Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel)

Bergman on the set with cameraman Sven Nyqvist (left)

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (Såsom i en spegel)                    A                    
Sweden  (89 mi)  1961 d:  Ingmar Bergman

It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.
―Karin (Harriet Andersson)

A film that explores the frail hopelessness of the human condition, particularly as society veers away from the help and sustenance of God, as standing on one’s own in the face of a bleak reality can be a cold and isolating existence, cut off from the world around them, as if left on an island, with no shelter from the storm.  This frightening reality grows darker and even more intense when viewed through the lens of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, as one is drawn into real and unreal worlds, unable to distinguish between them, leaving others helpless in their utter futility to rescue those afflicted from their inner demons.  Curiously, the film is dedicated to Bergman’s wife, Käbi Larete, a concert pianist who was friends with Bartok and Stravinsky, though it provides one of the most extraordinary performances in any Bergman film, allowing Harriet Andersson (away from working class roles) to literally distinguish herself in ways few had ever seen before, baring her soul for cinema in an unflinching depiction of a mental breakdown, much of it described as it’s happening, offering a window to her soul, allowing viewers to see into the unknowable.  At the time, few films touched upon this subject, and fewer still did so with any degree of reflection, like THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957), where actress Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for playing a character with a multiple personality disorder, as others accentuated the crude treatment methods, including electro-shock treatments and even lobotomies, as in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959), an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, whose older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, eventually subjected to a lobotomy.  In a Bergman film, it’s less reality based and more theatrically constructed, where a dysfunctional family environment contributes to the episodic reaction that slowly unravels before our eyes.  The first in the director’s Faith Trilogy that explores the implications of the absence of God, acknowledging human limitations in our ability to see clearly, delving into an existential void of despair, passionate in a preoccupation with deeply personal problems, this is less religious than overtly confessional, where precious secrets are continually revealed, with a family on holiday at a secluded island home, beautifully capturing the long Scandinavian summer days, with radiantly lit close-ups of faces (a predecessor to Persona), adding up to an extremely intimate chamber drama elegantly shot by Sven Nykvist, who he would work with for the rest of his career, the first Bergman film shot on Fårö Island, home to approximately 500 permanent residents, offering a rugged and distinctive landscape in a remote location that would become the setting of future films like Persona (1966), Shame (Skammen) (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), and SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), as well as his permanent home for the next forty years (while keeping an apartment in Stockholm until 2003), building an expansive estate on the island (that remains open to artists and scholars after his death, Application – The Bergman Estate on Fårö), offering a sense of peace, inspiration, and freedom.     

Winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1962, the film opens to the music of a Bach Sarabande from his Cello Suite No. 2, Pablo Casals - 4. Sarabande from Cello Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV ... (YouTube 4:04), which plays intermittently throughout, as four characters are seen coming out of the sea, like a ritualized baptism, or a sense of renewal that offers a glimpse of hope, in stark contrast to the Dance of Death that it resembles at the end of The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) (1957).  Apparently invigorated from a morning swim in the Baltic Sea, we are quickly introduced to David (Gunnar Björnstrand), a mediocre novelist living with his two children, Karin (Harriet Andersson, taking the director’s mother’s name) and younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård), also including Martin (Max von Sydow), Karin’s husband who is a physician, each one fascinated by Karin’s psychic meltdown (like an accident where one can’t look away), drawn to her, wanting to help, yet each must face their own personal torment when realizing all outpourings of love can’t stop her mental decline.  The barren island reflects the emotional sterility of David, a self-absorbed writer who sacrifices a commitment to his children by hiding behind his work, acting as if his career is more important, but really it’s just easier for him to avoid communication with his children, which has major implications.  As David and Martin set out the morning fishing nets from a small boat, Martin confesses his increasing desperation with Karin, whose prognosis from a recent confinement in a sanatorium for schizophrenia was not good, fearing he was losing her, that she may be incurable.  Karin, however, is alert and vibrant, teasing her younger brother about his raging hormones and growing sense of alienation, especially from his aloof father, feeling they never have a conversation, as he’s always away on some work related assignment, having just returned from Switzerland, yet he’s heading off again for Yugoslavia.  What was supposed to be a celebratory dinner honoring his return quickly deteriorates in disappointment.  However, the kids liven things up performing a Shakespearean-style costume drama, a story-within-a-story that Minus wrote about sacrificing one’s ambitions for immortality.  While it’s cleverly amusing, literally blindfolding their father before the performance, with eye-opening suggestions that he may have fallen short of his ambitions, yet it playfully displays an artistic side of the family, with David feigning approval though he rightfully believes it consciously targets his own self-delusion as a writer.  At bedtime, Karin avoids Martin’s tender advances, which appears to be a matter of routine, as Martin’s patient devotion to her is unquestioned, yet she feels closer to her father than her husband, as if her father is in some way connected to the divine.  Karin awakes early, drawn to the attic where she hears voices behind the wallpaper, remaining ambiguous whether or not she is actually ill, yet clearly she is affected, claiming her illness makes her hearing more acute, picking up on sounds that others can’t hear.  Visiting her father in his study, after a hug he puts her to sleep on the couch, but steals away afterwards with Minus to go fishing, leaving Karin alone, exploring the contents of his desk, where she finds a journal that appears to push her over the edge, as he has written:  “Her illness is hopeless, but with occasional periods of lucidity.  I have long surmised it, but the certainty nevertheless is insufferable.  To my horror I discover my curiosity.  The compulsion to register the progress, concisely to note her gradual dissolution.  To utilize her.”

