BFI has now released the third of its four boxsets of Ingmar Bergman’s large body of work. The second set has Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, covering the period in which Bergman really figured out his style. All of the sets deliver a mixed bag, with films ranging from the sublime to the atrocious—Bergman and comedy are never a good mix, in my opinion. This set includes some of his finest work, such The Virgin Spring, Winter Light and perhaps his best, Persona,alongside some of his comedies and the pretentious TV movie The Rite.
The comedies are practically unwatchable, so there isn’t much to be said about them. All These Women is only notable for a couple of reasons: it was his first colour film, and was meant to be parody of Fellini’s 8½. However, it was such an unmitigated disaster that Bergman had to rethink his entire filmmaking process, and that gave us Persona. The other comedy in the set is The Devil’s Eye, which is again a fiasco with its dull comedic fantasy involving Don Juan being sent from Hell to Earth to seduce a virgin and spoil her pure wedding. Luckily for us, Bergman would not make an overt comedy again after All These Women.
The Virgin Spring, however, is one of Bergman’s best. It is essentially a medieval rape and revenge film. Max von Sydow plays Töre, whose daughter has been raped in medieval Sweden. He then attempts to avenge his daughter. Unsurprisingly, van Sydow is very good as the father. It also features some great cinematography from Sven Nykvist, who later also worked with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Nykvist was one of Bergman’s regular collaborators, and worked on most of his best films.
You definitely get a feel for medieval Sweden in The Virgin Spring. There are pagan and religious elements, and a very Shakespearean story with a Macbeth aspect to it. It’s safe to say that although it was based on Swedish folklore, the film clearly owes a bit to Rashoman, so much so that Bergman himself actually dismissed the film as “a wretched imitation of Kurosawa.” It’s interesting that this Swedish art film could be seen as kicking off the rape-revenge genre.
The Virgin Spring’s influence has popped up in some very interesting places—for example, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left is basically an updated remake (as well as a statement on the Vietnam war.)
I had not seen Through a Glass Darkly in a long time, but it was the first of the director’s film that I watched properly many years ago. It’s a very stereotypical Bergman about faith (and therefore an atheist movie, as most of his are). Harriet Andersson plays a young woman who has been released from an asylum and returned to her family. She is emotionally disconnected, a state that is visually enhanced by the film’s location on the island of Fårö—this was the first of his films to be shot on Fårö. She believes she is being visited by God, but there is an undertone of incest. Through a Glass Darkly provides a big canvas for what is essentially a small chamber drama.
Winter Light is one of my favourite Bergmans. Paul Schrader fans may recognise certain scenes, because First Reformed shares some themes, and its main character and starting premise are very similar—a priest is having a crisis of faith and a young man has committed suicide. It’s incredibly well done, and one of his films that moves quite well at a pacy 80 minutes (some Bergman films can be a bit of a slog, even when they are quite short).
One difference between First Reformed and Winter Light is that, in keeping with the time period when Winter Light was made, Bergman’s core issue for the unhappy parishioner was nuclear warfare rather than the environment. It is an effective film, and a fine piece of work. If I had to suggest just one of Bergman’s films to start with, Winter Light would be up there.
Finally, The Silence completes the series that some call Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” It’s a weird one where he starts to go a little bit surreal. It’s about two drifters who end up in a strange hotel, and there isn’t much of a plot. They may or may not be the same person, which echoes Persona, and could be seen as a dry run for that film. I didn’t get a lot out of it, and found it a bit pretentious.
Persona is probably his best and most interesting film. It has been analysed in every direction humanly possible, and might be the most talked-about film outside of Citizen Kane. It’s also one of the few Bergman films that you could see as a horror film (the other would be Hour of the Wolf). Persona is about a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), and Elisabet, a patient, played by Liv Ullman. As the film goes along, they move to a cottage and confide in each other. There may be a sexual component to their friendship, but that’s not explored. Alma starts to struggle to distinguish herself from her patient.
Persona was clearly an influence on David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. There’s even a sort of vampiric aspect to it, as well as a very unique visual technique, making it far more experimental than anything Bergman had done before. It’s a masterful film, and as Peter Cowie has said, “everything one says about Persona may and can be contradicted, the opposite will also be true.” So it’s completely open to your interpretation, and hands down Bergman’s most interesting film. You also get the sense that he had seen all of these more experimental movies, like Antonioni’s work, and wanted to create his own grand non-linear narrative movie. He succeeded, making Persona his crowning achievement and film everyone should see. Like most films that critics are obsessed about, it’s also about cinema; Fårö is also a “star” here.
Persona has been a hugely influential movie, of course, but mainly in genre cinema, which is not exactly where you would put Bergman. Robert Altman’s Three Women, Lars van Trier’s work, and films like Black Swan, Fight Club and Don’t Look Now have all taken their cues from Persona at times.
Sadly, due to licensing issues Hour of the Wolf, Shame and The Passion of Anna are not included here because they couldn’t be licensed from MGM. Instead, the set closes with The Rite. It’s a really pretentious TV movie (Bergman did quite a few films for television in the ‘60s and later) in which he is trying to be Kafka. It’s about a theatre troupe that is called into court, supposedly because of an obscene performance, but they don’t understand why they are there. And it’s a weak point of his work in the 1960s to end on.
The Blu-Ray set spreads the films over five discs, with The Virgin Spring being the only film with a commentary track. That was done by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson. Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence feature archival introductions from Bergman from 2003. Richard Ayoade supplies an introduction for Persona recorded at BFI Southbank from 2011. The trailer for Persona is included, and the set also contains a 100-page book featuring new essays by Catherine Wheatley, Claire Marie Healy, Jannike Åhlund, Philip Kemp, Ellen Cheshire, Geoff Andrew, Andrew Graves and Kat Ellinger.