Judge Brett Cullum hereby joins the long list of critics who gush over Bergman.
A cinema legend composes his last song…
What is the difference between "psychological realism" and "universal myth" when it comes to cinema? Perhaps the career of Ingmar Bergman could be a quintessential illustration of the debate when we look at the two bookends he has created with Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and Saraband (2003). When he made his first films back in the late '40s, Bergman was obsessed with molding a stark psychological realism seldom seen in the artifice of the cinematic medium. He revolutionized movies by creating emotional x-rays of the human beings who knocked around his films in various states of tortured being. Saraband is typical Bergman, but it feels revolutionary because nobody has quite mastered his style before or since. Bergman has become the mythical auteur, working in his own unique world that has transcended merely capturing life on celluloid. He is now the master artist delivering what he says is his last work. Saraband feels undeniably real, but it also transcends itself to become the arty pulp myth is made of.
Facts of the Case
Thirty years have passed since their divorce, and Marianne (Liv Ullman, Persona) gets a nagging urge to visit her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson, Love). She arrives at his country estate, and finds Johan and his fractured family. Johan's son Henrik (Borje Ahstedt, The Rabbit Man) seems destined to ruin his life over the loss of his wife, who passed away a couple of years ago. Henrik uses his grief as a weapon to keep his innocent daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius, Suxxess) dangerously close to him. Marianne has merely come to bring closure to her curiosity, but soon finds herself trapped in the middle of a family drama that seems destined to have an unhappy ending.
I don't want to reveal too much, because this is a film symphony of the highest order. You need to discover what it all means on your own, but I will try to highlight some basic themes I reacted to in my screening of the film. Bergman always works from autobiographical material, and the implications here relate to how he dealt with the loss of his real-life wife. The movie can be a portrait of how we create misery as a basic human need in response to grief. Worse than that, we need to inflict our misery on others to make sure it is quantified and made real. The movie is about the crushing weight of time, and how we still reach for the familiar in the dark of the night even when we know it will not always be found. Saraband presents three parents performing a ritualized penitence again and again for their failings with their children. Everyone is seeking an elusive spiritual peace which always seems just out of grasp. It's filled with melancholy wisdom and a strange peace that contradicts the constantly swirling tumult.
Back in 1982, after the release of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman announced he was retiring from film permanently. Of course he still worked extensively in stage, television, and as a script writer. Saraband is not by definition a movie, because it was a 2003 production for German broadcast on the small screen. Despite all of these claims this is not a formal release, he did recut the film for theaters, and it debuted here in the States on the art house circuit. Plenty of people wanted to make it an official movie for Bergman. The director was invited to enter Cannes and the Venice Film Festival, but he decided to snub both events and continue working on his theatrical edit. Saraband is not eligible for any Oscar nominations because it debuted on the small screen, exactly like Scenes From a Marriage did before it. That's probably a lucky thing for other filmmakers looking for Oscar gold. Ingmar Bergman doesn't seem to need the accolades from the film world.
Despite its origins, everything about Saraband feels cinematic. The production was filmed in high definition digital video, but Bergman uses this medium completely differently from his peers. While George Lucas exploited the medium to do things like replace actors with computer-generated beasts, manipulate expressions of performances he did not like, and add idealized special effects, the Swedish auteur uses the starkness to unforgivably reveal every craggy wrinkle on the surface of his actors. There is no fantasy to the film; he is using the digital medium to expose reality rather than hide it under a glossy sheen. Part of Bergman's style is felt in his extended close-ups, where the camera impossibly hovers two inches from an actor for an uncomfortably long time. He holds these shots at least three beats beyond what an average filmmaker would dare to do. It reveals emotion so effectively that the narrative takes a back seat to the acting of the talented cast of performers.
The title Saraband comes from several Bach compositions for cello created as dances for couples. Not only do many of the characters in the movie play these Sarabands on stereos (or actually on cellos—Karin is portrayed as a prodigy), but the term fits the style of the film. There are only five characters in the film, and we never see more than two at a time in ten scenes that are numbered throughout the film. Every sequence is a dance between two actors, and each is revealing and dramatic. It all plays out as strangely formal. Important events often take place off screen, or fall out of frame. Bergman is the master of not showing you too much, and doling out just enough information through heartfelt confessions by the characters so that you feel the story more than you are shown it.
The only extra found on this edition of Saraband is a forty-minute look at its making. That's not a bad thing, because this is a film that shouldn't have a commentary. The acting and the story explain the project so well it needs no interpretation. A track talking over this film would be an insult. What we do get to see in the documentary is something mesmerizing. I never understood why it always took a certain type of actor to work with Ingmar Bergman, but the making-of feature shows he has control of everything. He tells actors how to hold their heads, how to say lines, when to look up, and even when to blink. The actors aren't the only ones held to this peculiar control. Bergman looks at every detail on his set, from the seam on a costume to the placement of a mushroom in a forest. He's behind the camera more often than not, and for an eighty year old man makes Quentin Tarantino look like he is in bad need of a Starbucks triple shot of espresso to match his energy. This is a Swedish tyrant who demands a lot of his cast and crew. Lesser actors or collaborators would run for the hills within minutes of being on his set.
Sony delivers all the respect a film like this demands in the technical department. The transfer is a high definition visual treat that perfectly preserves the luminosity of Saraband. In certain scenes you can see every line in a face, and even note tears welling up in the corners of the eyes. Bad flesh tones could kill the movie, but thankfully they are spot on. The audio is clear and crisp; anything above a simple stereo track would be superfluous. All we have to listen to is dialogue and music, so two channels and some bass make the perfect trio. This is a classic film given a loving transfer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I had a friend over for dinner while I watched Saraband. I asked him what it all meant and he said "Um…People in Deutschland are just as dysfunctional as they are here, I guess." My response was a terse "Yeah, I saw that too." For some this is going to be a long ride of a film. It's subtitled, glacial, and relentlessly arty. It's deep and obtuse for those wishing just to escape for a couple of hours, and it's a lot of work to watch. Ever been to a wine tasting where someone spit out the most expensive glass of the lot? I imagine for some Saraband will be far too rich and complex.
Many people are holding off viewing Saraband until they can get their hands on Criterion's excellent pressing of Scenes From a Marriage. It's not necessary to have seen the first movie to enjoy this new one. They are as different as night and day, and the only advantage to seeing the former is getting some history on the two protagonists (which is rarely brought up after their first interaction). Bergman isn't interested in the past—not of his characters, and not of his own legacy in film. With Saraband he is turning in his notice of retirement for the future. He is ushering in a new medium of digital video, and showing the world his truth can still be found no matter how he decides to present it. Saraband reminds us some films can dazzle us with honesty, and not have to resort to artifice to entertain or intrigue. It is a spellbinding work of a master. Every single element is sublimely praiseworthy—the acting, the design, the camera work. Watching it is like sitting in front of a great piece of art in a world class museum. You are in the presence of greatness, and it is awe inspiring.
If this is indeed the last we see of these characters, and if it becomes the final work of Bergman, it is a fitting end to a career of awesome work. Saraband is why I love film. Maybe it's because I was a pianist, but I was moved by the lyric beauty which turns the story in to a symphony of violent emotion held in the eyes of characters who are singing what life and love is all about. Truly great art should give us insights in to life, and Saraband does that and more. It whispers about the myths of age and regret, it lets our confusion run riot, and it also comforts us with the idea that even in the twilight of our lives there will be an honest love waiting for us.
Guilty of being an honest, dazzling masterwork of film. Forget all the puerile attempts at depth in mainstream Hollywood—this is the real deal.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of Saraband
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