Saraband: Ingmar Bergman Reunites Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson

You can add Ingmar Bergman to the list of great directors, such as Bunuel, Huston, and Kurosawa, who did some of their best work at an old age, at the twilight of their lengthy career.

Rumored to be the Swedish maestro’s last film, “Saraband” is a major work of art. Yes, art. It displays the talent of a mature artist, who turned 87 this year, revisiting old themes and old movies.  For film lovers of a certain age, watching “Saraband” is like gazing at an image out of our own collective memory scrapbook.

In “Saraband,” Bergman reunites Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, as Marianne and Johan, the loving and raging couple whose marriage and divorce were dissected in 1973’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” Despite the fact that the names of the central couple are the same, Bergman has denied a connection between the two movies. But we know better, based on the biographical details, the progressive age of the protagonists, their careers and families—and the actors who play them.

Anyone expecting a tender elegy would be disappointed.  Despite a few light and wistful moments, this reunion is harsh and thorny, in contrast to the exterior tranquil setting, a mountain cabin in the woods where Johan lives. Bergman hasn’t lightened up in the winter of his years. “Saraband” offers an emotionally searing look at the ways we hurt the ones we love and the ones we have come to hate.

Turning to the camera, Ullmann, with a smile that’s both mischievous and ironic, shares family photos with the audience. She reveals in the opening monologue that she and her ex-husband Johan have had no contact in 30 years. Strangely compelled to contact him, she pays him a visit in his remote country cottage. Bergman doesn’t bother to explain Marianne’s sudden urge to see Johan, after three decades, and there’s no need to. Playfully signaling to the audience to be quiet, she sneaks up on Johan and startles him.

Upon arrival, Marianne discovers that her beloved Johan has devolved into a cranky old man, who torments his aging son, from a different marriage. At first, Marianne is a bystander to Johan’s cruelty, but gradually she is pulled into the family intrigues and becomes an active participant.

Bergman’s craft is undeniable, and so are the depth of his writing, the sting of his observations, and the guidance of his actors. Excellently shot on Digital HD, Bergman shows that he is an adaptable master on a technical level, too.

“Saraband” is sort of a sequel to the 1973 “Scenes from A Marriage, “originally shown as mini-series on Swedish TV, before hitting the theatrical markets with a theatrical version of close to 3 hours. In that film, Josephson and Ullmann played a seemingly happy couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Bergman reunites these two great actors (and icons), who now play divorced couple meeting for the first time in three decades.

In the new story, Johan has a 61-year-old son, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), who’s recently being widowed, from a previous marriage. He lives nearby with his 19-year daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), an aspiring musician. Both father and daughter still mourn the death of their wife-mother Anna, who died two years earlier from cancer. Though seen only in a photograph, Anna qualifies as the film’s fifth character for the camera keeps going to her portrait,
Henrik, a music teacher, wants to forge Karin into a world-renowned cellist, but his authority is possessive, with slight intimations of incest. His domineering nature provokes clashes that are not resolved, and at the end, Karin’s flight leads to a tragic disaster.

Henrik and Karin make up a more interesting couple than the older one. There is more dramatic urgency in their scenes, which are tinged with touches of hysteria and high moral tones. Though slight, however, the scenes between Johan and Marianne are not as perfunctory as they first seem to be

One scene is handled with humor and charm. Due to circumstances, Johan and Marianne are forced to share the same bed together again, and their nudity causes some embarrassment to them as well as to us viewers. Now in her 70s, Ullmann has aged gracefully and naturally, but watching her, it’s impossible not to think of how beautiful she was at the prime of her career.

The film’s simplicity is deceptive, and I guarantee that the more complex and disturbing notes will hit you long after the screening is over. I have my own misgivings about the beginning and ending, but emotionally speaking, there are not many false notes in the entire film.

With many self-referential touches, the movie benefiting from its formal structure: The tale is divided into prologue, eight chapters, and epilogue, each given a title, and each running about the same time, around 10 minutes. The intimate, almost claustrophobic scenes in “Saraband” offers snippets, as opposed to fully drawn-out portraits in “Scenes from a Marriage.”
As noted above, the film’s focus is not so much on recriminations or reconciliation of this divorced couple, but on Johan’ s old son and his beautiful daughter. Under her controlling father’s tutelage, Karin aspires to audition for a musical conservatory–the film’s title comes from Bach’s Fifth Suite Sarabande.”
For those who have seen “Scenes from a Marriage,” however, the reprise of their roles will bring an instant history, which is helpful, because the two share few scenes together. In the 1973 film, Marianne was angry and tortured, whereas here she’s calm, serene, and smarter. In contrast, Johan is still as sarcastic and judgmental he always, perhaps even more so.
The battle between father and son, in which Karin is the wedge between the dictatorial Johan and the abused Henrik, dominates the film. In a very harsh scene, Henrik implores for an advance of his share of the inheritance from his estranged and bitter father, who continues to show nothing but contempt for him.

Karin is a cello prodigy, who has a bright future if she can pull away from the smothering love of her father, and Johan is all too happy to help her, especially if it means extra pain to his hated son. As Karin, Julia Dufvenius walks with a straight back and the slumped shoulders of a cellist and the obedient daughter that she is, but there is nothing reserved about her performance.

Marianne begins the film with old photos and a direct address to the camera. She hasn’t seen Johan in 30 years, and she feels an urge to see what the old codger is up to. She pays a visit to his country home and discovers, unsurprisingly, that Johan is a bitter old man, nursing deep grievances, divorced from sympathy and kindness.

It’s redundant to use the words “great acting” and “Bergman” together. But the acting in “Saraband” is remarkably good. Ullmann has a somewhat passive role here, but Josephson, who’s only five years younger than his director, has a major role. Ahlstedt and Dufvenius are magnetic as they face off and pour salt on reopened wounds.

On another level, the film serves a special function for its women: It’s a valentine to Liv Ullmann, and a star-making film debut for Julia Dufvenius, in the same way that “After the Rehearsal” introduced Lena Olin to an advantage; Bergman has always been great with his actresses, both older and younger.
Bergman has explored father-son conflicts before, most notably in the drama, “Wild Strawberries,” but, relatively speaking, that 1957 film had an upbeat resolution, an anomaly in Bergman’s universe, which has never been known for happy endings.

Bergman again weaves his magic through the tragic intricacies and stifled volatility of his central quartet. Marianne, aghast and relatively unscathed, observes along with the rest of us the emotional prisons that all the characters have built around themselves.
If “Scenes from a Marriage” (which is available on a special DVD edition) was an uncompromisingly harrowing and honest account of marital relationships, Saraband does the same for familial relationships.