Bergman’s trilogy presents a male-dominated world in which women are silent, or forced into submission, viewed as sexual objects, yet routinely ignored otherwise.  Part of the problem for Karin, and for women in general, is that they are treated as if they have an affliction and are not listened to, as if there’s an excuse not to take them seriously.  Yet this is a breakthrough film, in some regard, as what Karin has to say is infinitely more compelling and heartfelt than anything either adult man offers in this film, yet she’s not even viewed as the lead character, which would be her father David, as the story actually revolves around him and his human shortcomings.  In this sense, he is a mirror image of Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), as the Crusader’s search for God is as futile as David’s search for artistic perfection.  Both are doomed to fail, yet David’s sins are even more egregious as he uses his daughter’s schizophrenia as material for his next book, not only neglecting her in the process, allowing her to be subjected to electro-shock, but contributing to her mental deterioration, as the discovery of his diary destroys what’s left of her mental equilibrium, leaving her utterly devoid of hope.  This mirrors Bergman’s own life, feeling the exact same guilt, as he “almost cannibalizes” according to film historian Peter Cowie, those closest to him, literally stripping them bare as fodder for his own films.  While David and Martin squabble together on the fishing boat over David’s misappropriation of her suffering, with Martin calling him a coward, they are clueless what’s taking place back on shore, as Karin initially flirts with her brother, catching him with pornography magazines, but then senses a storm is coming, retreating into the safety of a wrecked ship, literally huddling with her brother in fear during a heavy rain storm, with suggestions of incest, as Karin has a tendency to get overly affectionate with her brother, whose innocence is close to an unstained godliness, using him as an outlet for her love.  Her heightened fears and hallucinations become the central focus, however, showing rapid mood swings and clear psychological distress, yearning to see the face of God, which becomes a twisted erotic nightmare, emotionally steamrolling her family, leaving them grasping at straws, utterly helpless to stop her descent, intensified by the sound of the helicopter to take her back to the hospital, literally exhausted from the ordeal of straddling two worlds, where the film is unequalled throughout Bergman’s output in terms of dramatic intensity, as it dares to venture into difficult territory that remains largely unexplored by cinema.  Years later we witness a towering performance by Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ masterful A Woman Under the Influence (1974), where the family response to silence and sedate what they view as a hysterical woman and then have her sent away is simply devastating.  Many Bergman followers found the film shocking, as they didn’t initially understand it, especially how starkly minimalist and severe the subject matter is, yet it’s one of the more beautifully edited and perfectly concise films of his career, packing a punch in just under 90-minutes.  While there are brief references to religion underlying the entire film, it’s never the focus until the finale when it takes center stage, prominently featured in an overly pat discussion between father and son trying to make sense of it all, with God (and father) becoming synonymous with the power of love.  While this verbal breakthrough is mildly revealing, by giving them the last words, it takes the focus away from Karin and the magnificence of Andersson, as she is the one person we truly care about, drawn to her honesty and the fragility of her weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  This is a special treat.  

