Watching The Best Intentions, a movie based on Ingmar Bergman’s reconstruction of his parents’ problematic courtship and turbulent marriage, I kept thinking of how much better the film would have been if the master himself had directed it.
In 1983, after the release of his masterpiece Fanny and Alexander, Bergman announced his retirement as a filmmaker. To quit while one is at the top of one’s creativity is a shrewd, though never easy, decision. Bergman must have sensed that he could not possibly top his achievement, and thus devoted his energies to TV and the stage. And he probably couldn’t face the inevitable agony of directing such a personal story.
Bergman didn’t direct, but his angst permeates the movie. Bergman left his imprint on the work by choosing Danish filmmaker Billy August to direct it and suggesting Pernilla August, who played the servant in Fanny and Alexander, for the role of his mother.
Bergman’s intensely personal and nuanced screenplay for Best Intentions is a masterly prequel to Fanny and Alexander, covering the decade that preceded Bergman’s birth; in the last shot, the pregnant Anna carries the future director in her womb.
Set between l908 and l918, the movie tells the fateful story of two headstrong lovers at cross-purposes. Spoiled and unyielding, the upper-middle class Anna (August) is the favorite daughter of her loving father (played with great subtlety by Max von Sydow) and shrewd mother. A sensitive divinity student, Henrik (Samuel Froler) is also proud and stubborn. The severe Henrik is immediately attracted to Anna’s magnetic charm, her pleasure in the small joys of life.
But Henrik is a man with a big chip on his shoulder. He and his mother have been estranged from his wealthy grandparents. Early on, when his dying grandmother wishes to heal the family conflict and see him, the stubborn Henrik refuses. Indeed, the dominant motif is people’s inability to forgive.
The originality of Bergman’s writing derives from its uncompromising portrait of a marriage. His lean, multi-shaded screenplay illuminates the two characters so intimately and profoundly that after three hours and six minutes, you will feel you know them well. (Incidentally, the longer version of the film, shot as a six-hour TV series, will be shown in the U.S. in l993).
August, whose Pelle the Conqueror won the l988 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture, is a skillful filmmaker, but he lacks the brilliance of Bergman. His modest work here shows elegant restraint. His direction is text-book, alternating long shots of nature with medium shots of dialogue scenes. But with the exception of a few telling moments, August’s mise en scene is too detached–it is not as annoying or upsetting, as the material needs to be.
In general, Best Intentions lacks Bergman’s passion and anguish. Without his unique touch, August’s film just meanders from one marital fight to another. August by no means trivializes the film’s emotional warfare–the marriage is presented in utmost realistic detail.
The movie celebrates the power of love against great odds: the manipulative attempts of Anna’s mother to keep them apart, Henrik’s engagement to another woman and, of course, the lovers’ divergent personalities. But the movie also shows something different: the power of fate. Henrik and Anna are bound together by forces they themselves not always understand.
Best Intentions is a quintessential Bergman work. It also sheds light on the kinds of films Bergman would make and the obsessive concerns that would preoccupy him during his illustrious career.
Best Intentions and The Hairdresser’s Husband provide merciless deconstruction of two marriages, defined and shaped not only by their personae, but also by the cultures that surrounds them. If Leconte’s movie is made in the French tradition of amour fou, the Swedish is a sober, cerebral scrutiny.