2003Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Borje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius
y Life has been shit; a thoroughly idiotic and meaningless existence.”
So says Johan to his ex-wife Marianne who has returned to visit him after a long period of separation. Funny how he can identify the abhorrence he has created, but remains powerless to rectify his wrongs. Here is a man drained of vitality by the limitless acrimony he harbors. He contemplates how it has led him here: to an isolated home buried deep within the woods, with a son whom he hates, and who returns his hatred ten fold.
Marianne appears to have no motive for visiting her estranged ex-husband (now old and haggard after 85 years of existence), but as Bergman takes us deeper into Johan’s personal hell, we gather that for Marianne this is a quest for salvation, not only to save Johan from the bitterness he has sown in his own life, but to free herself and those around him from the same burden.
Those familiar with Bergman’s past work will recognize these characters from his 1973 masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage, to which this serves as a sequel. That film, which scathingly depicted the tragic unraveling of a marriage over its epic six hour runtime, showed young love at its most honest and harrowing. That Saraband focuses its attention in a slightly different direction speaks for the type of growth and change Johan and Marianne’s love has undergone.
Hey, what's Ben Kingsley doing here?
The film isn’t merely a cheerful reunion and reflection between former lovers. Marianne returns to Johan to find his life in barely concealed turmoil. So venomous is his son Henrik’s hatred of him that when Marianne finally encounters him he confides to her that he would take pleasure in watching his father suffer painfully on his deathbed. In turn, Henrik, still distraught over his wife Anna’s passing two years earlier, has channeled all his energy into his daughter Karin whom he instructs at playing the cello, his tutelage over her so intense at times that it approaches insanity. Though the film never utters it directly, it suggests that in Karin, Henrik has established a replacement for Anna both platonically and carnally.
Marianne uses her tenderness to forge a relationship with Karin. She understands the situation perhaps because she remembers what it means to be tied to someone. Yet every attempt by both her and Johan to free her from her father’s desperate grip is met with resistance from Karin herself. She realizes that her father stifles her progress by confining her here, but also believes in her heart that he would die without her companionship. For Bergman there is no easy way out, and he never concedes to having a perfect solution for the dilemmas he orchestrates.
Saraband will come as a pleasant surprise for those who believed the director honestly retired from film after Fanny and Alexander. For others it will remind them that the aging master did not in fact die during his twenty year absence.
It’s startling how relevant Bergman remains even after all these years. While recent mediocre offerings from directors such as Godard and Antonioni lend credence to the argument that they’ve grown tired and out-dated, Bergman’s vision has remained resolute and one believes that in film, despite his pessimistic outlook on life, he has found an eternally youthful method by which to communicate this dismal, dreary message. Even after a twenty year prolonged silence his work remains just as potent and fiery as when he left us.
Miraculously, he accomplishes this not by altering his style as the times would suggest, but by refusing to dilute the buried contempt and aggression that fixates him so. With Bergman one can expect at least two things, an unrelenting confession of one character’s pent up hatred for another, and an extreme examination of the human face (usually at a moment of revelation caused by a great pain).
"Oh father, you are so beautifully withered..."
Not since The Passion of Joan of Arc has a film maker examined the human face so thoroughly. Bergman confronts many of the film’s most intense moments with long takes, usually in extreme closeup. Where other directors might attempt to influence our reaction through editing, Bergman allows us nothing other than the characters facial features to ponder. He finds ultimate truth in their visage; why bother dressing it up in any other way? Any cut he could provide would only weaken its honesty and rob it of its sublimity.
Through it all the film remains painstakingly beautiful, as one would expect from Bergman, but it is not without its flaws as things get off to a goofy start when Marianne addresses the audience directly in a technique rather uncharacteristic of Bergman. Thankfully he doesn’t linger on these scenes for long, and soon enough the raw emotion bubbles to the surface and we’re sucked into Bergman’s world where after nearly 60 years of film making he has concluded that there is little hope for reconciliation or redemption for the poor souls too proud to seek it.
The film may not resonate with viewers who have not seen its precursor, Scenes from a Marriage or for those unaccustomed to Bergman and unwilling to attempt such an appreciation. As always, there exists another way of approaching the film as demonstrated by the young couple who walked out a mere ten minutes into it. Moments into the start of the first act the young lady turned to her lover and exclaimed quite boldly “This sucks! This film sucks ass!” In a movie filled with such tender sadness and bitter tragedy, that moment remains the most heartbreaking.