Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 September 2014

Two from Ingmar Bergman

The Virgin Spring is a gorgeous little film. It's early Bergman (1960), and it is in the Criterion Collection, so it is available in a sparkling print. I don't think I have much to say about the movie itself. though. The plot is a very straightforward narrative of violence, loss, revenge, and religion based on a medieval tale from the thirteenth century.

It has an infamous rape scene, but the film's violence is presented in a painful, anguished way. This is not done through sound information (the way Stephen Prince suggests that pain is best communicated on film), in fact the film has hardly any sound in it at all. Instead, the camera seems to feel with the characters, and the violence itself is almost always obstructed from view in some way.

The narrative on which the film is based is inherently religious, yet Bergman manages to make a film that – despite the obvious existence of god – questions the god's choices. Birgitta Valberg and Max Von Sydow as the young girl's parents are really quite excellent.

Bergman is a bleak filmmaker – not totally joyless, but definitely bleak. And his film from 1976, Face to Face (Ansikte mot Ansikte) is no exception to this. But Face to Face boasts an unbelievably amazing performance from Liv Ullman. Unlike The Virgin Spring, which is easy to get ahold of, it's pretty hard to find a copy of Face to Face. I've been trying for years. But now I'm at Dartmouth and they have everything, so I watched it two weeks ago.

Face to Faceis about a psychiatrist who has her shit together. As her daughter is off at camp and her husband in New York for work, she goes to stay with her grandparents for a month while some work is being done on her house. This return home opens up all sorts of things for the woman and she confronts her long-repressed fears and anxieties.

This is a hard film. First of all, it is dated by its interest in psychiatry and repressed memories, but the film itself is also a true challenge. The main character is truly fucking sad, and there doesn't seem to be much of a way out of the misery that she feels blanketing her put-together life. So this is hard to watch. Honestly, though, I spent a good portion of the film with my jaw dropped, disbelieving that Liv Ullman was as good as she is. Ullman is extraordinary in Face to Face. She tears into the role and is unrelenting. We get every confused, difficult moment of this woman's existential anguish. It is a performance that is so exquisitely crafted and so specific, that the audience is left as confused as the character about what is really wrong with the woman.

The trouble with the film itself, though, is that it doesn't have much of a solution to this anxiety, and frankly doesn't have much of a reason for displaying it all to us in cinematic form. Face to Face is enjoyable only for Ullman's virtuosity. The film itself is unrelentingly miserable.