Saturday, July 23, 2005

Ingmar Bergman's Saraband at the Cinematheque

Reasons to see Bergman's Saraband, playing through much of the week at the Pacific Cinematheque:

1. It is probably the final film Ingmar Bergman will ever make, and is recognizable as an entry in Bergman's body of work; it has his flavour. For those who care about cinema, that's enough. Why more people don't care -- why people here genuinely want to eat the cinematic equivalent of McDonald's Happy Meals every time they go to the cinema -- is a mystery and a profound disappointment to me. (And what a truly vapid, valueless couple of years we've had at the Cineplexes! Short of Constantine, which I was quite fond of, in it's silly, noirish way, there hasn't been a commercially distributed film in North America that I've felt would be worth the time wasted to investigate. I walked out of The Ring 2, left Solondz's Palindromes sad because it requires me finally to admit that Ray Carney is right and that Solondz has almost nothing substantial to offer, and sat through Star Wars wondering why anyone would spend money on such crap. Otherwise -- leaving aside Land of the Dead, which I've already written about -- I haven't felt any desire at all to even enter a multiplex lately. Which is sad, because I like seeing films on the big screen...

2. Unlike the brash, loud spectacles at commerical movie theatres, Saraband is spare, quiet, and almost entirely focused on the emotions and words of the characters. It creates a space we can inhabit and reflect in, which, as a friend of mine has said, feels more like life than life itself generally does. Bergman has compared making a film to the building of a church, and while it's not quite what he meant -- his emphasis was on the collective effort of a community to produce something from which the community can benefit -- there is something to his films -- including this one -- that does have the feeling of entering a church; there are things that are sacred, that deserve respect and contemplation, within a Bergman film, and that, in his 80's, he should invite us again into this space -- it's a privilige.

3. It deals with important and universally relevant human themes: loss of love; fear of aging, dying, being left alone; disappointment in oneself; enmity between family members; the incapacity to affect change; the possible final meaninglessness of all our dramas, and the anxiety and emptiness this leaves us with. To see a film that actually has the ambition and courage to grapple with these things is, alas, an exceptional experience for reflective adults...

4. It contains fine and moving performances from Erland Josephsen and Liv Ullman, two Bergman regulars we have seen little of in recent years; Josephsen is in his early 80's and Ullman in her late 60s, so it is uncertain how much more we will be seeing of either of them. They reprise their roles from Scenes from a Marriage (a far better Bergman film, actually); but it is not necessary to have seen the earlier film. Like the best theatre, we are drawn into their lives and feelings and held with great intensity. There is a great economy of means in both the mise-en-scene and the performances, which facilitate reflection and emotional involvement in a way the brash, emotive, visually assaultive dramas of Hollywood simply cannot do.

Reasons to have low expecations when you go see Saraband:

1. There is an awkward narrative device employed, where Liv Ullman addresses the camera directly. This has been done before by Bergman, in Hour of the Wolf, but it doesn't work so well here, seems like it allows Bergman to take shortcuts.

2. The problems raised in the film are not satisfactorily resolved. It is possible that this is connected to the theme of the film -- in the film, like in life, there are questions that are left hanging -- but we are left unsatisfied no less, and wondering why information that could be provided is withheld. By the climax of the film, we care considerably about receiving the answers to several questions (Why does Johan hate Henrik so? What will come of Henrik? What will happen to Karin?) which seem connected to the theme of the film; all these questions are left hanging, as we revert to Ullman's narration, which doesn't even attempt to tie up these various loose ends. We're left wanting another half-hour of film, wondering why Bergman has rushed; the film seems to stop, more than it finishes.

(Note: my ladyfriend, who quite liked the film, sees in this a respect for the audience -- not everything needs to be resolved; I'll see the film again with her and see how I feel then...).

3. The devices employed by the film are not as effective as one might hope, lack the force with which similar devices are employed in other Bergman films. Take the matter of the photograph of Henrik's dead wife, Anna, which we see several times; Bergman lingers on the image, seemingly straining to convey the idea that there is a sort of capacity to love, a capacity for sacrifice, that is no longer present among these characters -- that they lack something, which Anna possessed, which they now must struggle without. This absence could probably be productively connected to the silence of God in Bergman's famous trilogy; but somehow, though Bergman makes the significance of the image very explicit, it lacks the force that it should have. For all his straining, it seems a sentimental image of a lost love, not a symbol of the loss of love in general. One sees what he intends -- but doesn't feel it.

4. Somehow the film's intimacy works against it; we are left feeling like we have watched a drama about very human characters, but not necessarily a commentary on humanity. Why this should be so about Saraband, and not Bergman's other chamber dramas, I can't say, but for me, to speak purely subjectively, the film seems small in scope and effect, where one wants it to be much bigger, fitting our hopes and expectations. Again, all this may change when I see the film a second time.

5. And here's the saddest thing: it's shot and projected off video, which detracts considerably from the quality of the image. I understand why this should be -- but I so love the look of Bergman's films that I can't but regret this.

It should be seen regardless, for those who care about cinema. I'll go again next week...

Post Script:

Actually, on second viewing, it all fell into place, and I greatly admired the film; my expectations and hopes of the film interfered with my first viewing, but on second viewing it all came clear; this is another great Bergman film. Pardon my initial reservations -- sometimes it takes a second viewing.

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