Ingmar Bergman says that Saraband, his three-decades-late follow-up to Scenes From a Marriage, will be his final film. But if he keeps proving that he still has his great talent for nurturing brilliant and beautiful performers like Bibi Andersson, Lena Olin and now Julia Dufvenius, how will the tortured old sensualist be able to resist bringing them to the screen?
Lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and former academic Johan (Erland Josephson), whose notorious infidelities led to their divorce 30 years earlier, provide the moral and intellectual framework for this movie. Intuiting that Johan needs her despite years of silence, Marianne travels to his distant, isolated country house. The eager-for-contact ex-wife and the sometimes harsh, always rueful ex-husband eventually achieve a brief odd, yet intimate, rapport.
The film's volatile core, though, belongs to Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), Johan's widowed son from another marriage, and Karin (Dufvenius), his college-age daughter. Dufvenius is a revelation. Early on, Karin tells Marianne about a fight she had with her father. The convulsive emotion that pours out of this lithe, refined-looking blonde recalls the intensity of Andersson's erotic confession in Bergman's Persona (1966). Karin's chaos of feeling takes you aback and suggests that paternal over-possessiveness of a virulent kind has poisoned her relationship with her dad.
Even before his beloved spouse's death, Henrik refocused all the love he had for Anna onto his child; he and Karin sleep in the same bed in a lakeside cottage on Johan's land. Whether or not they make love - Henrik may think the situation isn't sexual - the prolonged kiss and close facial caress at the climax suggest that Henrik has conquered her emotionally to fulfill his own pathetic needs.
It all comes to a crisis when Johan plots for Karin, who's been studying cello with her father, to leave their rural hideaway and develop her art out in the world. Drowning in self-pity, Henrik sees Johan's game plan as one more act of fatherly sadism. Indeed, Johan has never loved his weak, hungry-for-affection son. And Henrik mistrusts Marianne as an ex-wife hovering over his father for a legacy.
Bergman's creation of family banter that turns irredeemably cruel remains without peer. So does his rendering of the understanding and consoling comfort that can pass for love. The only character who has a talent for loving in this whole sad bunch is the dead Anna - and writing about her, Bergman turns to mush. We hear that she lightened the world with her presence, but even as a figure spoken of but never seen except in a photograph, I found her insufferable. She seems more of a plaster saint than anyone on the primitive plaster painting of Jesus and his disciples that Marianne prays to in a country church. Bergman presents her without question; the movie could be called, without irony, Everybody Loves Anna.
(The real title, Saraband, refers to a stately dance, and also, more specifically, to a movement from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 5.)
What lives in the movie is Dufvenius' passionate, sullied purity as Karin and Ahlstedt's tragic emotional myopia as Henrik. Once again, "I'm sorry" or "forgive me" become the key words in a Bergman chamber drama. But in passages like Karin's leave-taking from her troubled dad, Bergman's artistry earns our gratitude, not our forgiveness.
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Borje Ahlstedt and Julia Dufvenius.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Time 107 minutes.