Saraband

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Both extremes of bad parenting in one lacerating family

Aug 3, 2007 (Updated Aug 3, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:ensemble cast, making of documentary, that guy Bach

Cons:ending(s), pacing

The Bottom Line: A finely crafted pendant to Bergman's body of work on the necessity and difficulty of human communication,


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Preface

Between seeing what Ingmar Bergman announced was his final film ("Fanny and Alexander") in 1983 and his death earlier this week, I had not watched or rewatched any Bergman films except "Smiles on a Summer Night" (though it allayed my fear that an idol of my adolescence would not hold up). When I heard of Bergman's death, I plucked "Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie" (1963) from the mountains of unwatched DVDs. I found the parts showing the work of movie-making (rather than talking about it) fascinating. Watching "Wild Strawberries" (1958) again, I was pleased that I not only still admired but enjoyed it. The Criterion edition of that includes an hour and a half 1998 interview with Bergman that I found sometimes tedious, but that filled me in on what he'd been doing (directing plays and operas and some Swedish television) since his final film.

The Review

Particularly relevant to "Saraband" (why the usual English form "Sarabande" is not the title, I don't know!), was discussion about his happiness with his fifth wife Ingrid (not the star of films including his "Autumn Sonata") and grief following her death.

A picture of this Ingrid (né von Rosen) is almost a character in "Saraband." It is the only visualization within the film of Anna, who has been dead two years before the start of the film. Anna is viewed as a (Protestant) saint by her husband, daughter, and father-in-law. And, by means of a letter she wrote when she knew that she was dying, she even provides sound counsel.

But isn't "Saraband" a sequel to "Scenes of a Marriage" (1973)? Well, it starts out looking that way. After decades of having no contact, the Marianne (Liv Ullmann) descends on the isolated lair of her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). With Johan's philandering in the distant past, the two are companionate... but this is not a Swedish "On Golden Pond"! There is no shortage of toxic relationships, even if Marianne and Johan don't fight.

Johan has great contempt for his son (from an even longer-ago marriage) Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) who is 61--two years younger than Marianne. Henrik, who has quit his teaching job and settled into a nearby cottage on Johan's property, hates his father. Henrik is writing a book on Bach's "Saint John's Passion" (although I come away without even a hint of what Henrik has to say about that) and preparing his 19-year-old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) for her audition to get into the conservatory.

For Henrik, Karin is something of a continued embodiment of his much-loved Anna and a second chance for the career as a solo cellist that eluded him. As everyone else (Johan, Marianne, eventually Karin, Anna in advance, and a Russian conductor also by epistle) recognizes, the intensity of Henrik's attachment to and attempts to control and monopolize Karin are very destructive.

In "Persona" (1966), which also had lots of closeups of Liv Ullmann listening, Bergman made one of the greatest films about psychic vampirism ever. I would say that more than a follow-up to "Scenes of a Marriage," "Saraband" is "about" a man who is dead to the world attempting to live through his daughter, even if she is thereby destroyed. Others have seen their relationship as incestuous. Indubitably, Karin has taken on being the focus of Henrik's existence, a partial substitute for the dead Anna, but Henrik also wants to make Karin what he wanted to be as a musician. His musical training and his emotional dependence on Karin are both deeply unhealthy for her. It is startling that they sleep in the same bed, but in my view both instances of bed-sharing in the film are unsexual. The way Karin bolts when a sexual component appears (out of bed in both instances) makes me believe that Karin has not taken the sexual aspect of the dead wife's role. (Lest I seem hopelessly naive, I pick up an erotic component to Johan's mourning of Anna along with his puzzlement that she could have loved his sad-sack son.)

Bergman counterpoises the way too intense parent-child relationship of Henrik and Karin with memories of the extremely chilly parent-child non-relationship of Johan and Henrik (Henrik bitterly exclaims that Johan was not a "bad father," he was "no father at all" in eight duets. There is never more than two characters in any scene (occasionally, particularly at the beginning and end with Ullmann speaking to the camera, one). The most lacerating ("Bergmanesque") is the one with Henrik's unwelcome invasion of his father's study (Johan attempts to continue reading Kierkegaard's Either/Or!).

The three Bergman veterans and the young Julia Dufvenius are all extraordinary. The "making of" featurette shows quite a lot of Bergman working with Dufvenius, and if she did not rise to the considerable challenges of her role, the film would have failed.

I think that Bergman took quite a while to get the pathological relationships established (or was he feinting mellow reconciliation of the long-divorced couple to increase the impact of only gradually revealing the psychopathology of Henrik?) and the endings -- both of the last chapter and of the epilogue -- are unsatisfying to me, even though there are modica of hopefulness amidst the ashes of profoundly pathological human relationships. And a lot of Bach...

As I've already said, I am fascinated by watching Bergman at work. The parts of "Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie" showing rather than telling about making films captivated me. The 44-minute "Making of "Saraband'" documentary that is the only DVD bonus feature provides more of this. It shows that the then 84-year-old director was still involved with everything. If he is shown looking through the camera less than when he was making "Winter Light," it is because "Saraband" was shot on digital video and he watched a monitor, able to see exactly how everything would look. (The cost of this is that there was not eye contact with the actors during the shooting.) As before, Bergman knew what he wanted and how to get it from his collaborators.(Alas, his great cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, was no longer able to work.)

I watched the "making of" documentary first. It did not "spoil" the plot for me in any way. Indeed, it made me curious about how some of what was shown being filmed fit. (I was especially waiting to see the roll that Julia Dufvenius rehearsed many times would look.)

I also found it useful to hear from Bergman before seeing the film the rationale for two instances in which the characters drop out of the frame. And I noticed that Bergman did not call "Cut!" until a measure or so after the dialogue or action was finished while shooting. This prepared me (or reminded me) for holding shots in the film far beyond where Hollywood directors would (or even Michelangelo Antonioni, though not Sergio Leone or Mizoguchi Kenji would). This practice makes "Saraband" and other Bergman movies seem slow to audiences, but provides a chance for the audience to register what has been said and better to understand the characters. (Need I mention that "Saraband" is "character-driven" even if it has a tragic plot?)

And I saw again that Bergman tried not to waste/drain the actors' emotions by repeated takes (the scenes were rehearsed for the visuals--blocking more than honing the delivery of lines) and very consciously sought to relax the actors (especially Dufvenius) between takes. Both documentaries might borrow the marketing slogan of "Ninotchka": "Bergman Laughs!" For all the torment shown in his films (even "Smiles on a Summer Night"), he was not in agony all the time.

This epilogue (not intended for theatrical distribution) to Bergman's screen oeuvre does not detract from its impact (in contrast to the bad taste left in the mouth from the hideously bad final movies of John Ford and George Stevens). For me, the "making of" documentary would justify the film, but providing opportunities to watch Josephson and Ahlstedt and Ullmann "do" Bergman again was justification enough.

------

© 2007, Stephen O. Murray



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