Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand.
Remember the first time you had a nightmare because of something you saw on a screen? Mine was when I was six years old or so. I caught an episode of Wishbone which adapted The Time Machine, and the Morlocks were honest to goodness the scariest things I had ever seen. (For all I know they might have been genuinely freaky. I haven’t gone back to watch it since then, and I’m sure as heck not going to do a search for them.) It took twenty years or so, but I had another one after I saw Through a Glass Darkly. A door opened, a deep voice entered my head, and that same horror struck me that I’d felt the night before when I watched Karin writhe and scream as God came out of the closet in the attic. I could wake up from my dream, at least; Karin has no such outlet, and is forced to feel God’s eight-legged touch and see his many eyes without respite.
This is the first Bergman movie filmed on Faro, the island which ultimately came to be associated with him, and it is the perfect place to put a movie like this one. The sea is mostly calm but still “refreshing,” which, for those of you reading this in Florida or some other place where people swim in bath water, means “cold.” Unusual rocky formations have been dropped at random. The grass is spare, and the house where the family stays a little run down. A long sequence is devoted to a wooden boat in disrepair, with water in its hull. Running from place to place requires bouncing up and down hills, which seems as good a reason as any for the slenderness of the vacationers.
Karin (Andersson) has schizophrenia; to say she is “managing,” “working through,” or even “fighting” her mental illness is wrong, for when people ask her about it she is more sympathetic to her visions than she is to the real world around her. She hears voices, or at least one voice, and they come in unexpected places. She hears one in her father’s room. She hears another coming from a crack in the wallpaper in the attic, which drives her into a sort of Maenad frenzy, running her fingers through her hair and rubbing her hands up against her thighs in seeming ecstasy. She hears them in the boat that cannot sail. At one time, she says she has “sacrificed” Martin (von Sydow), her gentle and concerned husband, for what she sees in her sickness. (Von Sydow, after playing the phantom conjuror in The Magician and the superhuman killer in The Virgin Spring, is playing his first of two consecutive withdrawn characters, the other being Jonas the suicide in Winter Light. It’s an interesting contrast.) There can be no blame sent her way; even if schizophrenia were simply something that could be beaten with willpower or some other panacea in a slogan, it’s hard to begrudge her the heavenly sights she’s seeing in a cottage on a small island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Her illness and her isolation are reminiscent of a latter day Julian of Norwich, but instead of being merely delirious and on the edge of death, as Julian was, her condition has perverted her visions of God. It is not the crucifixion or the blood she sees, but a spider with surprisingly sexual proclivities whose seductions are as unwanted as her husband’s. Aside from the insomnia which wakes her up in the bright midsummer night, she has lost her desire for her husband. He has certainly not lost his for her, though, as we see when he kisses her neck and calls her by pet names.
She poses a question to him that is stripped bare one morning, after she’s woken him up at 5:00 in the morning. (It’s 10:00 already! she says, and he’s amazed he could have slept so long. Not really, she says, you just sleep too much.) Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a wife who was beautiful and plump and who gave you breakfast in bed, and children? At this point, Martin has lost much of his hope that his young wife will ever recover fully. His father-in-law, David (Bjornstrand) has completely despaired of it. And when he tells her that it is she who he loves, she seems to sense the unsatisfactory truth of his answer. (Her words: “It’s funny – you always say and do the right thing, and it’s always wrong.”) It’s reminiscent of Mr. Potter’s pitch to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, when he brings Mary and her wardrobe into George’s periphery, which, as I’ve written before, has such a relatable element in its universality. What Karin has hypothesized matters more than clothes; it touches on the fantasy she cannot fulfill for her husband because she cannot separate verifiable fact from sensory episodes. She would like to be able to respond when Martin paws at her as much as she would like to be capable of pampering him, yet neither one is really on the table. There is a cheerfulness to her which flits around her and the other members of her family which is charming and attractive, especially given their somewhat mordant, chilled tendencies. Martin has an anxious personality even when his wife isn’t having schizophrenic episodes. Minus (Lars Passgard), her younger brother, is amiable and even gregarious, but lonely as well. He cannot break through with his father, who is the picture of paternal distance, and is guilty of some self-abuse in the absence of any women who might be interested in him.
David is the real champion here, self-interested and self-deluding, a novelist who is a master of convoluted highfalutin phrases and a dilettante in real life, a man whose prose reflects on God and whose life is surprisingly vapid. One of the movie’s most surprising scenes features Martin shredding his father-in-law’s crusty exterior while they’re out on a boat together. Others will be more powerful, but this one is unexpected not necessarily because Martin has it out with David but because David does not contradict what his son-in-law has to say to him. Karin has read David’s diary while he was out of the room, and knows that he is fascinated and saddened with what he views as a terminal condition; he is interested in adapting her into a novel. Martin is amazed, to say the least, at David’s callousness. Do you hope she’ll die? David asks. Can you swear to me that you have never wished, even for a moment, that she would die? In his question are strands of a Taylorist efficiency, a Nazi eugenics, and most of all the clew to his absolute remove from the reality of his daughter’s life. Rather than face up to the potential hurt of recognizing his daughter’s condition and the effect it’s having on his family, he imagines convenient scenarios which will “fix” this problem. Compared to his daughter, for whom just about everything is a reason to feel, he may as well be one of the rocks on the Faro crags. Only once does he let loose: he sobs to himself in his dark kitchen while his family waits outside, finishing their dinners. It would be proof of his emotion, which he would rather hide under indifference than let out in the open.
Bergman drops Strindberg (at least, in terms of namedropping) for a moment in this movie to borrow liberally from Chekhov. Minus writes a play in the hopes that it will impress his noteworthy, if not brilliant, artsy parent, and it doesn’t go particularly well. David is a novelist who has some credibility and name-recognition; his work takes significant time to realize, which surprises his prolific son. I’ve written thirteen plays and an opera this summer, he says to him in one scene. The one he has written here is called The Artistic Haunting, or, The Tomb of Illusions, and it stars him as a knight and his sister as a long-dead princess. They declare their love for one another (it’s sort of weird but less weird than you’d think, honestly), although the princess has a test for her would-be companion. You must die, she says. He believes it will be easy to die for her, but when the appointed moment comes he gets cold feet. What if I just die, he wonders, and there’s not even the love waiting for me on the other side? Besides—and this seems to convince him more—what if no one remembers who I am, and my work disappears from the sight of others? During this monologue, David’s good-natured smile becomes a burning frown; it is the moment when Arkadina laughs at Konstantin’s play, but without the early curtain. It’s a moment we have to think of again at the end, when David opens up to Minus about what he believes love to be (God, essentially, and vice versa), and one finds the play more compelling than the chit-chat. Bergman comes perilously close to ruining his movie in that last scene, in which David’s lack of truth, as criticized by Martin, falls prey to the simplistic banality of New Testament feel-goodery. It movies Minus (“Father spoke to me,” he famously says), but it cuts the legs off of the spider. In this feel-good scene, no one quite grasps the conclusion of their logic. God must be around Karin because we love her, her father and brother say, but neither one of them seem to realize the import of the God she saw: a hideous spider which sent her into hysterics. The movie gives us that disconnect to work with, but in its final moments does not bring it to the fore.