Sunday, January 15, 2006


Winter Sonata

From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:
saraband: 1 : a stately court dance of the 17th and 18th centuries resembling the minuet 2 : the music for the saraband in slow triple time with accent on the second beat

Scenes From a Pseudo-Sequel

By Edward Copeland
Ingmar Bergman will turn 88 this year and, despite his retirement from feature film-making, he just keeps going along. While he hasn't made a film for theatrical release since the exquisite Fanny and Alexander in 1983, he's continued to direct countless films for television and contribute scripts for other directors to realize. In 2005, one of those television efforts (alas, which makes it ineligible for Oscar consideration), showed up in American theaters. Saraband revisits the characters of Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson) from Bergman's great 70s work Scenes From a Marriage.

What's amazing to me is what relatively little notice Saraband received in the American press. It never played where I lived, so I had to wait for its arrival last week on DVD. It was worth the wait, because as Bergman approaches the wrapup of his life's story, he still has the power to captivate a viewer's heart and mind.

In Saraband, Marianne decides that she needs to visit her ex-husband Johan after decades of separation. She finds him living in a cabin in the woods with his son from a first marriage, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt, living nearby with Johan's granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius).

Marianne arrives to find a tense mess: Johan and Henrik don't hide their contempt for one another and Karin is divided between her loyalty to her father and her desire to pursue a burgeoning musical career.

Aside from a prologue and epilogue that has Marianne alone, Saraband is made up of 10 separate duets between the various combinations of the four characters — and it is riveting.

Ullmann is as luminous as ever and can express more with slight facial movements than most actresses can with full-blown Oscar-baiting speechifying. Josephson, who will turn 83 this year, still maintains his ability to hold the screen with an icy stare, a rare smile or expressions of fear.

The other half of the quartet (Ahlstedt, Dufvenius) are more than able to hold their own with their formidable acting elders, especially Ahlstedt who has a lot of IMDb credits, including Fanny and Alexander, but who has never registered with me before.

It's a shame we won't be seeing Saraband scooping up any Oscar nominations in an otherwise weak year, but don't miss the chance to watch it on DVD. The DVD even includes an interesting 45-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Saraband, where you can see the master Bergman at work.

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Ahlstedt is something of a cult celebrity. He achieved notoriety in the late 1960s as the star of I am Curious - Yellow, the first film screened in "respectable" venues to feature full frontal male nudity. The film was an art house sensation in this country, provoking a firestorm of controversy and intense debate among notables on different sides of the ideological divide (Norman Mailer, John Simon and Stanley Kauffman were among its most vocal defenders). There was initially some doubt that the film could even be legally released in The United States - The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the film's distribution, albeit in a split decision, a landmark event which forver shattered one of the last remaining taboos of mainstream cinema. The Criterion Collection's dvd features a documentary detailling these events, and the film's significance as a cultural landmark.
I'm looking forward to seeing Saraband, and thanks for letting me know exactly how Bergman's "retirement" works. I thought he retired and then un-retired every so often to make something; but it's retired-from-theatrical films and ok-go for TV!

You're also right about the lack of press about Saraband. You'd think a Bergman film would attract some more attention, given his status as a master filmmaker.
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