Irreconcilable Differences


A fusty, quaint blast from the art-house past, Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband rolls out with anachronistic boldness—were imported
movies ever this hermetic, this psychodramatic, this high culture? Yes and no: This new film, shot for Swedish TV when Bergman was 85, holds to the mandarin’s late taste for head-to-head emotional warfare and chamber-piece economy. But the all-digital piece is a minor-key coda, skimpy on ideas and reliant on nostalgia for 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage, to which it is a sequel of sorts. Busy in his autumn years writing deep-dish film scripts (The Best Intentions, Private Confessions, Faithless) and directed TV plays, Bergman hasn’t returned to form now so much as fallen back on his lazier tropes. Perhaps it is inordinately harsh to say Saraband resembles Woody Allen’s Bergman manqué Interiors more than any other Bergman film outside of
After the Rehearsal. But I prefer Allen’s WASP-family meltdown, if only for its regard for realistic conversation and Maureen Stapleton’s exploding sexuality.

Saraband is conducted in 10 dialogues or monologues, beginning with Liv Ullmann’s Marianne, three decades after Scenes, directly addressing the camera about her inexplicable impulse to visit her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson) at his remote cottage in the mountains. Her motivations are never cleared up, but their semi-amused, semi-bitter relationship is soon subsumed by the nearby presence of Johan’s middle-aged son from an older marriage, Henrik (B Ahlstedt), and his teenage daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who are both penniless cellists occupying an outlying guest house rent free. Like
Scenes, the action is restricted to duets, and it becomes clear that Johan and Henrik hate each other’s guts and that Henrik, whose wife had died a few years earlier, is lost in grief and obsessively attached to his willowy, earnest blonde goddess of a child.

Hyper-confessional logorrhea has become uncommon in movies and takes getting used to now. In any case, Ullmann’s tolerant heroine, our confidant in this relatively fruitless tangle of family needs and fears, is all but shunted aside. Modest as the movie is, Bergman doesn’t skimp on the watery-eyed combat and infinitely dissected neuroses, lively ingredients that may be sufficient balm for cineastes pining for the olden days of Janus Films logos and reliably turbulent Euro-cinema. Still, the distance between Bergman’s vision of human intercourse and reality has always edged toward pretension and self-involvement, and without more thematic weight for buttress, the project slips into the abyss. The academic-reference-packed dialogue, the reading of Kierkegaard, the utter lack of ordinary modesty or pragmatism, and the casual lack of concern for one’s own children (“I know nothing about our daughters,” Johan shruggingly says at the outset) are all far from convincing. The frantic bond between Henrik and Karin is another bizarre matter, manifesting as a manic cello-mad co-dependency before setting sail, in one strange, dishonest moment Bergman never prepares us for or feels the need to explain, into incestuous waters.

The actors work like sheepdogs, of course, but their roles give them one note to pluck in each scene. Ullmann, for one, seems less concerned about filling out her inconsequential character than dressing the sets with grande-dame mannerisms and crinkly-eyed cuteness. Saraband doesn’t ask to be considered prime-cut Bergman, and it isn’t, although its slightness may not matter to the art-film starving class. His style may date, but that’s another way of saying it has been indispensably assimilated into our ideas of what profound, thoughtful cinema is supposed to be. Like a wedge of low-grade Stravinsky, revived and performed, the movie could be considered an addendum to a looming and unique catalog, in which no work is insignificant.