Videophiled Essential: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’

The greatest leap in home video technology since Criterion released its first DVDs 15 years ago or so is the amazing improvement in mastering technology. With the digital revolution making digital prints the standard for cinema projection, the combination of elevates standards for film-to-digital quality and the HD standard of Blu-ray has brought near-cinema quality to home theater.

Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the most recent of Criterion’s world classics mastered from 2K digital, this one a 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri. And like the greatest restorations, this disc brings the best of film texture and digital clarity together for a stunning image. Persona is a film dominated by light and white, with stark figures against neutral backgrounds, warm sunlight, and the bright glare of a film projector, and those values are the kinds of things that get muddied in poor prints and digital masters. This disc looks like a 35mm fresh from the lab has been projected directly on my flatscreen.

Liv Ullman is revered stage actress Elisabeth Vogler, who is suddenly stricken speechless, and Bibi Andersson is the adoring young nurse Alma, who watches over her at a quiet seaside retreat, doing all the talking for both of them while she lays her soul bare to the actress. When Alma discovers the insensitive and condescending words about her in a letter Elisabeth has written, the roles of their relationship begins to shift and the intensity of feeling builds to point that, quite literally, stops the film dead. For a brief moment, Bergman reaches back to the origins of cinema, as if to recreate the artform in brief, abstracted images and rebuild the film around the two women.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Summer Interlude’

The critical consensus is that Summer Interlude, the tenth feature from Ingmar Bergman, was a breakthrough for the filmmaker: his first film built around a strong, assertive, sure woman and the first shot extensively on location, where the natural world becomes a defining reflection of the lives of his characters.

Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten

This information comes courtesy of film historian and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, who has written extensively on Bergman and contributes the fine essay in the accompanying booklet to the Criterion release. I have much less experience with early Bergman, to be honest. It has been, in fact, the recent Criterion Blu-ray releases of classic Bergman films that has brought back to the director and introduced me to films I had never seen previously. It’s been a rewarding rediscovery of a director that I confess I have respected more than I’ve appreciated, in no small part thanks to the sheer beauty of the Criterion presentations. The cinematography of Gunnar Fischer has long been overshadowed by Bergman’s legendary collaborations with Sven Nykvist and the distinctive winter light of his images, but Criterion’s superbly remastered discs remind us of the beauty of his work, from the sunny, lush warmth of his summer interludes to the gray, foggy cloud of urban life and the cold desolation of fall and winter.

The blush of summer and the death of autumn are defining moods of Summer Interlude. Maj-Britt Nilsson, one of Bergman’s most overlooked actresses, plays Marie, an emotionally distant leading dancer in a Stockholm ballet company. An envelope containing a handwritten diary sends her mind reeling back thirteen years, to sunny days of young love and freedom and the first stirrings of desire on a summer vacation on the archipelago islands near Stockholm. She’s 15 and an aspiring ballerina, staying in vacation manor home of her Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), whose flirtations are more unsettlingly lustful than avuncular, and long-suffering Aunt Elisabeth (Renée Björling).

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Classics: The ‘Summer’s of Ingmar Bergman

Summer Interlude (Criterion) and Summer With Monika (Criterion), the tenth and twelfth films (respectively) directed by Ingmar Bergman, make a fine match set showing off the two sides of Bergman developing in his early years as a filmmaker.

Summer Interlude (1951), the story of a summer romance between a sunny, confident young ballet student (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and a shy scholar (Birger Malmsten) on the lush vacation islands of the Stockholm archipelago, is a memory film. The older ballerina, now emotionally cocooned in regret and loss, is sent back to those free and easy days when she  receives a handwritten diary, and she revisits the island, now a cold, foggy corpse of its summer lushness, to come to terms with her past.

Lovingly shot by Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s first great cinematographer collaborator, the film is steeped in metaphor: a philosophical rumination on love and loss staged as a story, with characters more like archetypes in a theatre piece. Summer is the charge of youth in the idealism of eternal vacation and the innocence of young love in all its dimensions.

Summer with Monika (1953), starring Bergman’s first acknowledged muse Harriet Andersson as the impulsive, anxious, immature young Monika, is more about the complications, the rough edges, the unseen complications in a young couple after the bloom of sexual charge gives way to living in the real world.

Here, summer is less a metaphor and more of the literal time of year that allows these working teenagers to flee the city and live on the islands of the archipelago without a care. For Monika, it is an escape from the reality of the city – her family, her job, the dull life of a working class girl – and only the reality of supplies and food and the onset of autumn’s cold weather drives her back from this ambivalent self-made Eden and back to the material world of Stockholm.

