I mentioned before the prominent use of red in The Passion of Anna. Well, in his next film, we are soaked in red. The setting for Cries and Whispers is almost entirely the inside of a turn of the century house which has red floors, red walls, red draperies. It is like being inside a womb, which is appropriate, because this is the story of four women. Three of them are sisters. One, Harriet Andersson, is dying a slow and painful death. Her two sisters, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin attend to her, but are distracted by their own painful memories, so it is the maid, Kari Sylwan, who is her closest attendant.
As Andersson dies, each woman has a flashback to a pivotal event in her life, and Bergman does not fade to black, he fades to red. The men in these women’s lives make token appearances, as they are ineffectual and like dolls. Ullmann’s character is a flirt who dallies with the doctor while her husband is away. Thulin is a cold woman and her flashback is the most memorable, as she takes a shard of broken glass and puts it in a place that will make anyone squirm. Cries and Whispers is a suffocating, intense film of great beauty and fragility, and amazingly was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1973 (not just Foreign Language–Best Picture!). Sven Nykvist’s camera work did win an Oscar.
Bergman’s next move was quite daring. Though he was internationally renowned director he was having trouble financing his pictures. He decided to do television, and the result was a six-part domestic drama, Scenes From a Marriage. It was a huge hit in Scandinavia. Policemen in Denmark noted that on the last night of the show no one was on the streets. For the U.S. market, Bergman whittled the film down to just under three hours, and it was also a huge art-house hit. The film documents the decline of the marriage between Johan and Marianne) Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann). At the beginning of the film they have been married for ten years and are quite happy, especially contrasted with their good friends, whom they share an uncomfortable dinner with. But Johan meets another woman, and breaks the news to Marianne in their summer cottage. She immediately wants a divorce, but Johan is for some reason hesitant. In a later scene, which bubbles with terrific writing and acting, they meet at her office to sign the divorce papers. They are a bit giddy, and make love on the floor, but before the scene is over Johan has assaulted her. It’s as if the two are locked together in some primeval link, forever compelled to reconnect.
In the mid-seventies, Bergman was arrested for tax evasion. He was later exonerated, but the experience was so dreadful (the authorities took him away from a theater rehearsal) that he vowed never to work there again. He relocated to Munich, and made a deal with Dino DeLaurentiis (that just doesn’t sound right). He now had all sorts of money to work with, and the result was one of his biggest duds, The Serpent’s Egg. The film was in English, but set in Weimar Germany. It concerns an American circus performer, David Carradine, as he gets involved with sinister, proto-Nazi psychological experiments. It was Bergman’s homage to the German expressionism films of the twenties and thirties, and it just doesn’t work. In the supplemental materials, Ullmann thinks it’s because Bergman, now flush with funds, abandoned his style of tight closeups and went whole hog with production design. An entire set replicating 1922 Berlin was built, so he showed it off. It’s an interesting picture, but not a very good one.
His next film, shot in Norway, was something of a milestone in that it combined the forces of the two greatest Swedish names in cinema, both of them Bergman–Ingmar and Ingrid. Autumn Sonata concerns a famed concert pianist, reunited with her two daughters, neither of which she seen in many years. Ingrid Bergman is the mother, Ullmann is one of the daughters (the other is spastic and needs constant medical care). Over the course of the ninety minutes of this film the two women hash out all the old wounds they have been carrying for years. Bergman was an inattentive mother, and Ullmann lets her have it, especially in a scene that lasts a good twenty minutes. This is the kind of film that makes you examine your own relationships with your family members, and if you’re lucky they are better than they are in Bergman films.
In the early eighties Bergman announced he was retiring, and his last film was to be Fanny and Alexander. In many ways, the resulting film was a catharsis for him, as well as being unlike anything he had ever done before. For one thing it was a spectacle, involving lavish sets and costumes and a huge cast. It is the story of two children, who first are in a large, boisterous family of theater professionals. But after their beloved father dies, their mother (played by Ewa Fröling, a lookalike of Liv Ullmann) marries a severe bishop, and the kids are plunged into a Dickensian nightmare. Their grandmother, with the assistance of a kindly Jewish antiques dealer, endeavors to rescue them.
Early on in the film, Alexander plays with a magic lantern, which is a key touchstone in Bergman’s life and works. It was with this kind of toy that he first discovered a love of cinema, and he titled his autobiography Magic Lantern to boot. Fanny and Alexander is the kind of film that is for serious film lovers, a sumptuous feast of the senses. After I saw it for the first time I walked out of the theater emotionally wrung out.
Bergman did not completely retire. He continued to write scripts, and directed a few more films, some for TV. One of them as After the Rehearsal, with Josephson and Lena Olin, which I liked so much I saw it twice in a few weeks over at the Lincoln Plaza cinemas, but it is not available on DVD. His last directorial effort turned out to be Saraband, which reunited the characters of Johan and Marianne from Scenes from a Marriage, now old and long estranged. Marianne decides to visit him for reasons she’s not quite sure of, and ends up in the middle of a squabble involving Johan’s ineffectual son and his granddaughter, who is a talented cellist. The film is a series of dialogues, as there are never more than two characters on screen at once. It has a very theatrical tone, though the recognizable Bergman closeups are there. We also again hear some of the most shocking, scathing language between family members you are likely to hear, such as Josephson telling his son that he means nothing to him. Contempt is palpable in this film.
On the DVD extras for Saraband, there is a fascinating glimpse of Bergman in action as a director. He was in his eighties when he made the film, but is spry. He has a reputation as being such a dour man so it’s nice to see him in lighthearted moments. At one point he tells Ullmann that she is not speaking loudly enough, and she teases him by saying he is old and hard of hearing, which makes him laugh. Watching him work with actors is very interesting as well.
Now that Bergman is gone it’s easy and tempting to over emphasize his attitudes about death. On the Saraband extras he talks about this, and relates that he once had a great fear of death, which is what The Seventh Seal was about. And then, his last wife died, and since he did not believe in an afterlife, he was disconsolate that he would never seen her again. But his friend Josephson gave him a bit of advice. “Just hang on to that,” he told his old friend.