Swede Dreams

"Ingmar Bergman is, in my most carefully considered opinion, the greatest filmmaker the world has seen so far." (The italics are mine.) Those words were written by critic John Simon in 1972 in what remains the definitive book in English about the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman Directs. But twenty years later, I wonder whether the fickle and demanding Simon would stick to his guns. I don't mean to denigrate Bergman's great middle period, which spanned from the mid-Fifties through the late Sixties, when he produced one imposing exploration of man's metaphysical and sexual quandaries after another, especially in films as diverse as Sawdust and Tinsel, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, Wild Strawberries, the trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, The Virgin Spring, Persona, Shame, and A Passion of Anna. It was during this critical stretch of time that Bergman, the introspective son of a Lutheran minister, turned his gaze from the mystery of God's silence to the relationship -- and complexity -- of men and women in a God-less world, and, in the process, became a master director.

The problem is that thereafter, Bergman's inspiration and insight appeared to dwindle. Most of his films during the Seventies, frequently shot in expressionistic color by his long-time collaborator, Sven Nykvist, suggested a dessicated sensibility, a pedantic director old-fashioned in his use of language, almost self-parodying with stylistic effects. Still, unsurprising with an artist of such caliber, there were moments of chilling greatness in Cries and Whispers (the painterly shot of the plump housemaid holding Harriet Andersson's dying spinster, like the virgin in Michelangelo's "Pieta"), Face to Face (the great Gunnar Bjornstrand's confession to a fear of death as Liv Ullmann looks on), and Autumn Sonata (Ingrid Bergman's Chopin prelude on the piano as Ullmann's dysfunctional daughter sits close by) that countered a gallery of embarrassments in The Touch, The Serpent's Egg, and From the Life of the Marionettes.

In the Eighties, after much talk of retirement from filmmaking, Bergman appeared to take a lofty, Olympian view far removed from anything he had written and directed in the Fifties. Fanny and Alexander, his valedictory work, evinced the warm expansiveness of a Victorian novel. There was a terrifying middle section where the two children move in with a vicious, sadistic Lutheran priest (the autobiographical portions of Bergman's work are rarely other than painful), and a nostalgically peaceful close. It was undeniably beautiful, but Bergman's filmic voice, which in extra-celluloid terms most often recalled chamber music in its seriousness and intimacy, took on an almost orchestral -- some would even contend Brucknerian -- stateliness. It is no coincidence that 1962's Winter Light was roughly 80 minutes long, while 1983's Fanny and Alexander lasted an episodic and dense 197 minutes. Then came the three-character After the Rehearsal, which really doesn't count, because intelligent and tight-knit though it was, Bergman made it for television, as he had done with Scenes From a Marriage.

Now comes The Best Intentions -- but directorially it is not a new film by Ingmar Bergman. The director is another Swede, Bille August, who received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film with Pelle the Conqueror a couple of years ago. The current film arrives after having won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Bergman wrote the script based on research about his parents' early life, completed while he was writing his autobiography, The Magic Lantern; it deals with their courtship and early marital years between 1909 and 1918, the historically seminal year when Ingmar was born. Given the turn-of-the-century time period and personal nature, there is a superficial similarity to Fanny and Alexander that points to Bergman's singular influence. But sadly, it confirms any misgivings about the late work of Ingmar Bergman. The Best Intentions is, without exception, dull, turgid, and unremittingly bleak, slow-moving as a tortoise, and in possibly the biggest disappointment, indifferently acted by all except Bergman veteran Max von Sydow. Even the title isn't enough of an apology.

While The Best Intentions runs over three hours long, apparently that's not even the half of it. August filmed it with a television version in mind, one lasting a staggering and stupor-inducing six hours. It sure helps to explain the high incidence of suicide and alcoholism in Sweden; I cannot think of a more unimaginative love story than the one resulting from this collaboration.

And yet, when he was in in his element, Bergman was a master of concision; like a gemologist, he was refining and further refining his effects all the time. For example, the director was disappointed after Through a Glass Darkly's depiction of a woman's religious/psychological breakdown, which takes place over a weekend; in his next film, Winter Light, he crushed his own previous God-is-love affirmation in a treatment of a priest's crisis of faith, and the film's action takes place in a single afternoon. By the time he made The Silence a year later, the name of God is never mentioned. By contrast, entire seasons come and go like cattle to the abatoir in The Best Intentions -- one minute it's high summer, the next subfreezing temperatures in winter. The common element is in the expressionless faces of the two principals, Henrik and Anna, played by Samuel Froler and Pernilla August, who have the combined warmth of a generous plate of pickled herring. In fact, the only spritely presence in the entire interminable saga is the presence of Bjorn Kjellman, who plays August's lackadaisical, fun-loving brother, Ernst.

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