THE PASSION OF ANNA B
aka: A Passion
aka: L 182
Sweden (101 mi) 1969 d: Ingmar Bergman
A break from the past, a startling shift reveals a film shot in color, with Bergman one of the last holdouts to make the color conversion, opening beautifully on a flock of sheep, like a Buñuelian reference to the human condition, or a reminder of the grace of Bresson in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), only his second film shot in color, after ALL THESE WOMEN (1964), Bergman shifts to the final film in his Fårö Island Trilogy, where the isolation of the island setting serves as a metaphor for a beleaguered consciousness. Each of the three films autobiographically examine the artistic temperament, with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann starring as a couple besieged by mysterious external forces beyond one’s control, from the onset of insanity to war in Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1968) and Shame (Skammen) (1968), while this is another artist as fugitive film, where the harmony and stability of relationships are undercut by someone who is viciously slaughtering animals on the small island, shattering any and all hopes of trust. Equally flimsy are lives built upon lies, with people spending most of their life finding a plausible denial for their own shortcomings, refusing to grow from the experience, remaining stuck in time, paralyzed, having to relive the same traumatic experience over and over again in a recurring Sisyphean nightmare that undercuts any hopes for real happiness. The raging war in Shame (Skammen) becomes a battle within, an exploration for the internalization of love, with characters finding themselves on an emotional island unable to give and receive love, where Bergman’s obsession for the absence of God in his Faith Trilogy has been replaced by the absence of love and affection, perhaps culminating with SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), where dysfunctional relationships disintegrate right before our eyes, with the roving eye of Sven Nyqvist’s camera intimately capturing it all in close-ups on the faces. It should be noted that the actors themselves were underwhelmed by the film as they were making it, not sure what Bergman had in mind, confused by the amount of improvisation on the set, which was atypical for this director, believing it was less narratively coherent and more abstract, perhaps even unfathomable, showing a distinct change in emphasis, using new techniques, introducing an avant garde twist, with artificial cutaways of the actors as themselves commenting upon the roles they’re playing, adding depth and personal insight into their characters. Not privy to the director’s vision, they appreciate the film when seen today, but at the time they had their doubts. Part of the anxiety surrounding the film was the break-up of Bergman and Liv Ullmann, now living separately, where a certain amount of uncertainty actually defined the picture, where it must have been particularly painful for the two of them having to be reminded daily of their regrets and open wounds that are still bleeding, painfully obvious for the world to see. For the record, few other directors portray emotional desolation like Bergman. The title may also be misleading, as the American title, The Passion of Anna, was not the title used in Sweden, A Passion, not restrictive to the point of view of a single character, opening up the interpretations, as the film feels more about von Sydow’s psychic disintegration and mental meltdown.
Right off the bat, a narrative voice of Bergman himself describes what we see, identifying Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow) as a man running from his past, a hermit choosing to live in isolation after recovering from a messy divorce, basically avoiding all human contact. What’s perhaps most surprising about the Fårö Island Trilogy is the dubious nature of the von Sydow character in each, a stand-in for the director, yet with few noble intentions, becoming instead a despicable character who seems incapable of love, stubborn beyond belief, where his way of handling conflict is brutally offensive and misogynistic, prone to getting drunk and beating women, flying into a rage, where his overall base crudeness is striking, the exact opposite of our impressions of von Sydow as a man, a kind and gentle soul, showing exemplary manners, the perfect example of charm and sophisticated restraint, perhaps best expressed in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), yet again and again he’s reduced to primal urges, where his calm exterior conceals deplorable human behavior. The same happens here, eavesdropping on phone calls, opening private letters, borrowing money with no prospect of paying it back, sleeping with another man’s wife, and when moments are bleakest, he resorts to violent outbursts that include attempted murder threats. All of this reflects the raging confusion that was overwhelming Bergman at the time, internally wrought with anxiety and pain. When Anna Fromm (Liv Ullmann) shows up on his doorstep needing to use a telephone, he pretends to step outside, opening and closing the door, but remains inside to overhear her undergo a personal crisis. Overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her husband and son in a car accident she caused, yet survived, walking with a noticeable limp and cane, she is desperate to turn her life around. When she leaves her purse behind, he goes through it, reading a painfully revealing letter from her deceased husband (also named Andreas, strangely mirroring one another) about their impending breakup, suggesting otherwise it would lead to a nervous breakdown and psychological and physical violence. Bergman highlights the effects of the letter by projecting it onscreen, examining it line by line. Yet when he returns the purse, he’s invited for dinner, looking completely ill at ease dressed in a formal suit, with Anna living with her best friend Eva (Bibi Andersson) and her husband Elis (Erland Josephson), with a delusional Anna recalling with some degree of self-satisfaction that the truthfulness of her marriage has left her “something to believe in,” repeatedly describing a harmonious marriage based upon absolute honesty, “living in the truth,” though Andreas knows otherwise, having read the contents of the letter which again flashes onto the screen. This dinner conversation was largely improvised, with Bergman having a horrific reaction to Ullmann’s comments, cutting her off midstream, refusing to allow her to continue, as if that is the bone of contention in their own deteriorating relationship.
