In the sixth of the 11 chapters (plus prologue and epilogue) that make up Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband, we find the 85-year-old Johan (Erland Josephson, Scenes from a Marriage) with his ear pressed close to a stereo speaker listening to the second movement of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony — a piece of music that frames the chapter in question. While I doubt that much of anything in Bergman’s entire 60 years of filmmaking is accidental or insignificant, this seems one of the most precise and telling choices in his career.
Bergman, who will be 88 this summer, has stated that Saraband is his final film. Similarly, the Ninth was Bruckner’s final symphony (in fact, it was never finished). Why does Johan — who evidences no sign of being hard of hearing — listen to the symphony in this manner? Is he perhaps, as the film suggests, trying to catch something — some coded message — hidden in the work of someone else whose life was coming to a close? It seems likely.
It’s similarly significant — considering the startling manner in which the chapter concludes — that this is the film’s single use of an orchestral work. The scene is an encounter with Johan’s granddaughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenis), and it neatly prefigures — both in the use of an orchestral work and the scene’s final image — the confession she will later make to her father, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), about her plans for her future. It’s the only evidence of a group effort in a film made up entirely of scenes with two characters at a time. It may just be the most remarkable scene in Bergman’s filmography — certainly, it’s in the running. For that matter, Saraband is one of his most accomplished works.
The film returns to the characters of Johan and Marianne (Liv Ullman) from Bergman’s 1973 film, Scenes from a Marriage, picking them up 30 years later — a 30-year period in which they have not seen each other. Following their divorce, they’d made tentative stabs at keeping in touch, but it hadn’t lasted. Now, late in the day, Marianne feels strangely compelled to visit her ex-husband, who is living in isolation in his grandparents’ old summer house in the country. She doesn’t know exactly — doesn’t even try to express exactly until late in the film — why she has come, and Johan doesn’t seem particularly elated by the idea. In fact, she comments that he didn’t seem enthusiastic about her coming, and he points out that he said “no” the idea. At the same time, he quickly scotches her subsequent idea to turn around and leave on the flimsy pretext that it will anger his housekeeper, who has been told to prepare a meal and has fixed up the guest room for her.
What follows is the intimate drama of four people — Johan, Marianne, Henrik and Karin — and the lingering presence of a fifth, Anna, Henrik’s late wife and the mother of Karin. As a story, it’s spare, to say the least. But it’s also a richly rewarding film — one that sums up much of Bergman’s work in various unusual ways. There are traces of Bergman’s other films — not just Scenes from a Marriage — all over the place. The more you know of Bergman’s filmography, the more obvious this is.
It is also one of his most autobiographical works — not always in the most literal sense. For example, it’s clear that Johan — who sometimes resembles Victor Sjostrom’s character in Wild Strawberries (making one wonder if Bergman was guessing at his own future 48 years ago) — is Bergman’s alter ego. But Johan doesn’t live in Bergman’s neatly ordered spartan house (the one used when Liv Ullman directed Bergman’s script, Faithless, in 2000 — a film in which Erland Josephson also stood in for Bergman). No, Johan lives in a ramshackle house from his childhood, one that is crammed with books and the collected items of a long life. It isn’t so much a literal depiction as it is a psychological one that surrounds the character — and the filmmaker — with the baggage of 80-plus years.
As a portrait of the artist as an old man, it’s hardly flattering — though less bathed in guilt than Faithless and more colored by self-absorption, self-created myths (the saintly Anna, who is drawn from Bergman’s first wife) and the aching regret of an inability to connect with other human beings. It’s this last element that permeates the film with its two-person scenes of conversations where characters only connect by proxy — by talking about things with other people rather than the people they ought to be talking with. It’s powerful and more than a little depressing, but it’s also essential filmmaking for anyone who cares about one of the giants of cinema. Rated R for brief nudity, language and a violent image.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke