Ingmar Bergman: Saraband (2003) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Saraband (2003)

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

Andrew COMMENTARYSome days, I wonder what memories I would want to take with me into old age.  I'm already a bit forgetful in the short-term, and my tendency to embrace emotion over analysis leads me to think that I'll become a mess of impulses.  Bergman took the analytic route.  He spent the majority of his twilight years trying to pick out what he wanted to remember, not so much for comfort, but what he wanted to confront for himself.  In the scripts he wrote for others he dealt with his relationships and faith (Faithless, directed by Liv Ullman)  and now in his final film, Saraband, he looks back and sees a life filled with time spent on the wrong people and emotions squandered away when they should have been shared.

This is a far cry from the swan-song Bergman thought that he had left us with Fanny and Alexander.  That film was a delight to the senses, where you could taste the food dripping from the Ekdahl's plates and recoil as Alexander discovered new pleasures and tortures.  Saraband is the dark reflection of that film, taking the perspective of someone much older who has forgotten about the comforts of storytelling and theater, and where family is not the savior of your existence but the emotional anchors that will weigh you down.

Why Bergman decided to return to Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman) I cannot say for sure, but he invested so much into Scenes From A Marriage that it seems appropriate to look at how they turned out.  There are fewer Bergman characters that are tinged with more regret than those two.  When we last left them at the end of Scenes they were embracing in the night, holding out against the darkness for just a little longer.  Now, when Marianne visits Johan after the death of her second husband, they are barely able to keep themselves unafraid, let alone support the other.

The love is still there, and when he gets her help to stand up so he can hug her it's a beautiful reminder of where our time should go.

Saraband is a sequel, of sorts, to Scenes From A Marriage in that it revisits Johan and Marianne.  While viewing the previous film does add a lot of emotional resonance to their reunion, Bergman establishes their long history early on with Marianne recollecting their past over a table of photographs.  This scene distills, in some way, the essence of cinema for Bergman.  She let's her fingers linger over the various pictures and we see she as a young woman, as well as Johan as a young man, and we are reminded of how cinema and photography preserve youth beyond time.  The film strip, Bergman said, the truth told in 24 frames per second and surrounded by darkness.

The truth is that Johan and Marianne have aged.  The truth is that they weren't able to sustain that tender moment in the cabin for the years that we might have hoped.  The truth is that Johan has raised a horrible and needy son, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt).  A son who has his own issues with his daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a concert cellist that both father Henrik and grandfather Johan share an unresolved attraction to.  Johan's anger bred a needy distance in Henrik, who's neediness and problems with Karin have already erupted into violence once (like father, like son).  Anna, Henrik's long dead wife, is a specter over this family - her portrait superimposed over them in their isolation and torment when they all need touch the most.

This movie is drawn out like a long defeated sigh.  There are bursts of emotion, yes, and monologues revealing long gestating fears and hatreds but this is all about people trying with little effect to get their life's affairs in order.  Bergman's longtime enemy, time, makes one appearance with the clock at the beginning and we're left to linger over the effects of it's passing.  Anna's portrait makes her appearance to remind us that there was one person that this terrified family used to be able to gather around, and now she is gone leaving everyone to face each new day alone.

Bergman could not be more naked in his ambition to try and make some sense of the role time has played in his fears.  Between the images of Marianne and Johan young and old, as well as Karin's vibrant youth contrasted with the environment around her, Bergman is attempting to exorcise himself of the torture of growing old.  There is no comfort in the end.  The last image we have of Marianne and Johan together is a cruel reversal of their old selves, scared and alone even though they're in the bed together, Johan stained with diarrhea and Marianne afraid to get soiled.

Karin is another in a long line of tortured and brilliant Bergman protagonists.

This is, very nearly, the most shattering of Bergman's films.  Were it not for the feelings of selfless love so brutally ignored in Autumn Sonata this would be more painful.  What keeps the presence of time and lost hopes is a common thread of uplift throughout Bergman's films.  In the end, it is still Marianne that is able to reconnect with her sick daughter because, as we see in a beautiful moment, Marianne still has faith.  Bergman, that self-loathing Atheist, still holds out hope for Marianne and, I hope, for all of us.

The unfortunate truth of Saraband is that there are some wonderful individual shots and the whole thing is fairly well put together, but the lack of Sven Nykvist as cinematographer is sorely felt.  Bergman worked with a team of five different cinematographers to try and get this film right, and while the naturalism is there the beauty and horror dancing across the faces of our performers is not as powerfully utilized as Nykvist might have been able to do.  Nykvist became another reminder of the time Bergman rails against here in Saraband as he was struck mute with aphasia in 1998.

Then that leaves our performers.  Erland Josephson taps into Johan's fears and barely repressed anger in several terrifying moments, proving that he still could command the screen with his presence, but still radiated gentle warmth when needed.  New to the Bergman scene were performers Borje Ahlstedt and Julia Dufvenius, and they both were able to plumb the confused depths of their angry and mutual attraction and repulsion to one another as father and daughter.

Some people just want to isolate themselves too far from our touch.

Now that leaves us where the films starts and ends, with the greatest of all Bergman's actresses, Liv Ullman.  She acted primarily in Bergman's films, taking odd jobs here and there, directed one of his screenplays and her only child came from her romance with him.  Ullman (and, it must be said, Josephson) bares the character open in a way many other performers would be scared to.  It's her eyes that recall all the love and pain between Johan and herself, it's her wistful grin that brings the past to life, and it's her strength that keeps Karin afloat through this difficult phase in her life.  Ullman has never delivered anything less than an excellent performance, and it's fitting that Bergman would close his career by showing us the strength that Ullman's character has.

Saraband is the kind of film that you might expect Bergman to close out his career with.  Fanny and Alexander now, it seems, was a joyful recollection that he wished to leave behind.  Saraband allowed him to exorcise his demons one last time before dying four years later.

While I am done with Bergman's films I am going to take one more week to go over what I've felt and learned rewatching all of his movies, as well as saying a few sad words for the films I still have yet to see.  It's been an emotional battles at times with these films, and for those of you who have stuck around, thank you.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Saraband (2003)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson,  Borje Ahlstedt and Julia Dufvenius.

Posted by Andrew

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