(BBC Prize Review)
Cinema reduced to its essence. Without detectable artifice, in this valedictory film, Bergman turns his unflinching gaze upon not so much life, with its hopes and dreams and aspirations, but upon existence itself. And in an extraordinarily moving way – celebrates it without false hope or comforting promise. The sheer will to be, survives the hostile random events of life and the transience of personal relationships and the comfort they fleetingly provide. With non-judgmental fascinated detachment, Bergman’s camera shows us an implacable truth of the human condition, which we each find our different ways to deny.
This is a profoundly existentialist film. Our despair and failures are of our own making, as by implication, is our happiness and our occasional joy. We are defined not by what the world does to us, but by how we respond to it. The illusion of escape from this relentless personal challenge is represented in the film by Johan’s son Henrik’s deceased wife Anna. Johan’s self-indulgent belief that all was well when Anna was alive, and therefore that his present unhappiness is a consequence of her absence, is systematically dispelled.
It is said that the essence of art is a passion to look and a capacity to see. Bergman’s camera explores human faces more revealingly and with greater intensity than any filmmaker ever. I know nothing of his method of working with actors but it is an extraordinary collaborative artistic achievement. Liv Ullman reminds us in Saraband that beauty is a spiritual quality and that she can reveal an astonishing richness of emotion and thought when listening as well as speaking. This is performance that transcends technique.
I did not see the 1973 Scenes From a Marriage whose key characters Marianne (Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) reappear in Saraband. Divorced for more than 10 years and with little contact in between, Saraband’s thin narrative thread begins with Marianne’s apparently random, motiveless decision to suddenly visit Johan. If any part of Bergman’s artistic intention is to utilise the resonance of the history of their previous relationship, then by definition, I am blind to it. However, everything else in Saraband suggests to me that this would be too parochial a theme for this final film in a unique career. From within Saraband itself one can say that Ullman’s Marianne appears to have no hankering for the past or unresolved feelings for Johan. Her response to his night-time existential dread, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, is not one of reawakened sexuality or remembered love, but more a compassionate tenderness for a flawed human being momentarily frightened at the reality of his own mortality. Johan’s dread is not simply of death. Rather, clear-eyed to his own flaws and failures as a man and especially as a father, he knows these are irretrievable and irredeemable. This is the dread of self-contempt and in her emotional wisdom Marianne realises this and tries to comfort him without a false forgiveness he would recognise and reject. The sensitivity not just of the import of this scene but the way that Bergman shoots it with the naked Ullman in silhouette, is a masterly piece of cinema.
Karin, Henrik’s cellist daughter, and Johan’s granddaughter, supplies the future dimension of Saraband and is played with an impressive hemmed in vitality by Julia Dufvenius. Her implied physical surrogacy for her emotionally dependent father, after her mother’s death, is treated more as the only form of support that could reach him, than one of guilty incestuous passion. In this strand of the existential dilemmas, the relationship between Karin and Marianne becomes critical. Bergman’s respect for the moral strength of women and scarcely concealed contempt for the behaviour of men plays out through the relationship between Marianne and Karin. Here we see the only laughter and fun in the movie arising from a sense of solidarity between these two women; the one hopeful at the beginning of her journey through life; the other at an end, tinged with a weary resignation and as we come to see, an unresolved personal tragedy.
Bergman allows himself one partial moment of relief from the unremitting emotional austerity of the film. And it is key. The toughest challenge of all to the existentialist perspective of our world as a function of choice, however difficult the circumstances, is those who are too mentally or physically impaired to be able to make such a choice. As if a class of people are excluded from life. References to Marianne’s institutionalised, totally withdrawn daughter Martha drift through the movie like accusatory shadows. At the end, in another moving scene, we see Marianne appear to elicit a first ever, momentary flash of recognition from her daughter. But consistent to his theme, Bergman leaves it ambiguous as to whether this moment is real or desperately needed wishful thinking by Marrianne. He has by this stage so drawn us into a deep engagement in her emotional life that we both hope she is right and respect her self-deception if not.
I should point out that with a distinctly limited musical knowledge; the nuances of the musical dimension to this film are regretfully lost to me. However, insofar as music provides a satisfying structure and accompaniment to the movie, its ‘dance’ of characters adds enormously to its beauty and resonance.
This is an emotionally implacable film. You need to feel pretty existentially robust to put into it the effort of concentration it needs and deserves. No single film could possibly ‘sum up’ the cinematic genius of Bergman. But as a distillation of decades of impressive exploration of profound themes in human life, Saraband is a more than worthy celebration of the work of one of the greatest Directors the medium has known.