedish language but by trained opera singers (about whose performances I am in no position to critique). It’s all very colourful as one might expect given the fantastical and ridiculous plot (pretty much a standard feature of any opera in my experience). Small directorial flourishes can be detected around the edges, like the scenes during the overture of the audience watching (including Bergman’s daughter, to whom the camera returns periodically throughout the film), and referential nods towards other inspirations, such as one of the characters reading a script for Parsifal in a backstage intermission moment. However, for the most part this is just straight opera, and can be enjoyed easily on that level.

Criterion Extras: Given the box rhapsodises over the transfer’s colours and its stereo score as bonus features, we can safely conclude there is nothing beyond the presentation of the film, aside from the liner notes. A bare bones release.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman | Writers Emanuel Schikaneder, Alf Henrikson and Ingmar Bergman (based on the opera Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Josef Köstlinger, Håkan Hagegård, Birgit Nordin | Length 135 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015

Criterion Sunday 60: Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978)

The two (unrelated) Bergmans — director Ingmar and film star Ingrid — brought together at last, the advertising copy no doubt blared. However, in terms of thematics, this is firmly within Ingmar’s frostier territory, as mother and daughter psychologically battle it out in a confined chamber drama. Ingmar was always feted for his ‘women’s pictures’, though the women are invariably under some kind of terrifying emotional onslaught, in this case Liv Ullmann’s Eva coming to terms with abandonment by her internationally-famous concert pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Perhaps there’s an underlying angst of Ingmar’s relationship with his home country of Sweden (he’d been in exile in West Germany for a decade or so), but in any case nobody really comes out particularly well, especially once the red wine — and the accusations — starts flowing. There’s something that seems peculiarly 70s about having a disabled character as little more than a metaphor for the disfiguring effect of emotional dishonesty (or whatever), so this daughter Helena’s periodic appearance remains unsettling, but for the most part the film’s moody melodrama is well-handled and ends with a hope of some forgiveness in the offing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 November 2015

Criterion Sunday 11: Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957)

Ingmar Bergman, and particularly this film of his, has long been considered a sort of byword for chilly existential angst, and indeed the iconic scene of the knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has been recycled more regularly than most film images over the years, often for mocking comic purposes. And certainly there’s a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the existence and nature of God and the Devil — the story is filtered through the consciousness of a man who has been away ten years on the Crusades, torn asunder from his happy home life, not unlike Odysseus. At the film’s outset he finds himself, along with his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), dashed on the rocks of his homeland, hence the visitation from Death. Yet what I think gets lost in that reductive summation of the film’s legacy is quite how comic it is (though it’s comedy sometimes like that found in Bresson, another forbidding cinematic master of the existential — you’re never quite sure if it was really intended or how deeply it runs, and that can make for a confusing viewing experience). It’s a much fresher and more watchable film than you might expect, coming to it only from its reputation, and the ways that it deals with crises of faith never overwhelms the human drama, as the story of the knight and his squire intersects with a band of travelling players. Along the way there are comic characters (the carpenter Plog, for example, whose story involves a bit of knockabout farce) and an understated sense of life in the mediæval era, which points up both the social and religious miasma without undue condescension.

Criterion Extras: There’s so much packed onto this disc that I haven’t yet watched it all (will update this post when I do), but the commentary is by film scholar Peter Cowie, who certainly knows his Bergman. He narrates a half-hour featurette charting Bergman’s entire career, and though he gets a bit carried away at times (stating that Bergman had a “unique understanding of the psyche of women” is surely a bit of a stretch on several levels), it’s still a good introduction to the man’s work. Cowie also interviewed the star Max von Sydow, presented here as a 20-minute audio interview. There’s a short filmed introduction by Bergman himself (made in 2003 for Swedish television), who is, to say the least, rather cranky, and his interviewer Marie Nyeröd made a longer portrait called Bergman Island (2006), also included here. Finally, there’s an audio tribute by Woody Allen presented alongside clips of Bergman’s key films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman (based on his play Trämålning) | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1998 (and at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 7 December 2014)

Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955)


FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson | Length 111 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Monday 12 August 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Svensk Filmindustri

Ingmar Bergman is one of those feted directors of the past who I imagine is more admired than actually watched these days. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but his reputation is nowadays largely founded on the idea of dour Scandinavian films grappling with faith, death, and other big themes. As it happens, these are ideas that come more from parodies of his style than the actual films, though even in this comedy (and Sommarnattens leende, his first major film, is a comedy) there are scenes of questioning doubt and existential torment, not to mention an attempted suicide — it’s all just worn rather lightly.

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