The Magazine

Swede Success

Ingmar Bergman was wildly overrated -- but he still made some great films

Nov 27, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 11 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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In 1972 an international film critics' poll, conducted by Sight and Sound magazine, determined that two of the ten greatest films ever made had been written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Almost thirty years later, as the ballots for this decade's Sight and Sound poll go out, the Swedish director's work is almost totally neglected. Ingmar Bergman is still alive, but increasingly ignored.

Francois Truffaut once said that he had watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes twenty-five times and that every time he had become so absorbed in the story that he forgot to study the film's technical details. Could anyone say the same about Bergman's much-acclaimed The Silence, an almost plotless film about the experiences of two disturbed sisters, whose relationship is never adequately explained, in an unnamed country whose language they do not know? Seen more than once or twice, many of Bergman's most famous films remind one of that old joke about the man who had suffered for his art and now wished others to as well. Do any of Bergman's films deserve to be called classics? Certainly none of Bergman's avant-garde films, like The Silence or Persona, do. But is this the Bergman work deserving attention?

Bergman's reputation for artiness isn't completely deserved. Several of his earliest films to attract attention outside of Sweden are light and engaging. Dreams, A Lesson In Love, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Wild Strawberries all are. These movies are often portentous when they are meant to be funny, but they also have wit and a gentle, melancholy spirit reminiscent of the plays of Jean Anouilh. Additionally, these Bergman films are mostly conventional in style, so much so that Bergman made use of a film composer, Erik Nordgren, whose scores, although saccharine, amplify both the pace and the sentiments of the last two of these films.

Dreams, in particular, is an alternately ironic and despairing look at the affairs of two women, one young and one old. The younger one is a fashion model who meets a rich old man who finds that she reminds him of his beloved but deranged wife, now in confinement. The scenes of their brief interlude together are handled with a dramatic efficiency that draws little attention to itself. The young Bergman was no show-off. He skillfully used soft-focus close-ups to hint at the couple's initial attraction and remote, wide-angle photography that emphasizes their ultimate and inevitable estrangement.

A Lesson In Love, the story of a doctor's elaborate scheme to regain his wife's attachment by revealing her lover as a dipsomaniac, has two virtues most people do not associate with Bergman films: genuine laughs and graceful plot twists. It seems unjust that it is not better remembered, though it announced that Bergman was capable of light, clever writing.

That style is displayed as well in the more famous Smiles of a Summer Night. This is a film that could have used some sharper editing to clip away its undue length -- one-hundred and eleven minutes is surely a bit long for a farce -- and it is at times excessively sententious. However, it does ably display the author's affection for Marivaux and Feydeau, harking back to the elegance and fancy of traditional French comedy.

In all these films, Bergman had been gradually working toward a more psychological approach. He particularly loved Vittorio de Sica's movie Umberto D., which was released in 1955. Two years later, he used its example to make what is probably his greatest picture, Wild Strawberries. Here, Bergman managed to capture one of cinema's most memorable and affecting performances, given by a non-actor, the retired Swedish silent film director Victor Sjostrom, playing a doctor facing intimations of his mortality.

What at the time seemed experimental about the film -- Bergman's decision to shoot scenes of Sjostrom talking to figures from his youth as he revisits them in memory -- seems anything but experimental today, and, as is the case with each of these movies, we are captured by the mix of whimsy and pathos. These qualities were also notably present in his sensuous but bleak story of the failure of a marriage between a sensitive young man and the tart he takes up with in Summer with Monika.

Bergman was still striving to entertain in his almost equally memorable wry comedy-fantasy of 1960, The Devil's Eye. Neither sensational nor purposelessly ambiguous, the film examines the easy ways in which love in its earliest stages can founder -- by using the idea that Satan has sent Don Juan back to seduce a loving but flighty virgin.