(Above: Erland Josephson)
Time hasn’t dulled Swedish master’s skill or softened his un?inching gaze
Once again, Ingmar Bergman has made his last movie, and although he’s approaching 90 years old, we should all be skeptical. His skills show no sign of waning. For a time, his six-part series for Swedish television, Scenes From a Marriage—condensed into a feature ?lm and released in America in 1973—was considered a highlight of Bergman’s “later” films. But that was 30 years ago. He wasn’t nearing the end of his career, and now we know he wasn’t even nearing the end of that particular story.
Scenes From a Marriage was about Marianne and Johan, a couple going through intense marital difficulty. Bergman has reunited the film’s two principal actors, Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, in Saraband, a new ?lm that picks up, well, not exactly where the last ?lm left off, but certainly without missing a beat. Scenes moved like a stutter, with days, weeks or even years passing between episodes, so the 30-odd years between it and Saraband are just another extended ellipsis.
Although Saraband is a continuation, it stands alone. Marianne is long divorced from Johan, but she stops in for a visit at his country cottage without really knowing why. She simply felt him calling. Once she’s there she meets Johan’s widowed son from another marriage who lives nearby in relative seclusion with his college-aged daughter. Many reviewers have referred to Saraband as an epilogue, but there’s really nothing final about the movie. It shifts its focus to the next generation, to Johan’s son and granddaughter, but the previous generation’s faults hang over them like a cloud. It’s no clean break. Real life goes on significantly longer and messier than most filmmakers are willing or able to deal with. Yasujiro Ozu was able, of course, and so is Bergman. Saraband even feels like the opposite of Ozu’s Late Spring; here the widowed father wants to hang onto his daughter instead of vice-versa.
Bergman has a sharp talent for observing human conflicts without claiming to fully understand them. He can’t. His characters, like many of us, display irrational hatred and unexplainable affection. They’re sinister and pitiful at the same time. His hard-hearted, stone-cold old men are full of fear and his distanced couples still feel a connection buried in their hearts. Bergman acknowledges that a tree of relationships, even one rent by a bolt of lightning, won’t ?t in a pot on the balcony. In Scenes From a Marriage, the unexplored branches are the children and lovers, frequently discussed but rarely seen. In Saraband, a dead woman’s picture haunts the entire family.
Scenes From a Marriage was naturalistic, but Saraband, with its long monologues and paired characters, is almost classical. Marianne is like a chorus hanging on the edges of the story, observing, listening, until the final moments when her purpose becomes clear and she reveals that you’re never too old to need comforting from a nightmare and never too wise to shun a warm embrace.