DVD Review Of Saraband

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/12/06


  In 2003 Swedish film legend Ingmar Bergman made his last film ever- although he’s said that before, some two decades after his prior farewell to film with Fanny And Alexander. He should have never come back after that valedictory, for his effort, Saraband, a supposed sequel to his 1973 Swedish television smash Scenes From A Marriage, is a bad film- the worst I’ve yet to see from Bergman, and a bad film by any measure. His other ‘bad’ films, Cries And Whispers and The Serpent’s Egg, at least had some redeeming features, as the former was overall, a good solid film, while the latter showed some potential near the end. Saraband, by contrast, is an utter void, and takes all of Bergman’s worst tendencies, shoves them all together in one film, recycles the worst parts of a half dozen other of his films, and the concoction is godawful, starting with the abysmal writing. I believe Ingmar Bergman, as a screenwriter, had a strong claim to being the greatest published writer of the 20th Century. Period. But, this work is bad, really bad, not only as a screenplay and a film, but most especially as a sequel to the great Scenes From A Marriage. And it starts with the bad writing.

  First off, before I delve into that, however, all the major critics are wrong about this film- in their qualitative assessment as well as its ties to Scenes From A Marriage. This is in no way shape nor form a sequel to that film because the two older lead characters, Johan and Marianne (Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman), while sharing superficial qualities in common with the earlier film’s qualities, are clearly not the same characters, just as one has to posit that the characters in the tv miniseries version and the shorter film version of Scenes From A Marriage are different characters because they do not go through the exact same things, and key plot elements in one are not in the other. Think of them as parallel universes with slight differences. That contemporary critics miss the obvious in their arts reviews no longer astounds me, it only saddens me. There are too many key differences, however, to be overlooked. If that is so, then the two main characters in this film are even farther removed from the Scenes From A Marriage universe. Yes, they have the same first names, are a divorced couple, and had two daughters together, split up over Johan’s similarly named lover- Paula, and work in similar professions to their younger doppelgangers, but all other similarities end there. First off, this couple cannot be the earlier couple, because we find out in the tv series of Scenes From A Marriage that Johan and Marianne were married in 1955, and were married for ten years by the time Scenes From A Marriage opens in 1965. At that time it is clearly stated that he is 42 and she is 35. That means he was born in 1923 and she was born in 1930. Saraband, which takes place in 2003, claims its Johan is 86, or born in 1917, and Marianne is 63, or born in 1940. These are clearly not the same people. And, putting aside the earlier film, if Marianne is 63, and she has not seen Johan for thirty or thirty-two years, as the script is unclear about that and many other things, and they were married for sixteen years, he would have had to have married her when she was fifteen or seventeen. Factor in the other series, where we know they married when she was twenty-three, and the result is obvious. These are different people, or Bergman has just gone senile or does not care for any fidelity between the films. Also, three years after the earlier Scenes From A Marriage couple split up they were divorced, after what would be thirteen years of marriage, while we are told this Johan and Marianne were married for sixteen years. The earlier Johan was not unfaithful till the events Scenes From A Marriage depicts, while this film’s Johan was a serial philanderer. Also, This Johan has a 61 year old son named Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), along with whose 19 year old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a cellist prodigy who oddly refers to her parents by their first names, make up the other two principals of the film. This Johan was married before Marianne, while the earlier Johan was not. This Marianne states that Johan wrote love poems to her in their marriage, while the earlier Johan admits he’d never shown his poems to Marianne. The two young daughters of the Scenes From A Marriage couple were named Eva and Karin, while this couple’s daughters are named Sara and Martha- the former who moves to Australia and the latter who’s in an insane asylum. Is it too much to ask for critics to do a little research? One may blame Bergman for fudging facts, but this big a difference clearly means that the couple in question is not the Scenes From A Marriage couple, and that the critics are careless in their essential duty to relate the facts about a given work of art, much less opining on it. Also, Bergman also relentlessly recycles only a dozen or so names through all of his films, so settling on a similarly named couple in this film seems the correct answer to the confusion. The fact that neither couple in either film is adorned with surnames also lets Bergman have an easy out in connecting these films or not.