Re-establishing the chamber drama format, this is largely a character-based film, where Elis is a wealthy architect, paid handsomely for his latest creations, yet he’s utterly cynical, to the point of being weirdly creepy, finding his work completely meaningless, the embodiment of a disaffected existentialist without a heart or soul, getting little to no satisfaction from his creative work, taking much greater pleasure in his amateur hobby as a photographer, curiously taking portrait shots of people in emotional distress (sucking the life blood right out of them), with a studio that resembles a forensics lab, with boxes of files stored in the most meticulous fashion. His wife Eva is a thoroughly modern woman, but initially seems overly bourgeois and superficial, as if that is her comfort zone, but she has a serious case of insomnia, suggesting deeper psychological issues. Arriving on his doorstep one day while her husband is away, the mood quickly shifts, sensuously shot in red color filters, sipping wine, with Eva choosing a soft jazz record to play called “Always Romantic,” becoming an intoxicating prelude to love, offering kisses, but she only wants to sleep. When she awakes, however, they make love, though mostly off camera, revealing a pregnancy that went wrong, leaving her feeling useless and alone, always living in the shadows of her husband, only understanding herself in response to others, yet stirring something inside them both, though the mood shifts again with Andreas now living with Anna. Omitting narrative backstory has a way of intensifying what we do see, as viewers must realign the missing pieces, often having to navigate dream sequences that appear like minefields left along the road. The atrocities of the late 60’s were reflected in Vietnam, again seen on grainy television images, but just how deeply troubled people were, driven by a need for change, was also a sign of the times, where Bergman’s Fårö Island Trilogy attempts to explore that lurking contentiousness. While on the surface, this newly developing relationship offers the appearance of happiness, with Anna working at her typewriter as a translator while in another room Andreas sits at a desk working in some capacity for Elis, both speaking largely in coded shorthand, like many married couples do, yet under the surface they remain victims of their haunting pasts, like a weight they both carry that eats away at them, stripping them of any self-esteem or identity, instead hiding from what they fear the most, having to address their own failings, Devastating Scene from Ingmar Bergman's "The Passion of Anna ... YouTube (4:19). With the living Andreas eerily taking the place of the dead Andreas, it’s impossible to forget the stark image of von Sydow attacking Ullman with an ax in the wintry cold, the epitome of communication breakdown, with each hating what has become of them. Punctuated throughout are lone characters randomly appearing living in isolation, disconnected from any social fabric, seemingly untouched by prevailing influence, yet becoming objects of suspicion. This underlying backdrop of anger and resentment runs throughout the film, like an unseen Greek chorus displaying a hostile lynch mob mentality, a communal reaction to the animal atrocities taking place, but also a barn burning, where unsolved crimes foreshadow a deep-seeded nerve of everwidening anguish and dread. When one poor soul is erroneously identified as the suspect at large, based completely upon rumors that he’s a former mental patient, the knives come out, where he’s suddenly a target for all the evil in the world, showing how easily the ire of our wrath is misguided. At the center of the film is disconnection, eroding faith, fear of the unknown, and the elusiveness of love, where we all respond differently to the longing for connection, while lashing out at others feels like a reflex reaction covering up our own considerable inadequacies. Hard to shrink away from the brutal honesty, though it seriously examines the tumultuousness of relationships, where the finale shows a picture of man as a wounded animal, completely exasperated and utterly helpless in accepting his dismal fate.