Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ingrid Bergman at PFA

I was able to catch six films at the Ingrid Bergman retrospective at the PFA.

The Count of the Old Town; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1935)
Walpurgis Night; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1935)
A Woman’s Face; Swedish with subtitles; (1938)
June Night; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1940)
Voyage in Italy with George Sanders; directed by Roberto Rossellini; (1953)
Autumn Sonata with Liv Ullmann; directed by Ingmar Bergman; Swedish with subtitles; (1978)

Electronic subtitling means that a person was operating a laser device that projected subtitles onto the screen. Subtitles means that the subtitles were on the film stock. I make a distinction between subtitles and electronic subtitles because the electronic subtitling frequently malfunctioned (either the device or the person) which detracted from the films.

Of the films, I was largely unimpressed by Bergman's earlier works except to say she was quite attractive as a young woman. A Woman’s Face was interesting because Bergman was wearing Lon Chaney type makeup to portray a disfigured woman; I can't recall what caused the facial scar. I chuckled at the ending which in hindsight was rather depressing. After having her scars surgically removed and assuming an alias to conceal her criminal history, Bergman emigrates to 1938. I'm sure the Japanese treated foreign nationals well when they occupied Manchukuo. An attractive, statuesque, Aryan woman must have fared well in Nanking.

The film was quite melodramatic. Bergman runs a blackmail racket but after her surgery, Bergman becomes a nanny for a wealthy family. Of course, she has agreed to kill the boy she whose care she is charged with. Over time, her inner beauty catches up to her newly restored external beauty. A tragic sleigh ride accident stunts her emotional growth and happiness. Bergman was quite interesting when she played the sneering and malevolent scarfaced blackmailer. A Woman’s Face was remade with Joan Crawford in the lead role. By comparison, Bergman portrayal was subtle genius but the film is too melodramatic to be taken seriously.


Voyage in Italy was the most influential of the film I saw. I guess I would call it post-neorealism with some foreshadowing of Godard's Contempt. Bergman is directed by her husband, Roberto Rossellini. The plot, such that it is, is about English couple visiting Italy while their marriage is disintegrating. Much of the film serves as a visual travelogue of Naples (similar to the role Capri served in Contempt).

Sanders and Bergman portray Mr. and Mrs. Joyce who bicker constantly for reasons which are unclear. Sanders has a roving eye but when confronted with an opportunity for adultery, he demures. In very British fashion, they politely agree to a divorce but they get caught in a crowded parade route and reconcile in the last 5 minutes of the film. Before that, we are treated to some nice dialogue as they trade barbs about his behavior, her relationship with a deceased friend and argue about her taking the car. It sounds trivial and in fact, the dialogue was trivial. I could never figure out what was driving them apart other than the fact their marriage had stagnated to the degree they allowed it. Cinematically, it was an opportunity of Bergman and Sanders to play off each other with detached, British sensibilities and for Rossellinni to film the scenic areas near Naples. Bergman was quite convincing as a middle-aged Brit.

Autumn Sonata united the Bergmans - Ingmar and Ingrid although rather late in the careers. The film is an exploration of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (Bergman and Liv Ullmann). There is a lot more to be said but I was mild about the film. Bergman turned in a nice performance; Ullman tended towards histrionics. Mom is selfish because she was a dedicated concert pianist; daughter doesn't have the inner passion to be a great pianist and she also hates her mother. There is a disabled sister and hints of pedophilia that give Bergman discomfort because of her tacit complicity.

All things considered, I didn't find the Bergman series so entertaining. I missed some of the better known films in the series - Stromboli and Intermezzo. I didn't really see her star power in the the early Bergman films. I saw her beauty, a few respectable performances and some forgettable films. Voyage in Italy teamed Rossellini & Bergman at their creative peaks but that was after Bergman conquered Hollywood and was driven from the US in disgrace (for her adulterous affair with Rossellini).

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