A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.
A young nurse, Alma, is put in charge of Elisabeth Vogler: an actress who is seemingly healthy in all respects, but will not talk. As they spend time together, Alma speaks to Elisabeth constantly, never receiving any answer. Alma eventually confesses her secrets to a seemingly sympathetic Elisabeth and finds that her own personality is being submerged into Elisabeth's persona.Written by
The most ambiguous, inviting, surreal, whatever-you-can-think philosophical experiment by Bergman
Writing from a hospital bed (as he did with Wild Strawberries, two of these being films strung out from anguish), Ingmar Bergman put down almost anything that was in his head to start with (the first five minutes- some of the most startling and thoroughly symbolic minutes he's ever directed), then transposed into a story of two women, or one. This was one of the landmark 'art-films' of the 1960's, with hints of the horrors of war (in one memorable scene, Elisabeth looks at a television screen at images of death), introspection regarding sex and identity, existentialism, and what it means to be an actor.
Some of the more famous directors in history have a kind of 'notorious' film, by which many people who may not know the bulk of their works know them by one particular work (with Hitchcock it could be Psycho, Lucas' Star Wars, Bunuel with Un chien Andalou, Breathless). This could, arguably, be the one for Bergman, despite a couple of others likely also holding claim to that title. In other words, this could be a good place to start with the director if you're not familiar with his films, or it might not be. But keep this in mind- it's one of his most unique departures as a filmmaker.
Two of his leading ladies (and, ahem, loves), Bibi Andersson and 25 year-old Liv Ullmann, star as a nurse and an actress, who for the bulk of the film are at a Doctor's cottage as the nurse tries to help and likely cure Elisabeth of her ailment (froze on stage, silent but incredibly observant). In the meantime, Alma the nurse, in a role that gives Andersson more talking-points than any other film she's been in, goes through some hurtful parts of her past, and just tries to understand her counter-part. At one point, a vein of existentialism is ruptured thoughtfully, when Alma gets Elisabeth to say "No, don't", when she threatens her. When I first saw this film, I knew this scene would come after reading Roger Ebert's review. But I had no idea it would hit me like it did. There is such a great, compelling tension between these two that Andersson and Ullmann convey that it is what makes the film work. Any lessor actresses might fumble up the whole lot of it.
While it isn't my favorite Bergman film (though it is unfair to pick favorites sometimes when it comes to someone as huge in the cine-consciousness as him), there are many things that had me come back to it after being a little awe-struck on my first viewing last year. For one thing, there's Sven Nykvist, with one of the strongest, most varying eyes in all of European cinema.
In the first five minutes, of course, there is some fascinating stuff, but even in the scenes of long dialog and monologue (i.e. the unforgettable speech about being on the beach from Alma), where the lighting is so delicate and sharp with the shadows that you really feel like the weight of this situation is closing in on the characters. Or, of course, when the two actresses' faces are super-imposed, which can be interpreted in more ways than one (either as a grand statement, or as pretension, or something else). I was also very moved by the pace of the film, how it fills each minute (it's not a long movie) in ways that some movies just float minutes by.
Now, this is the kind of Bergman film that can't be turned on any time (not to make it sound un-watchable, it certainly isn't). But it does ask to be viewed when in a certain frame of mind- if you're looking for a movie to show off to your friends, like it's the Euro/avant-garde version of Fight Club minus the violence, look away. It poses a good many questions for a viewer, especially one who knows of Bergman's themes he's explored before and after this film's release. How do we feel, or know we're feeling? What keeps us closed in? Why do we hurt? And are we only one person at a time?
It's all the more puzzling that Bergman's climax isn't a very easy one (not as doomed as with Seventh Seal but not as cheerful as Fanny and Alexander), as Alma has another monologue with Elisabeth, about her son she hasn't seen in a long while- this famously seen from two different angles, one after the other. Furthermore, it is arguably Bergman's most self-conscious film to date (the commentary on the DVD carries it well), however it may not be as off-putting as with some of Godard.
To put it another way, there are two sides to the subject matter, the film, the director, and the audience.
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