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“Smiles of a Summer Night”: A Bergman Roundelay

A Bergman sex comedy

Smiles Of A Summer Night (Criterion)

Ingmar Bergman’s reputation is built on a foundation of introspective human dramas and personal crises steeped in philosophical discussions, conversations that scrape tender emotions and troubled relationships laid bare. And yes, his career is filled with such cinema, much of it dark, most of it very serious and all of it (to a greater or lesser extent) exploring his ideas of drama, art, love and the complexities of human existence.

Yet the film that first brought Bergman to international attention in 1955 was neither dour nor dark. Smiles of a Summer Night is a light, sunny, airy sex comedy, like a Swedish version of a sly Lubitsch satire of love and class and sex by way of a Shakespeare comedy of mismatched couples reshuffled through the course of the film. It largely plays out at a weekend retreat in the country manor of beautiful (and somewhat notorious) stage actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), or rather her worldly mother (Naima Wifstrand), something of a social courtesan in her day (“My dear daughter, I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).

She invites Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), an old lover who has recently reconnected, along with his much, much younger wife (Ulla Jacobsson) and troubled son (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a divinity student with very worldly concerns, notably a tormenting attraction to his stepmom. To stir it up, she also invites her current lover, the married Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), and his wife (Margit Carlqvist), who connives  to help Desiree reshuffle the pairs to their desired outcome. Bringing the sextet up to an octet is Fredrik’s earthy young maid (Harriet Andersson) and Desiree’s hearty groom (Åke Fridell). While Desiree’s mother provides the witty commentary to the awkward dance, the unfettered attraction and physical indulgence of the servants offers a refreshing simplicity to love and sex beyond these social creatures.

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Sleight of Hand in Ingman Bergman’s The Magician

The Magician (Criterion)

I’m not a Bergmanite. By that I mean, I respect his work and I admire his films, but I don’t respond to his aesthetic and philosophy the way I do with other directors. I appreciate his films more than I really like them. You could say I don’t warm to Bergman, a cheap joke with a kernel of truth of truth behind it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to being impressed by his art or won over by his stories.

Max von Sydow is The Magician
Max von Sydow is The Magician

I put that out there to frame my review of Bergman’s 1958 The Magician, a film he created in the midst of his most fertile and prolific period of filmmaking. The enigmatic tale of a travelling medicine show fronted by a mute mesmerist (Max von Sydow) behind a mask of stage make-up, theatrical costumes and practiced gestures arrived after The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957) and before The Virgin Spring (1960) and Through a Glass Darkly (1961), the films that made Bergman’s international reputation, and is often overlooked in that company. In many ways, this story of magic and reason and performance is Bergman’s celebration of the theater as both a confidence game and a beautiful mystery, explored in the form of a ghost story turned human comedy.

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DVDs for 6/16/09 – Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Zulawski’s First French Film

Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply. The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees.

seventh_seal

In the face of such heavy themes and harsh landscapes it’s easy to forget how cinematographer Gunnar Fischer brings the world alive with his painterly photography and overlook the warmth and hope shining through the doom. The sun comes out for a traveling juggler with a wife and child and the knight finds something worth dying for in this loving family. The beauty and the intensity of the film has been lost to the reputation over the years. Watching it again brings it back to life.

The Seventh Seal was one of Criterion’s initial DVD releases. This new special edition, on DVD and Blu-ray, is beautifully mastered from a a 2006 film restoration. It’s never looked so vivid on home video (especially the Blu-ray) and the clarity and intensity of the image grounds the themes in a palpable, solid world, giving the weight of life on the line to the philosophy discussed in the film. The new editions are supplemented by Marie Nyreröd’s feature-length 2006 documentary Bergman Island (featuring candid interviews with the director conducted four years before he died and Bergman 101, a 35-minute video essay on Bergman’s life and career by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie (illustrated by stills and film clips), plus the commentary recorded by Cowie for the original release and other supplements.

L’important c’est d’aimer (aka The Important Thing is to Love), the first French feature by Polish expatriate Andrzej Zulawski, debuts on American home video courtesy a gorgeous DVD from Mondo Vision, which includes commentary by and a 16-minute video interview with Zulawksi (the former in English, the latter in French with subtitles) and a elegantly designed digipak. The film itself is:

a romantic drama of frustrated desires, frail relationships and explosive passions directed with understated intimacy. Romy Schneider strips away the glamour to play an aging actress with a failed career and won a Cesar for her emotionally fragile performance. Italian leading man Fabio Testi is the photographer who wants more than the impersonal affair she offers and Klaus Kinski as at his most charming as a flamboyant actor.

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