Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Julia Dufvenius, Liv Ullmann, Borje Ahlstedt
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Music is a discipline too often taken for granted, I think; there’s a sense in the popular imagination that all musicians are either Mozart reborn, effortlessly cranking out the hits, or teetering on the edge of personal collapse à la Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Bergman, to his credit, has always recognized music as a struggle. In 1950, his To Joy, the story of an orchestra violinist who dreams of becoming a soloist and turns his life upside down to do it, was released. It’s not close to my favorite of his works—Stig is the kind of actively obnoxious person it’s hard to watch for any amount of time—but you can see Bergman treading on unusual ground that he would revisit in Autumn Sonata and again in Saraband. Long stretches of a fairly short movie are given to rehearsals and performances, to the practice that goes into trying to become good enough. A charismatic young cellist, Karin (Dufvenius), replaces the neurotic violinist, and the consensus is that Karin, unlike Stig, is good enough to become a soloist with better training. Her father, Henrik (Ahlstedt), is not good enough. He is inadequate to fix her quirky technique, no longer the concertmaster of the local orchestra, reduced to filling in on the church organ or giving the odd concert. Nor is he adequate in reference to his father, Johan (Erland Josephson), who has come into a great deal of money in his later years and whose age has not mellowed his combativeness an iota. And finally, he is not adequate in reference to himself, as he has never recovered from the death of his late angelic wife, Anna. Anna’s ghost hangs over the film for everyone. Johan, who in the way of bad men seems quite cognizant of what makes a good woman, speaks of her glowingly. It’s clear that she was the one woman he really loved who he never married (or went on months-long trysts abroad with). Karin still breaks down in tears reading one of her letters two years after her death. The problems of this family have been accelerating since her death, but it’s only with Marianne’s (Ullmann) appearance that conflicts come to a head. After thirty years of silence between Johan and herself, she tells her she wants to visit him; he says no, but prepares for her anyway. Adding a new element to any cocktail has the potential for explosion; it’s hard to imagine the events of Saraband could happen without her intervention, the unbalancing she creates simply by walking into Johan’s country home.
Saraband explicitly recalls Scenes from a Marriage, which excited me before watching the film and surprised me afterwards. The film does not necessarily need to bring back Marianne and Johan because what follows seems to have so little to do with the couple we saw in 1973. The movie’s prologue and epilogue are narrated by Marianne, who speaks directly to the camera as she sits behind a table covered with family photos. It’s a scene that recalls the best of Scenes from a Marriage, when she narrated her diary over pictures from her past, and it renders the literal connections between Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband even more gratuitous when she recaps the fact that she was once married to Johan, etc. Perhaps it’s fitting that Saraband doesn’t really need Scenes from a Marriage—thirty years is sufficient to erase a great number of irrelevancies—and at the same time I think it’s a mistake. Simply naming Ullmann’s character “Marianne” and Josephson’s “Johan” would have been enough to get the point across, implying the baggage without forcing us to put together a timeline which, alas, doesn’t quite make sense. More than that, Saraband is not particularly a story about the family they had together. One of their daughters lives in Australia, which even in the 21st Century is code for “effectively dead.” The other lives mutely and vacantly in a home, in a room that screams a modernist prison cell; she does not recognize her mother when she visits. (One can’t help but wonder how things might be different if Marianne had not succumbed to Johan’s indifference and aborted their third child.) It’s a bold choice as long as the movie is resurrecting Marianne and Johan; it would be much simpler to move on with Martha or Sara, last seen leaving the living room in the first chapter of Scenes from a Marriage, and yet it would feel more like ground we’ve already covered in someone else’s family drama. This unfolding, at least, is unexpected, and there’s some vigor in the movie simply because it deflects our expectations.
As much as Johan cares about Karin, which is to say, more than he’s ever cared about anyone, she still seems like she’s not quite his family. Henrik is the child of one of Johan’s later marriages, and Henrik himself appears to have started later in life. If this is purposeful, then it is a masterful choice to begin with Marianne and lead us back to Johan through her, because it amplifies the strangeness of her interactions with Johan’s son and granddaughter; likewise, too, with Johan, who fades out of the first half of the movie before reappearing in the second. She is a reminder of thirty-plus years in the rearview mirror for Johan, but for Henrik and Karin she could be anybody. Henrik ungraciously assumes that Marianne has come to siphon off some of Johan’s fortune; he needs money from Johan, and Johan is actively nasty about loaning out sums he’ll never get back from the son he’s never been close to. Karin latches onto Marianne because she needs someone to latch onto, and if there is some filial attachment she manufactures it seems reasonable enough.
Johan still has his old flares of temper—would it be him if he weren’t sarcastic and critical?—though on the whole he seems like a calmer, more manageable person. Age has not changed his mind, but it has sapped him of his energy. With Henrik, he can still stand and fight. In every other scene excepting one (where he ends up lying in bed with Marianne), he is seated. Marianne, on the other hand, seems to have calmed down considerably. The fighter of the last half of Scenes from a Marriage who refused to suffer anyone else’s foolishness somewhere around “The Vale has mellowed into a grandmother without grandchildren, a lawyer with only token cases to try. She wanders into the local church and compliments Henrik’s organ playing. She offers her whiskey to Karin. She allows a panicking Johan back into her bed in the same way that he comforted her at the end of Scenes from a Marriage. Remonstrances never cross the line to condemnations, not even when Henrik (played with considerable ability by Ahlstedt) vents his spleen.
The slow buildup to repulsion in Henrik and Karin’s relationship is done so smoothly and masterfully that it almost sneaks up on us unawares. We see them in bed together early on, although both of them are clothed and one can imagine, if not necessarily empathize, if they only have one bed in the cottage they’re bumming from Johan. Our first interaction with Karin comes when she wanders into Johan’s house, having run away from her father. It never does seem like a child having run away from home; it always seems more like a wife going to a safer house when she’s about to leave her husband, an impression which only grows when it’s Marianne who greets her. Later, as Karin tearfully reads to Marianne her mother’s last letter to her father, she confesses that she cannot take any of the opportunities ahead of her, not even the stunning chance to study under an old master in Helsinki. If I leave my father, she says, I know he will die. She ultimately chooses to do leave him, and chooses to do so further away than Finland. He attempts suicide not long after. At that point, his reasons are transparent. Decades ago he lost his father’s love. Two years ago he lost his wife. Days ago he lost his surrogate wife, the daughter he kissed full on the mouth before she realized the enormity of his action and pulled away. Saraband doesn’t scourge us like Shame or Cries and Whispers, but the moment where this old man reaches for his young daughter to pull her in for an open-mouthed kiss, expressing how strong his passions are for her in the most straightforward and inappropriate way possible, is plenty unbearable. Thanks to Bergman’s careful screenplay, we understand what Henrik wants without feeling the slightest need to forgive.