The most imaginative, vibrant and challenging filmmaker working today is not a twentysomething hotshot pumping out bloated adventure flicks with hundreds of millions of someone else’s dollars. Instead, that honor goes to 87-year-old Ingmar Bergman, whose new feature “Saraband” offers a devastating example of how a film artist can achieve genius within a tight, confined space.
“Saraband” is conceived as a chamber piece, with no more than four main players (a fifth character appears fleetingly in the closing scene). The film consists of ten sequences plus a prologue and epilogue. At no time are there more than two people per sequence. The film is heavily driven by dialogue, but it never feels verbose. The camerawork is mostly extended single takes framed by a stationary camera, but it is never visually stagnant (it is shot in an HD format which provides remarkable depth and color contrast). And it is story of cruelty at many levels, both casual and calculated, yet it never leaves the residue of bitterness or sour misery with the viewer.
“Saraband” focuses on the primary characters from Bergman’s 1973 masterwork “Scenes from a Marriage” (but you don’t need to be familiar with that earlier film to appreciate this new endeavor). Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) have not seen or spoken with each other in more than three decades; their lack of contact is not due to animosity, but simply because their lives following the end of their marriage took them in opposite directions. Marianne, who has enjoyed great success as an attorney, rather abruptly decides to seek out Johan; the true reasons behind her reunion are not revealed until the epilogue.
Johan, for his part, has taken to old age badly. A late-life inheritance gave him the chance to abandon his academic profession and retire to an isolated house in the woods. While he is pleasant in agreeing to Marianne’s reunion at his residence, he is not given to nostalgia: he acknowledges their marriage was not a happy time for him and he barely shows interest in the whereabouts of their daughters from that failed marriage (one emigrated to Australia, the other is hospitalized with an unspecified and seemingly incurable illness).
But Johan has enough to keep him in a bad mood: his son Henrik, from a second marriage, has been the source of endless disappointment and barbed contempt. A failed academic and musician, Henrik has devoted himself to the musical education of his daughter Karin, who is just shy of 20. Henrik’s wife Anna had passed away two years earlier but her presence permeates the environment. Anna cannot come to grasps with her mother’s passing, Henrik seems to be reshaping Karin into Anna’s image (an inappropriate and decidedly non-paternal kiss by Henrik suggests a barely-suppressed incestuous desire), and Johan is equally grief-stricken by Anna’s death since he genuinely loved her more than his own son.
The question of Karin’s future becomes paramount: Henrik is obsessively training her on the cello for acceptance at a local conservatory, but his lack of money requires input from Johan. Johan, in turn, has his own plans for Karin. But no one bothered to ask Karin what she wanted. Initially on the periphery but drawn increasingly into the fray is Marianne, who views this family struggle with as much patience and wisdom as the situation will allow.
At a time when Hollywood productions try to outdo each other with higher and higher levels of chaos and puerility, “Saraband” exists with a rich depth of maturity and genuine emotion. Bergman’s characters are fully-dimensional in their flaws, obsessions, jealousies and aspirations. There is no true villain or hero in this film, as each person comes to the forefront possessing the capacity of wit, charm and reckless cruelty. Only rarely do tempers boil into raised voices and acts of minor violence, but the relatively small-scale eruptions (a lamp thrown down, voices raised) carry more power than a movie full of Dolby-enhanced explosions.
One really needs to exercise temper control at Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Not at their acting in “Saraband,” which represent the finest performances to grace the screen this year, but at the fact that both have been absent from the screen for so long. Josephson, with his deeply theatrical voice and subtle facial expressions, is an extraordinary force of nature. Whether taking perverse amusement in humiliating his son or literally stripping himself when his anxiety overtakes his reason, Josephson creates a brilliantly tragic portrait of a man imprisoned by his own bitterness.
Ullmann, who alternates between playfulness and irony, is in concept the mere observer to the drama. But in her richly-textured performance, she is the emotional and intellectual anchor to “Saraband.” Her presence in Johan’s household is sketchy at first, and she is able to bring out the better aspects of the personalities around her. But even her goodwill is not enough to cap the simmering anger which is boiling around her. By the deceptively calm epilogue, her character’s secret is matter-of-factly revealed to an astonishing result – proving that she, in turn, was never in a position to bring logic and calm to Johan and his family.
Completing the cast is Borje Ahlstedt as Henrik and Julia Dufvenius as Karin. Both provide sublime performances that mirror the soul of a father-daughter relationship which has been damaged and is failing to respond to any attempt at healing.
One could literally milk a thesaurus in trying to find the right words to lavish on “Saraband”: brilliant, towering, majestic, challenging, remarkable, blah blah blah. But when “Saraband” runs its course, there is ultimately just one word to encapsulate Bergman’s artistry and vision: WOW!