Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Liv Ullman at 70: a look back at Saraband

Liv Ullman turns 70 today. Her strangely angular, deeply sensual beauty; her tremendous presence even, perhaps especially, when silent; her worry, joy and wonder; her sometimes near-palpable warmth; her sometimes fearsome wrath: all of these qualities have kept me more or less spellbound since my teens, when I first saw her withhold words, incite confessions, and move ghostily toward that climactic merger of mind and spirit in
Persona (1966) . 

She's truly one of the greatest of them all, and nearly as formidable a director as she is an actress. She's all the more admirable, too, for her ardent humanitarian work, though the greedy movielover in me would like nothing more than to see her return far more often to the screen, where she still radiates so much emotional texture, more so, in fact, with the force of familiarity. For this reason I figured I'd mark the occasion by posting my review of her final performance for her great collaborator and one-time husband, the late Ingmar Bergman. I wrote the piece before Bergman's death, not to mention that of cinematographer Sven Nykvist's, and have left references to the artists' former status among the living as is. 

Ullman's Norwegian, I realize, but since she's most familiar to us in Swedish, I'll opt to say på födelsedagen!

In the realm of art, the inextricable conspiracy between mortality and the photographic image is probably made most palpable and immediate in our relationship to seeing actors age in film. Watch a retrospective of any actor with a long, prolific career, and you soon notice that the way time makes its mark upon that actor causes the work to resonate more deeply. The almost spectral, larger-than-life presence becomes fused with the gradually dispersed pieces of evidence that reveal the all-too-human vulnerability to time’s passage. This betrayal of the myth of youth in the movies is one of the phenomena that make the medium uniquely powerful.

The mere illusion of time’s passage was one of the pivotal elements in our relationship to the characters in Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 television series
Scenes From a Marriage. Over six episodes, Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) endure the most tumultuous years of their relationship, finally winding up in, perhaps, their last embrace that literally seems to exist outside of time and the laws that govern every other part of their ultimately separate lives. The illusion is masterfully created through the intimate collaboration between Bergman, cinematographer Sven Nykvist and the two main actors, already familiar to viewers from previous roles in several prominent Bergman films, and the result is extremely moving.

But with
Saraband (2003), also made for television and which Bergman has announced as his final work, time is no longer an illusion: Ullman and Josephson really are 30 years older now and their age is not only noticeable but an intrinsic feature in the affectionate but no less unwavering gaze of Bergman’s camera. What’s impressive about this is not simply that we, for example, notice the disquieting involuntary tremor in Josephson’s hands (he’s 82), but that he and Ullman, two of the world’s most accomplished living actors, have somehow managed to completely integrate their own ageing process with those of their characters. As with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy’s characters in Before Sunset (04), the actors have managed to, with utterly convincing nuance, evoke the same characters they played previously and to do so in a way that manages to account for all the messy life these characters have lived in the interim. What’s more, they make it look organic and easy.

Bergman, however, is not revisiting a previous incarnation but simply delivering the work he’s compelled to at this stage, breaking away from nearly all of the conventions of
Scenes that don’t suit his current temperament. Nothing stinks of excess sentimentality or gimmickry here (aside perhaps from a slightly winky reference to 1968's Hour of the Wolf early in the film), but it’s played out like business as usual in the pared-down aesthetic characteristic of all Bergman’s television work undertaken after his last cinematic feature, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander. It begins, rather disarmingly, with Marianne addressing us directly, looking through old photos, giving a brief recap of her perfectly ordinary life since Scenes, and explaining the impulse to end her 30-year estrangement from Johan that sets Saraband in motion.

Marianne and Johan’s reunion anchors
Saraband, but, wisely, it’s not made the whole of the film’s content. In fact, the more dramatic conflict isn’t between those two at all but between Johan’s son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and his daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), both of them cellists living off Johan’s considerable wealth and alongside the phantom of Karin’s long-deceased mother, who remains as beloved to all involved as Henrik is resented. The complicated, tormented (and clearly incestuous) nature of the relationship between Henrik and Karin certainly complies with the intense skepticism of family values that informed Scenes, but is offset by Karin’s youthful luminosity in a superb performance that implies the fruitful collaboration Dufvenius and Bergman might have shared if her career wasn’t just starting as his apparently reaches its end.

As observed in Time Out’s review,
Saraband is “less a sequel than an expansive coda,” and while the psychodrama plays itself out in the foreground, the story of Marianne and Johan quietly re-blooms and then fades before once again becoming some densely potent image in their past. The reconfirmation of their love isn’t a magical remembering and correcting of love, as in movies like Random Harvest (1942), but a reminder of the genuine enigma of a love that cannot be managed. The combined effect of seeing both Scenes and Saraband leads us to the notion that while we’re helpless to control or predict the sudden shifts of love, we must stay attuned to that voice within us that might some day compel us to just reach out toward others regardless of what may happen. In short, it urges us to not let time just slip away.

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