Film Reviews

A Tale of Two Bastards

Toward the end of Saraband, the uneven new film from legendary director Ingmar Bergman, a character sits down with his daughter, a taut girl obviously under emotional distress. "I have the feeling that some sort of discussion is coming on," he says. Indeed it is -- as it has been for the previous hour and a half. On the porch, in the study, down at the cottage: Every scene is set for two people engaged in intense discussion, either about their relationship or about their relationships with others. "I have a feeling that some sort of discussion is coming on" -- that should be the film's epigraph.

A series of ten dialogues, Saraband is assembled like movements of a concerto -- in particular, like selections from the Bach cello suites, gorgeous and keening music. (The film's title comes from the suites, which contain multiple sarabands, or erotic dances for two.) It opens with Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), the same actors from Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973) in the same roles. Here they are, 30 years later, reunited for the first time. The occasion is somewhat random: Marianne visits Johan in his secluded country home simply because she feels like it. He doesn't want her there, or so he says. When she awakens him from a nap with a kiss, he seems happy to see her.

The initial scene between Marianne and Johan is first tender ("Are we going to start hugging?") and then, as Johan's emotional ineptitude begins to surface, angering. He is as oblivious as he was in the Seventies, only now with an extra layer of crust. "I've ransacked my past, now that I have the answer sheet," he says. "My life has been shit." Marianne asks whether this "shit" includes the years of their marriage, and he answers that it does. "It's still painful," she says. "Not for me," replies Johan. Aren't we glad we came? "This was a mistake," Marianne acknowledges to herself, ending the first act.

But Marianne stays on. Soon she becomes embroiled in Saraband's true conflict, a duel between Johan's unstable son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and Henrik's college-age daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), both staying in a small cottage on the property. Henrik is Karin's cello teacher, and he has mapped out her future, one in which the two will never part. Karin yearns to shake off these shackles, but she stays with her father out of loyalty and grief. Both are mourning the loss of Anna, Karin's mother and Henrik's wife, who died two years earlier.

Scenes from a Marriage suffered from a certain degree of suffocation, and it's a pleasure to add new characters to the mix. Young Karin is refreshing and bright, an enraged white filly galloping through a forest. Henrik, on the other hand, is merely another brute, entrenched in his pain and inflicting it upon others -- though at least for him, unlike for Johan, this misery is acknowledged. A large problem with Scenes from a Marriage was that Johan was a dullard and an oaf; so why must Saraband introduce another man who isn't worth our time? For Karin the question of whether or not to leave her father is dire; for us it's a no-brainer.

There are minor flaws too. Often enough to be distracting, the camera zooms too quickly, yanking back or leaping in and jarring us out of the moment. And the bookended prologue and epilogue, in which Marianne addresses the camera directly, feel contrived -- especially since the film changes perspective and for a long time leaves her behind. Ullmann does an excellent job with the role, but how authentic can it be when a woman sits in front of a large table covered with black-and-white photographs obviously arranged there, turning them over and explaining them to us?

At 87, Bergman can still write wrenching dialogue; he can still evoke gorgeous and complex emotion from his actors. For the most part the discussions feel artful and real, and the struggles are human. But there are clunkers too, moments of obviousness and unnecessary brutality. And the men! Saraband would be exponentially more powerful if Johan or Henrik -- or both of them -- were sympathetic.

Because, ultimately, what is Bergman getting at -- that men are not worthy of their women? Johan says as much of Henrik, but it's obviously true in Johan's case as well. That's hardly a satisfying premise, or a new one. Far more interesting would be a portrayal of men and women who are equals but nevertheless at odds -- or if the men must be so monstrous, of women who refuse to put up with them. At the end, when Marianne offers Johan yet more of her mercy, this reviewer had long since run out of patience. Perhaps you'll have a more open heart.

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Melissa Levine