Saraband by Graham Buchan
Saraband, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Liv Ullman has a face at once so sympathetic, so understanding, so intelligent and so lived in, that one could wish for her to be mother, lover, psychiatrist and nurse all rolled into one. In Saraband she plays Marianne, the ex-wife re-visiting her husband Johan (Erland Josephson), a retired academic now in his mid-eighties, for the first time in thirty years. And this film is the first for cinema that Ingmar Bergman, now 87, has made for twenty-three years.
From the 1950’s to the 1980’s Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed films of great intensity which were mainly concerned with spiritual and psychological conflict. Almost all set within his native
Saraband is a return to some of this territory. The film concerns Marianne, Johan, Johan’s middle-aged son (from a different marriage) Henrik, who lives in another cottage on the same country estate, and Henrik’s gifted 19-year-old daughter Karin. Johan and Henrik loath each other, but are both fiercely protective of Karin. They are also both mourning Anna, Henrik’s wife who died two years previously. Henrik, an overweight, failed musician, is coaching Karin in cello, with plans for her to audition for the conservatory. Marianne, the intuitive outsider, senses the intensity of the power struggle of the two men over Karin’s future, and Karin confides to Marianne that, although she loves her father intensely (and there is at least a hint of incest) she is being suffocated by his protection.
There are ten scenes, with only two characters in each scene (a saraband was a 17th century dance), and the whole is framed by a prologue and an epilogue in which Marianne addresses the camera directly. Bergman’s genius is to make all his characters compelling and three-dimensional, even when they are palpably unlikeable. He is assisted by a quartet of actors (in particular Borje Ahlstadt’s Henrik should be mentioned) who inhabit their characters with such fierce conviction, it is impossible to imagine them relaxing between takes. Though bleak in the extreme, by the end one senses a certain hope as Karin, at last, makes her own choices for her art and her life.
Music of course plays a central role, and one remembers Bergman’s previous titles include The Autumn Sonata and The Magic Flute. For this director, it is no surprise that the least conscious of all the arts has a special importance.
The disappointment of the film is that visually it is so conservative. Confined almost entirely to interiors, it represents a superb piece of writing for television, but not cinema. Bergman’s truly great films – one thinks of The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Shame and Cries and Whispers, but there are many others – all left one with haunting images which would sit in the mind for weeks. Apart from the faces, that is not the case here.
This is very likely to be Bergman’s final film. It is not his greatest, but compared to the vast majority of today’s fare, it is gripping, intelligent and important.
© Graham Buchan 2005