Rummaging in the Ruins of Bergman's 'Marriage'

Published: July 8, 2005

"Saraband" was shown as part of last year's New York Film Festival. Following are excerpts from Stephen Holden's review, which appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 15, 2004. The film, in Swedish with English subtitles, opens today in Manhattan.

Ingmar Bergman has said that Saraband, his bleak made-for-television epilogue to Scenes From a Marriage, will be his final statement on film. For the great Swedish writer and director, final turns out to mean unbendingly severe. There has been no mellowing with age.

As you watch his swan song, which stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, playing the embattled ex-spouses Johan and Marianne 30 years after Scenes From a Marriage, you feel the crushing weight of time pressing in around them. These solemn, world-weary characters rummaging through the past are still possessed by their nagging inner demons.

Ms. Ullmann, now 65, and Mr. Josephson, 81, have a supreme mastery of the Bergman style. Their performances are spiritual and emotional X-rays.

As in all of Mr. Bergman's later work, you have a sense of a ritualized penitence being re-enacted. To these actors, who have served him for decades, he must loom as an omniscient visionary whose canon is as inviolably sacred to them as Freud's theoretical writings appear to be to a dwindling pool of Freudian acolytes.

Mr. Bergman's psychic world is an unchanging Scandinavian twilight, saturated in deep music (here it is Bach, Bruckner and others) that invites contemplation and evokes tormenting dreams of an elusive spiritual peace. As ever, women are the salvation of men. They alone have the capacity to forgive and empathize, even after their terrible mistreatment at the hands of the opposite sex. And men, no matter how accomplished and feted by the world, remain hard-bitten patriarchal taskmasters vainly striving to rule their pitiful little fiefs.

Saraband, which unfolds in 10 short chapters, opens with a prologue in which Marianne, sitting at a desk strewn with old photographs, addresses the camera and introduces the story of her impulsive visit to Johan, whom she hasn't seen in 30 years. The couple have two grown daughters, one married and living in Australia, the other catatonic and confined to a mental hospital.

Although Marianne shares some marital reminiscences with Johan near the beginning of the film, she is predominantly a sounding board for the emotional wreckage she encounters on his estate in the middle of a forest. Living in Johan's lakeside cottage are his 61-year-old son, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), by an earlier marriage, and Henrik's 19-year-old daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Both Henrik and Karin are musicians, locked in grief over the death of Henrik's wife, Anna, two years earlier.

Henrik has transferred the fierce possessiveness he felt toward Anna to his daughter, a musical prodigy and his student on the cello. Father and daughter even share the same bed. Henrik believes he can't live without Karin and fears an imminent break that would leave him "destitute," as he puts it. Karin has already begun fighting his tyrannical devotion.

No love is lost between Johan and Henrik. As they trade bitter accusations, Johan, who controls the purse strings, systematically humiliates Henrik, treating him like a whipped dog. Their warfare makes for one of the ugliest portraits of father-son hatred ever filmed.

The screenplay for Saraband has the oratorical tone of a theater piece. The film consists almost entirely of anguished verbal confrontations in which the characters rub salt in one another's open wounds.

Ms. Ullmann has finally lost the earth-mother bloom that has made her the director's most reliable gauge of whatever slender hope he wishes to convey. Marianne is able to draw back from the desperation and hold herself in. Of her 16-year marriage to Johan, once a compulsive womanizer, she can now say with some equanimity, "I was so na´ve."

The character (and perhaps Ms. Ullmann herself) has reached the time of life when you realize that any dreams you may have had of saving the world, or even saving a single lost soul, are probably futile. That may count as wisdom, but it's wisdom of a very sad kind.

"Saraband" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes strong sexual situations and nudity.