  That all said, even as a stand alone piece, this film is awful. Even the cinematography, done by anonymous folk with high definition digital video, is pedestrian, as Bergman’s long time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist did not participate. As a chamber piece, this film is nowhere in a league with the films of Bergman’s Spider Trilogy, and the chamber music used is very poorly placed, underlining when Bergman wants a tear from his audience, even though the film itself has not moved us. Throughout the 1990s Woody Allen was relentlessly stealing from his greater, earlier films from his Golden Age of 1977-1992, and as Allen has long been accused of purloining from Bergman one might assume the master learnt from his pupil and decided to steal from his own earlier, greater works, and this film is even worse than Allen’s worst, although it similarly lacks profundity, and leaves no impression.

  As for the story, in a sense, it is familiar Bergman territory, but there is nothing here he hasn’t handled before, and much better, as well as more clearly, honestly, and poetically. The film has a prologue and epilogue with Marianne looking at photographs, and breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the viewers, but we are no more engaged by her at film’s end than in the beginning, so we are left with a hollow feeling. This tactic was done far more brilliantly in Autumn Sonata, and even in Hour Of The Wolf. In between the two framing pieces there are ten set pieces involving only two of the four main characters at a time. Not a one of the duets, nor Marianne’s soliloquies, however, feels natural. All are forced by an old didact afraid to let is audience think for itself. Thus the title of the film, as a saraband is an old music form, cello suites composed by Bach, which are erotic dances designed for two. Bergman also used Bach sarabands in Cries And Whispers and Through A Glass, Darkly. We learn that Johan is a rich retired professor, having inherited a fortune from an aunt, and Marianne visits him after decades of not seeing him. No reason is given, and none can be given, for she serves merely as a plot device, not a three dimensional character. All the action takes place on Johan’s country estate where he, his son, and granddaughter live. Every cliché imaginable is milked, from Marianne’s reluctance to approach her ex; to Johan’s loathing his son; to his son’s being a grieving widower who starts sexually abusing his daughter- whom he tutors on the cello- after his wife’s death, two years earlier; to Henrik’s wife’s, Anna’s, presence over the film being held out as something that really affected these characters, even though we know nothing of depth about her, save she was a saint, died of cancer, and correctly suspected her husband of having perverse feelings for Karin. Johan adored his daughter-in-law, and his granddaughter Karin, and Marianne, who only hears tales of Anna- most offscreen, is somehow so affected by the dead woman that she is moved to visit her insane daughter, Martha (Gunnel Fred), in the asylum by film’s end. The scene comes out of nowhere, is hokey, pretentious, fey, and utterly pointless, but framed so delicately as to be almost laughable in Bergman’s attempt to manipulate the audience into caring about a character we are seeing for the first time, as the other who has been a cipher throughout the film. Bergman, at his best, always did the opposite. Here, he is so striving to give depth to the flat soap opera he’s written that it’s almost embarrassing to watch a great actress like Ullman try to wring emotion from stale scenes as this, delicately removing her daughter’s eyeglasses, having Martha open her eyes, then close them. Ooh- symbolism alert! One has to seriously wonder how Bergman could have felt this whole narrative arc anything but trite, as well as refried. A key to understanding the genesis for this film, however, comes if one realizes that the film is dedicated to Bergman’s last wife, Ingrid Von Rosen Bergman, who died in 1995, and it is her face we see as the photograph of Anna. This whole wretched film seems to have been merely a hermetic Valentine to Bergman’s dead wife, and its cringe-inducing sap shows in every scene.

