Ingmar Bergman: The Passion of Anna (1969) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: The Passion of Anna (1969)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYAs I mentioned last week, I have had a lot of difficulty remembering anything about The Passion of Anna.  I know that I have watched it twice and I remember being slightly intrigued by some elements, but what those elements are and how they affected the narrative is something that escaped me.  Now that I've sat down and watched the film again I understand more about why I have such difficulty recalling details and am very grateful I took many detailed notes last night.

The Passion of Anna is one of the films that Bergman regards as a "failure".  I do agree with him, but not for the same reasons that he laid out in his two books Images and The Magic Lantern.  Bergman feels that The Passion of Anna is too much set in the period in which it was made.  He said that the hairstyles, miniskirts and trendy artwork detracted from what he was trying to do with the movie.

I don't agree with this at all.  Watching The Passion of Anna for the third time I was more struck by how disconnected each of the scenes were from one another and not whether or not Liv Ullman was in a skirt at any particular moment.  It's one of his interesting failures but it doesn't quite have the go for broke spirit that All These Women did or the really creepy mood pieces of The Rite.  Really it's just kind of dull and figures stock Bergman characters doing the same thing they've always done.

If you like melodramatic monologues you'll get your fix but it's all been done before.

Max von Sydow takes center stage as Andreas, a depressed man who lives alone on an island inhabited by very few residents.  His wife left him some time ago because of his alcoholism and spends the rest of his days trying to shun contact with other people.  One day Anna (Liv Ullman), a disabled woman with her own tortured past, hobbles by his home and asks to use the phone.  After eavesdropping on her conversation and rifling through some letters she left behind he decides to ingratiate himself into her life.

When Andreas visits her home he finds Eva (Bibi Andersson) and Ellis (Erland Josephson), a married couple who are friends with Anna and help take care of her.  So it goes that a friendship of sorts forms between the four of them with Andreas having an affair with Eva before finally settling on the seemingly predictable and restrained Anna.  In the background, someone is killing animals on the island and leaving their blood splattered in disturbing patterns.

Bergman isn't exactly an "action packed" director but I at least get the sense that something important has occurred in most of his movies.  I get no sense of this in The Passion of Anna and that's partly because of some of the stylistic choices he makes which distract from the core relationships in the film.  Some of those choices are interesting but more often than not they seem like a desperate attempt from Bergman to liven up a pretty lackluster story.

One positive note is that Erland Josephson has many opportunities to be menacing.

One good decision that he makes is to occasionally cut to a psychological profile of Anna that the camera follows along to the ticking of a clock.  With it's threats of violence and trauma if she stays in a relationship and ticking soundtrack it hints at an explosive confrontation between Anna and Andreas.

The other stylistic choices are distracting and really ineffective, starting right from the title card of L 182 (the meaning of which, I must admit, is lost on me).  Bergman cuts from the interactions between Andreas and the others to scenes of the actors talking about their characters.  So we see Max von Sydow telling us how he feels about Andreas, Liv Ullman about Anna and so on.  It's these moments that really show Bergman had very little idea where he wanted to take the story.

Most of the observations are pretty simplistic.  For example, Max von Sydow says that Andreas has difficulty communicating and drinks to conceal that fact.  That is pretty much obvious from the dialogue in the movie and it's not like it needed it's own special section to describe.  In fact, Bergman's  approach seems to try and shatter any illusion that this is taking place at all.  But in Persona there's the thread that the shattered illusion may be the product of Elisabet's influence on Alma, here it just reeks of a desperate attempt to make the material say something interesting about itself.

I really wanted the psychological report moments to lead somewhere but are really just desperate flavor.

At least The Passion of Anna does not fail on a visual front.  This is Bergman's second color movie and Sven Nykvists cinematography continues to be excellent, utilizing a very off kilter color scheme that suggests the characters moods and producing a number of striking images. But without a good plot and pointed observations to provide a skeleton it just becomes a series of empty shots.

Andreas has an affair with Eva but Ellis either doesn't care or doesn't realize what's going on.  What's the purpose of their tet a tet then, to show how much Andreas has withdrawn?  Don't we already have tons of clues about that?  Why do Anna and Andreas even bother getting into a relationship to begin with?  There's no indication that there was any spark at all, let alone that they would connect with each other just to "try".  Then there's the matter of Anna, who holds her own secrets and tries to work some of those out through her faith.  Sure she gets the Bergman standard melodramatic monologue to explain but it sounds like something a film student would come up with, not the director of The Seventh Seal and Winter Light.

Curiously, it's passion that is missing from the film.  It's the kind of movie where everyone is running through the motions and Bergman is just doing his "Bergman thing" instead of having any kind of point to make with all the scatter shot images.  Providing an alternate ending to Shame?  Interesting, but self consciously recalling a superior work.  Showing a puppy hung by a noose?  Creepy, but undercut by the many other adorable shots of the puppy later as it caresses Andreas.

It will be some time before I try and revisit The Passion of Anna, if ever.  Thankfully my disappointment of the last few weeks is tempered by the fact that I will be taking a look at Cries and Whispers next week, a Bergman film I most definitely remember.  See you then!

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Passion of Anna (1969)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I liked the cyclical Andreas relationship, first with the Bibi character then, more dangerously, with the Liv character, Anna, who, the more you get to know her the more distant she becomes.

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