Review: Bergman: A Year in a Life
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2018: Jane Magnusson presents a warts-and-all Ingmar Bergman coverage of the year 1957, during which our (anti-)hero achieved many things, at least some of them destined for greatness
“We will never again see an artist like that in Sweden,” says Stefan Larsson, a director at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, of his one-time boss and mentor, perhaps also sometime tormentor. Increasingly, Ingmar Bergman remains a paradox, not least in his home country. On the one hand, he’s the undisputed cultural “genius”, reigning over his realm with an iron fist, a textbook example of a hitherto sacred male specimen that’s currently being scrutinised and defrocked for his extensive misconduct. And on the other hand, he’s the celebrated creator of unsurpassed cinema artistry, a grand master of national pride, who, to boot, would have been 100 this year.
Jane Magnusson, a prolific arts/entertainment critic who has successfully branched into scriptwriting and filmmaking – she wrote the hit comedy The Swimsuit Issue [+see also:
film profile] (2008), a potential inspiration for this year’s Cannes-screened Sink or Swim [+see also:
film profile] – commenced her Bergman journey with the 2013 documentary Trespassing Bergman, where cinema luminaries like Wes Anderson, Claire Denis, Michael Haneke, Martin Scorsese and Zhang Yimou appraised Bergman’s work.
Now Magnusson is back with Bergman: A Year in a Life, screening in Cannes Classics, which sees a well-prepared director approaching her subject not unlike the old saying “know thine enemy”; at least in promotional interviews, she has prepared the viewer for a hard-hitting, warts-and-all examination. The result is well researched and takes its time to be critical. It is sumptuous, entertaining, discerning, dignified and even a bit – shock, horror! – reverent.
Magnusson’s idea of a 1957 focus proves a splendid one. In this particular year, Bergman pushes the envelope; he premieres The Seventh Seal, he writes and shoots Wild Strawberries and Brink of Life, he produces two stage works, including a five-hour version of Peer Gynt, and he does two radio plays and a television production. He also, more or less simultaneously, has relationships with three women. He already has about six children (or is it five? He doesn’t seem too sure himself).
“Was he on drugs?” asks Magnusson’s crisp voiceover. “I suppose today, he’d be said to have an untreated diagnosis of some kind,” adds actor Mikael Persbrandt. “Fassbinder was on amphetamines, so maybe Bergman was on sexuality,” director Suzanne Osten speculates. There are about 40 subjects interviewed, most of whom crossed paths with Bergman at work or otherwise. It’s a top-notch crowd, consisting of names like Gunnel Lindblom, Liv Ullmann, Elliott Gould, Dick Cavett, Roy Andersson and many others who, even though they are on screen for just a few seconds, get top value out of their two cents.
Magnusson gets some great material out of her method; she visits problematic territory, looking into Bergman’s naïve admiration of Nazi Germany during his younger years, and she gets crystal-clear testimony of his totalitarian abilities when it came to making, or sometimes, breaking a career. Downright scoop-like is the unearthed interview film with Bergman’s big brother Dag, shot in 1977 in Macau and intended for TV, but blocked by the man who, by lifting a phone (or a finger), got his way. Dag sets some records straight – first and foremost that it was he, not Ingmar, who was on the receiving end of all the slaps by their stern father, a fate that Ingmar claimed again and again in films and biographies like the much-lauded The Magic Lantern – a book whose levels of truth should be taken with a large spoonful of salt, the film deduces.
Apart from a somewhat sentimental coda, where some of the aforementioned international luminaries voice respectful praise, this is a sharp and sober account, giving Bergman pretty much what he deserves in a handpicked mixture of credit and discredit. The film soundly stays away from any #MeToo speculation, and quite rightly so. Bergman may have broken six of the cardinal sins (his ulcers forbade any gluttony), but his many relationships were, until suggested otherwise, all with consenting adults.
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