  There’s even a scene after Karin runs through the wood to escape her lecherous and violent dad, where she moves out of camera range and screams like hell. Manifestly she is screwed up- as we see scenes where she sleeps in bed with her fat old man, and where she kisses him square on the lips and he lasciviously responds. But why she screams, overreacts, and then bonds with Marianne is never explained, nor sufficiently dramatized. The viewer is just tossed presuppositions about the character but never allowed to sense these things. Dufvenius, as Karin, is way out of her league for the material. She is lovely to look at, but her acting makes the overdone filigrees of Harriet Andersson, in Through A Glass, Darkly, another incest-laden chamber drama, seem restrained in comparison. Bergman is thus violating one of the oldest storytelling taboos, telling and not showing, but, worst of all, telling very poorly, indeed. In one of the most pointlessly gratuitous scenes I’ve ever scene, in the last saraband, Johan runs to Marianne’s room, at night, and complains of being too small for his anxiety, takes off his sweaty nightshirt, and stands naked with Marianne, who also undresses. Why two old geezers would be shown naked, and Josephson with his shrinky dink in full light, is beyond me. Thankfully, Ullman’s aging form is silhouetted. So they’re mortal? We got that the first moment their aged miens appeared onscreen. And, the attempted suicide by Henrik is easily seen coming from his first minute onscreen. He is one of the shallowest and most repugnant Bergman characters ever penned, although none of this quartet are particularly deep. Johan is a King Lear like fool. Marianne is a total put upon cipher wedged into this drama for no apparent reason but to reference obliquely the earlier characters from Scenes From A Marriage- for she never gives a reason for her visit, no matter who asks, as she is really just a plot device, not a character. And Karin has no dramatic heft whatsoever- she just cries all the time. Worst of all, Bergman answers all the questions this film raises, unlike in his better films where the questions left unanswered are the very point of the drama! The acting is one note throughout the film, and adds nothing to the banal writing. That the film was almost universally praised is because it is so dumbed down that most of the points Bergman was formerly cited for, in the negative, as being abstruse or dour, are gone. This film is as transparent as the air, thus easy fodder for dumbed down audiences who feel good drama comes from video games.

  Now, back to the screenplay. The writing, as said, is subpar, and given that Bergman reveals Henrik only partly as a monster, one wonders how he, as the main tragic figure, is to elicit any empathy? He is vain, pitiable, spiteful, mentally disturbed, violent and incestuous. Johan is right to loathe his son, but making Henrik so ridiculously bad a character destroys any narrative tension. When he attempts suicide and fails we are saddened that he failed, not that he attempted it. But, the whole incest angle is so awkwardly handled, onscreen and off, that one has to wonder how Bergman could have felt it had any resonance, being so lame, trite, and manifest an angle. The incest in Through A Glass, Darkly and The Silence was handled far more realistically and poignantly. Henrik’s pusillanimous evil is best displayed in a scene with Marianne, where he is an organist at a church that seems a replica of the one used four decades earlier in Bergman’s great Winter Light. Henrik’s playing Bach, and when he is done and sees her they speak, he invites her to dinner, but when she accepts then declines, he goes all Tourette’s Syndrome on her, bilging hostility and vile accusations out of nowhere. No wonder his daughter runs through the woods and screams like a banshee after having to sleep with this psychopath.

  What made Scenes From A Marriage a great film was its writing, alone, and that Bergman never condescended. He let his viewers fill in the blanks they knew of from their own lives to background the scenes he showed within. In this film Bergman does not trust his audience, and condescends relentlessly. This is the sort of film that any producer worth their salt should have nixed, for it is an embarrassment to both them and to a great artist who is manifestly past his prime. Real greatness is knowing both what art to create and how, and what art to just leave in the bad idea pile. Bergman manifestly has lost that ability to discern, and this film’s greatest flaw is, indeed, that it was ever made. It showcases all of his prior worst tendencies without a dram of his former redeeming greatness. It is forced, overwrought, trite, poorly written and acted, and just plain dull. Bergman leaves no melodramatic angles unused, and all to poor effect- death, suicide, insanity, incest; even Henrik’s supposed life or death weighing on his abused daughter. Bergman has, like a child, finally ripped the zit off his face that was annoying him so long, and, with the pimple off, exposed a good deal of the red pulpy flesh beneath, and it ain’t pretty!

  As for the DVD features, there are only a few trailers, a long making of featurette that, unfortunately, is not well structured nor insightful, and the DVD is not dubbed. It only is subtitled, albeit in crisp gold lettering. Saraband is an unfortunate end to one of the greatest careers in human arts, but worst of all shows the utter bankruptcy of most contemporary arts criticism, in that the critics too often excuse what an art lacks as if it has it in full, merely because of the artist’s prior works or reputation. By allowing great artists’ bad work a pass it sets up a precedent, so that the critic is not singled out for having shamed themselves by ‘attacking’ a master, that tells lesser artists that they do not have to strive either, and thus the downward cycle starts, and society ends up with reams of rotting garbage as bad art, and no one willing to pinpoint the stench. Welcome to the 21st Century world of art, and be thankful last century’s Ingmar Bergman never had to deal with it, lest many of his greatest works would have never been made!

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]

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