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
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
Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Philip Kaufman | Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin | Length 171 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015