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Magician (Ansiktet)

Bergman on the set with Max von Sydow (left)

THE MAGICIAN (Ansiktet)                         B+                  
aka:  The Face
Sweden  (101 mi)  1958  d:  Ingmar Bergman

After exploring themes of death and redemption in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) (1957) and Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) (1957), the director decides to go creepy, with Bergman exploring the horrors of the spirit world in a film he describes as a comedy, yet also one of his more macabre efforts, especially the dark Gothic look, where more than any of his other films this resembles the graphic design of black and white German Expressionist films of the 20’s, including a mute character and long wordless sequences that allow shadows and mirrors to convey hidden expressions from the subconscious.  A brooding and darkly unsettling film set in the middle of the 19th century, when people were still coming to grips with metaphysics and the power of illusion, with the supernatural playing a prominent role, where this film pits an irrational faith in the unknown against the powers of reason, personified by two stubbornly headstrong men, Max von Sydow as a magician and master illusionist Dr. Vogler, who is challenged at every turn by the rational skepticism of Gunnar Björnstrand as Dr. Vergérus, the Minister of Health (two names that will recur in Bergman’s later works).  With an atmospheric opening drenched in the foggy mysticism of Kurasawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD (1957), made a year earlier, where a rag-tag group of performing artists from Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater ride a rickety stagecoach through a haunted forest filled with evil spirits and demons (and a near-dead body), which includes Vogler as a wandering magician with his faithful wife and assistant, Ingrid Thulin as Manda, who plays both male and female roles, a clownish Åke Fridell as Tubal, who serves as manager and spokesman for the group, providing a highly decorative running dialogue that hypes each anticipated event with a stream of flowery superlatives, attempting to create a sense of awe and wonder, and Granny Vogler (Naima Wifstrand), an alleged 200-year old witch providing comic relief as one of the passengers who devises potions, can foretell the future, and literally cackles through most of her performance, muttering under her breath, “I see what I see, I know what I know.”  En route to Stockholm they are stopped in a smaller provincial village, immediately subject to suspicion and potential arrest by a group of prominent city leaders (considered an affront to staid bourgeois morality), including Starbeck, the overly pompous police commissioner (Toivo Powlo), Egerman, a timid loyal civil servant (Erland Josephson), yet led by an overly demonstrative scientific rationalist Dr. Vergérus, whose secret desire is to dissect Vogler after death proving he’s a mere mortal, but who decides to investigate the rumors that mere hucksterism could potentially be actual magic, ordering a private performance in town.  While Vogler is dressed with a wig, a beard, and false eyebrows, pretending to be mute, claiming to have supernatural powers, the struggle between the mockingly sarcastic doctor and the reticently mute magician results in the demystification of the magician’s act, suggesting he is a charlatan, with an arrogant Dr. Vergérus exposing and thoroughly humiliating them at every turn, which seems more about class difference than magic, as Vergérus belongs to the wealthy aristocratic elite who find this sort of lowlife riff-raff utterly contemptible, bordering on a circus act.  Ordered to the servant’s quarters in the kitchen, this less snobbish audience holds magic acts in high esteem, with Bibi Andersson playing a wonderfully flirtatious maiden in town, prodded by Tubal’s eloquent power of suggestion after introducing Granny’s “love potions,” she instantly takes up with the handsome young coach driver, Lars Ekborg from Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika) (1953), while Tubal consorts with a lonely widow in town who’s not going to allow this opportunity to pass her by. 

