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The Reeler Blog

The Other Bergman

Harriet Andersson and Lars Ekborg in Monika

By Miriam Bale

It's Bergman week in New York, with opportunities to see four of his films -- two that are definitive (Persona and Fanny and Alexander at BAM) and two that are seen much less often (Monika at IFC Center and Shame, also at BAM). Shame has perhaps been undervalued while Monika has just been unavailable, which means that it can finally be seen the way it's meant to be seen: in a gorgeous 35-mm print that makes Harriet Andersson's bosom and bottom into monuments of worship on the screen.

"What were we dreaming when Monika was first shown in Paris?" wrote Jean-Luc Godard in his rapture "Bergmanorama," published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1958. "Ingmar Bergman was already doing what we accused French directors of not doing." He goes on to compare Bergman's female worship in this film to Vadim's And God Created Woman with Brigitte Bardot, adding that Monika practices this to perfection. In the same essay, Godard describes a scene towards the end of the film in which Andersson stares into the camera as "a sudden conspiracy between actor and spectator." It's a scene that clearly influenced Godard's continual exploration of this relationship -- perhaps the main theme of his 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her -- in his filmmaking career. When Godard made his own ode to womanliness starring Bardot, in the opening scene of Contempt, his two strong reactions to Monika seemed to breed one approach. When Bardot asks her lover -- and also the viewer -- what we like about her, body part by body part, Andersson's unbridled sensuality seemed to merge perfectly with that self-conscious conspiracy with the spectator, producing something very Godardian.

So Godard was doing Bergman, in a way, but then in Shame (from 1968, and screening tonight at BAM) a viewer can see something more unbelievable: Bergman doing Godard. It's Bergman's Weekend (which is meant as a compliment); both films are responses to the political havoc of 1967-68, especially in Vietnam, but Shame, the story of a marriage dissolving amid an imaginary civil war in the near future, is also a reaction to accusations that Bergman was immorally apolitical. The opposing sides -- in both the war and the marriage -- seem undifferentiated, chaotic and vague, especially since viewers see both action and logic through the Vaseline-covered lens of the not-too-bright apolitical couple (played by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman), two sensitive musicians who used to perform together in an orchestra before the war forced them to the country to become lingonberry farmers in semi-isolation. They pout, pose, and lose it at random.

It's the typical Bergman self-obsessed inward spiral, but it's unusually effective in Shame, even reading at times as self-criticism of his own shtick. The flip-flop between implosion and explosion, a natural result of the film's combination of domestic drama and war picture, is part of what balances this. Its subtle and shocking humor also helps -- humor that seemingly comes from improvisation, a technique Bergman had atypically explored in the making of this film. "I believe that every seriously intended work of art must contain an element of play," Bergman said in an interview just after the film's release. In Shame that play occasionally (and refreshingly) reveals itself in the looseness allowed in the lead performances, most notably in a scene in which Von Sydow becomes a killer -- a simulacrum of a manly man, surrounded by efficient war heroes.

At his death in July, echoes of "overrated" were heard about Bergman in print and in conversation, which seems just too obvious a statement to make. It's not useful. When looking at a broader spectrum of work by someone with such obsessive repetitions in theme and even of framing, it becomes clear that the interest is not in the forms that he's creating again and again, but in the stitching. Bergman's threading alternates between violently too tight or slapdashed, always hand-sewn, and when it's good you can't believe the thing he's created hasn't fallen apart.

Monika screens through Nov. 27 at IFC Center; Persona and Shame screen tonight at BAM with an introduction by actress Bibi Andersson and author Jonathan Lethem, respectively. Fanny and Alexander screens Wednesday at BAM with an introduction by Pernilla August.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at November 20, 2007 2:12 PM

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