John Updike, a writer who has also been an active reviewer, once wrote that critics should not review a book they're predisposed to dislike, or like. But that good-sense rule is hard to apply when the subject is film, and the film just happens to be the very last production written and directed by one of the medium's legendary figures. It would be difficult, even impossible, to approach "Saraband" with impartial neutrality because it's the final film that we have from Ingmar Bergman. What sentimental film-lover wouldn't be pulling for an icon to finish strong? Thankfully, Bergman helps out. It's easy to go out in style when you have style.
Then again, Bergman has always had a distinctive style, using film as a means of expressing his own thoughts about metaphysics and human behavior, or as a way of working out "issues" while using the frame, transitions, and color to reinforce his themes. His films also reflect a love of the stage, with long monologues and lingering close-ups a trademark. Many of Bergman's early films were so expressionistic and full of such intensely isolated characters that they all but alienated the mass audiences who look to cinema for escape. His characters were often studies in torment and the interior of the mind—so heady, investigative and personal that film historian Ephraim Katz once called Bergman's films "screen dissertations." Only in his later years did Bergman's films mellow to where they were appreciated by a wider public. "Fanny and Alexander" (1983) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film and did well at the box office. Afterwards, Bergman said he would retire, but returned a year later to create the made-for-TV "After the Rehearsal." With nothing coming from Bergman for 24 years, you have to believe the 86-year-old director when he says that "Saraband," produced in 2003 for Swedish television, is most certainly his last film. If it is, it's a nice way to end a career . . . for all concerned.
Erland Josephson reprises his role as Johan and Liv Ullmann, who lived with Bergman and bore him a child, returns as Marianne from Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973), which was also originally made for TV. In "Scenes," Josephson and Ullmann went through a bitter divorce because of extra-marital affairs and then met coincidentally in Stockholm many years later after both had remarried. They decide to revisit an old summer cabin they once spent treasured time in, but switch to a different cabin because the old one was too full of memories. All the while, "Scenes" explored the curious bond that people once in love somehow retain, though that love can't surmount the problems of being together.
The same situation befalls them some 30 years later in "Saraband." The film opens with Marianne sitting in front of a desk that has photos spread over every inch of it while she gives viewers an update: Johan inherited a vast fortune from a rich Danish aunt who had been an opera singer, quit the university, and bought his grandparents' dilapidated country villa, where he lives in self-imposed isolation. Their daughter, Martha, remains in a home, with her condition worsening to the point where she doesn't even recognize her mother when she visits. Their other daughter, Sara, has no children and is married to a lawyer. They recently moved to Australia, which means that Marianne now feels as isolated as many of Bergman's characters, despite a successful law practice.
Marianne phones Johan and asks if she can visit, then surprises him one day by walking into the old house that's clearly evocative of memories from their years together. Bergman takes a page from "The Great Gatsby," using a self-consciousness about time to emphasize the gulf that had separated the two. In "Gatsby" Fitzgerald used a broken clock to suggest as well a stoppage of time in which Gatsby might pursue his dream girl for only a moment. Here, it's a cuckoo clock that reinforces what Marianne herself admits is an uncharacteristically impulsive and, yes, crazy action on her part. She walks through the house and locates Johan sitting asleep on the veranda. Again Marianne addresses the audience, sharing with them her dilemma and her choices. She gives herself a minute before waking him, and Bergman makes that a literal, real-time minute with Marianne doing a countdown, just as time is counting down on both of them. He is 86; she is 63 and feeling older ("they've taken away my ovaries and uterus"). He protests that they haven't seen each other in 30, 32 years, and says how surprised he was when she called out of the blue. "You weren't very enthusiastic," she says. "I said no," he sputters. And so it goes with their reunion. Rather, or so it would have gone, were it not for another dimension.
Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), Johan's son from another marriage, lost his wife of 20 years two years ago and it has left him devastated. It's a credit to Bergman's screenplay that it's not absolutely clear whether the character we see was always such, or reduced to this level by grief. But Henrik is a spineless man who is nonetheless controlling and abusive with his 19-year-old daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius, who really holds her own as the sole young actor). He took an early retirement from the university because of his grief and is on the verge of losing the other part that had defined his life—his leadership of the Uppsala Chamber Soloists orchestra. The only thing holding him together is his daughter, whom he uses, unhealthily (tongue-in-mouth kiss?) as a surrogate for his beloved wife. Though trained in organ he has become her self-appointed cello master. Now the girl is torn between staying in this strange relationship and looking after her father, or leaving to pursue her music at the conservatory level.
Throughout the film, the actors' performances are so intense, the characters so complex, and Bergman's camerawork so personal that it's easy to become engrossed, despite a relatively long runtime of 112 minutes for a TV drama. As Bergman pairs the characters in scenes featuring all combinations—Mariane and Johan, Karin and Mariane, Johan and Karin, Karin and Henrik, Henrik and Johan, Mariane and Henrik—the dramatic question isn't so much whether Karin will break free of her father. Rather, it's whether we'll understand these characters. That's the invitation Bergman gives his audience, and we want to understand the characters, because in doing so we're hoping to understand the dynamics of our core human relationships—those strong but precarious bonds between husbands and wives, and parents and children.
Video: Mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Saraband" is of high visual quality—essential, really, given the many scenes shot in low light.
Audio: The audio is Swedish Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with English, French, and Portuguese subtitles. As with the video, the audio is excellent, which is also fortunate, because of the classical Bach soundtrack. The title is taken from a Bach cello suite. The Sarabande, a country dance in slow 3-2 time, was one of the four main movements in the 17th and 18th century suites, which also included the Allemande, Courante, and Gigue. Bergman used the musical structure to shape the narrative, and at times, as when Johan plays his music at full volume, the sound is rich and full, despite the limitations of two channels.
Extras: Bergman fans and film students will have to buy this DVD just to get the bonus feature on "The Making of Saraband." Like the film itself, this bonus feature is quietly powerful and full of depth. There's no narrative, no voiceover, no external intrusions to add shape to the feature or tell us what we're watching, and no talking heads' interruptions. Just as Bergman is prone to use long takes, this extra feels like one long behind-the-scenes take. We watch the spry director get on the floor in order to show his teenaged star how it should be done, and see him at the table drawing exactly the performance from his actors that he sees in his mind. It's a WONDERFUL feature, and perhaps the best "making of" footage I've seen. Bergman says he has one loyalty, and that's to the work itself, and we watch him pay homage to the work that he created. It's a rare, raw look at a master filmmaker interacting with his actors and technicians. And there are some nice surprises, as when the director tells Ullmann, "When you say 'lonely' it's hard to hear," and Ullmann leans toward him and says, "You're hard of hearing . . . sorry, just kidding."
Bottom Line: "Saraband" is a rich drama full of complex, flesh-and-blood characters that gets to the heart of human relations and explores death and aging in ways that are neither maudlin nor sentimental.