Withdrawing to their private quarters afterwards, Egerman’s wife Ottilia (Gertrud Fridh) is mesmerized by the magician’s spells, seeking “spiritual” comfort, inviting him to her room later that night, as is Tubal to his lonely widow, where Vogler’s appearance and the mere suggestion of his spells seems to have provided an allure of intoxication to the entrenched lives of the lonely aristocrats, where the visitors offer the hope for something new.  Vogler, of course, has no interest whatsoever in the invitation, as he has an affectionate and understanding wife who reveals a feminine side once the doors are closed, though Vergérus intrudes into their bedroom, obviously enchanted by Manda’s hidden sensuality, taking more than a casual interest, which only draws the ire of Vogler, finding that man’s cynical behavior to be a pathetic overreach of his authority, as coveting another man’s wife is frowned upon on all levels of society, though making a spectacle of it is uncustomarily insulting and rude.  This sets the stage for the next day’s performance, which offers a surprise, as after initially hypnotizing the police chief’s wife, ridiculing both herself and her husband, Vogler is summarily attacked by a coachman he hypnotized, ashamed of how easily he was manipulated in front of others, physically assaulting Vogler afterwards, who is left on the floor and pronounced dead by none other than Dr. Vergérus himself, who finally gets his wish to examine the remains, but in performing an autopsy he discovers instead his own house of horrors, which could easily be interpreted as an intellectual horror film and a symbolic self-portrait, a journey from magician to savior, then to con man, and finally back to an extraordinary artist again.  The master of illusion seemingly rises from the dead, yet remains unseen, where only his presence is felt, like a haunting, where Vergérus is staggered by what he perceives, with Vogler’s face reappearing without his mask, giving rise to apparitions, as suddenly supernatural elements mysteriously occur with no explanation, causing the doctor to grow hysterical, questioning his own ethical core beliefs while at his wit’s end whimpering on the floor in fear, only to be interrupted by Manda, breaking the spell, so to speak, preventing even worse psychological damage.  The doctor, of course, pretends it was nothing afterwards, still insisting the man is a fraud, yet there he was cowering on the floor overcome by dread, horrified by the ghoulish tricks that left him utterly petrified.  Very compelling stuff, particularly the magician’s payback, a brilliant hall of mirror’s sequence happening in the clutter of an attic, a back room of the doctor’s private quarters, which is an interesting contrast of austerity of emotion, as the magician does not speak, using stark, original scenes of the inexplicable juxtaposed against the gluttonous affair in town filled with exaggerated excesses of food, sex, and drink.  The final performance, which comes after the regularly scheduled performance when no one suspects anything, is truly supernatural.

While Vogler pretends to be something he is not, concocting mysteries that are all easily explainable, covering himself in a disguise, where it is suggested he’s on the run from facing criminal charges, yet he’s still a compelling and sympathetic figure, where there’s something about him that is altogether recognizable and appealing, becoming a fallen and despised Christ figure suffering the sins of humiliation, an artist, an illusionist, all various aspects of Bergman’s own creative approach, with the artist viewed as a huckster, a criminal, a con artist, perhaps even a clown, yet they conjure up emotions that are inherently human, which is the beauty of the magical connection between the illusory world and the real.  By being aware of his own limitations, tormented by his own self-doubt, Vogler delights in the fact there are moments when he truly does hold a special power, connecting to the unknown, perhaps even haunted by it himself, yet there is an unmistakable gift or spell that he holds over audiences, as he has the power to touch their souls, anticipating a spirit of a more modern era when performers are revered for their particularly unique talents.  Revisiting themes from Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) (1953) and a stepping stone to Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1967), Bergman creates a high-wire act that flirts with disaster, overcoming all odds of cynical speculation and doom, relegated to the gutter at one point, exposed as near worthless, presented with unspairing realism, probing the depths of the characters, with each nakedly exposed at some point, yet somehow triumphing in the end, where they move on to yet another show, summoned to perform before the King of Sweden for his own personal audience with the magician.  Holding a lifelong interest in the magical world of make-believe, Bergman reaches into his own bag of tricks with this one, perfecting the art of misdirection, as the surface is never what it appears, but who in the audience is able to see behind the curtain, under the mask, and into the hearts of the performers?  If performance is an illusion, a sleight of hands, a trick, then what is the truth?  And if a performer resorts to magic or trickery in order to convey a larger truth, shouldn’t they be lauded with praise, and not sneered at as a charlatan or huckster.  Sometimes it’s hard not to confuse one’s perception of the messenger with the message.  If cinema, like the circus, is viewed as secondhand entertainment, unable to reach the magisterial heights of the noble and illustrious theater, then how does one explain how it makes us feel?  Is it not just as true?  Often overlooked due to the power of the films that came both before and after, with some believing this was a response to his dismissive theater critics, where he doubled as the artistic director of the Malmö City Theater (which may account for the spillover of anger), Bergman examines his own existential issues through a kind of ghost story that deliciously celebrates the theater, filled with shadows and mirrors and forests with demonic spirits, including a macabre yet all-too recognizable Macbethian witch casting spells, conjuring up magic potions, which is all part of delivering a performance, making an audience believe in the illusions and trickery, becoming fascinated by the allure and the beguiling art of seduction (which are always more fun when they’re not fully understood), hoping to gain some special insight into the mystery of the human condition and the ephemeral nature of truth.