This week sees the issue of a box set (DVD and Blu-ray) containing some of Bergman's earlier films that pave the way to his later art-house films so adored by film critics and aficionados. So, how do they fare?
The films on offer:
Understanding a film narrative and the characters playing within it can sometimes be a problem for the viewer so It Rains on Our Love introduces our players using a narrator who helpfully places matters into perspective for us: a useful addition to any character drama seeking to remove the 'fourth wall' in a modern and amusing manner. And central couple Maggi and David's love is certainly rained upon, both meteorologically and metaphorically. Maggi meets former prisoner David at a train station and the pair instantly become passionate lovers. Their relationship sees them move to a house in the country which, initially, isn't theirs, in order to become a full-time couple but bad luck follows them everywhere they go. Can true love possibly endure? It Rains on our Love addresses many cultural issues that would not look out of place in contemporary films. Brief Encounter (1945) may have looked at extra-marital affairs in a context that was considered rather engaging at the time, but It Rains on our Love is a more realistic example of a relationship on the edge, and is far more conscious of social and political backgrounds, as well as approaching issues of childbirth, legitimacy and abortion that are essential to the plot.
Although its title is somewhat oblique, A Ship Bound For India foreshadows the way that Bergman would approach characterisation and drama in many of his future films. A Ship Bound For India is less about a journey and more about those within it. Sailor Johannes Blom has returned from a long voyage but he has to deal with a number of problems. He is in love with Sally, a onetime showgirl, and desperately wants to see her again – but Sally was also his abusive father's mistress. This is a character piece that shows its central protagonists as complex and deeply flawed individuals. Unlike the narrator of It Rains On Our Love the viewer has to develop their own interpretation of the emerging plot revelations. Much of the action takes place near the sea, including a notable potentially (deliberately) fatal diving scenario and ensures that the revelations are revealed constantly, consistently and with a strong indication of how time and emotional turmoil have an apparently never ending effect on the protagonists, even as they try to escape their pasts and progress to a future that is - perhaps - more compassionate. Compelling drama.
The shoddy circus of ringmaster Albert rolls into town. Business isn't good and morale is low. Indeed, the tears of a clown are revealed to all by funny man Frost who still cannot get over the revelation that his wife Alma had been being ogled by feisty soldiers whilst swimming naked on the waterfront. When the circus visits the town where Albert's wife and two sons live, his mistress is not at all happy that he plans to go and visit them so she has a brief but passionate affair with an actor. Thus relationships, performance and surviving reveal a sordid future for those involved. Sawdust and Tinsel reveals the showmanship and performers' individuality as well as the importance of the community that has been apparent in Bergman's earlier films but here these elements provide the core of the narrative whilst acknowledging the emotional torment of the characters. By depicting an unusual occupation of his protagonists, Bergman creates a sense of showmanship within the personal drama that is all too full of futile personal endeavours.
Virtually monochrome shots of processions across the landscape not only place the players in context but look forward to the artistic portrayal of events that would later be seen in films such as The Seventh Seal (1957). Another example of humankind at its most individual and tragic, Sawdust and Tinsel reveals its inevitably downbeat conclusion in a compelling manner.
In Dreams, Susanne is a photographic director and Doris is employed as one of her models. Their next business venture is a shoot that's taking place in Gothenberg. Both women have man problems – Doris's relationship with her boyfriend Palle is not going well, while Susanne still lusts after former lover Henrik Lobelius, a married man who just happens to lives in... Gothenberg. So the journey could offer both opportunities or misfortunes, and unexpected encounters. Indeed, Doris chances upon an old but rich stranger who is incredibly generous while Susanne phones her old amour and tries to rendezvous at one of their old haunts in an attempt to revitalise their romantic affair.
Dreams combines social and relationship drama as seen in Bergman's earlier films together with his emphasis on women in varying positions of power and explores the way that financial and social concerns relate to emotional outcome. As in Sawdust and Tinsel the emphasis is on a small group of people and the story is carefully constructed to follow the stories of Doris and Susanne but is structured in a way that alters the apparent primary plot (Susanne's desire to reawaken her affair) with a central secondary plot that emerges as vital to the central characters' relationship. The focus moves to Doris and a strange burgeoning relationship with Otto Sönder who simply wants to buy her pretty things. But both men have obligations to other women, Henrik's wife and Otto's daughter respectively, and confrontations are bound to ensue.
The title Dreams has a multi-purpose effect upon the narrative either through the recollections of the characters' pasts or their desire for a different future. Their employment in the photographic industry also reflects a sense of dreaming. The combination of character revelations and emotionally charged confrontations somehow make the normal feel believably dreamlike. Compelling viewing that, in many ways, as with many of Bergman's dramatic contemporary output, does not feel as though it's over 50 years old.
Maternity nurse Brita has a job that she loves but which also has its problems – her patients have quite often got issues beyond simply giving birth and rearing their newly born children. One of her patients, Cecilia, has just had a tragically unexpected and bloody miscarriage in hospital. She is drawn into introspective hatred and anger at the system and life on a philosophical as well as personal level, trying to find the reason for the miscarriage but blaming herself and the world for her anguish. Her need to become part of the maternal community only adds to her self-hatred and withdrawal from her surroundings. Such a contrast to enthusiastic mother-to-be Stina who is convinced that she will be having a happy and healthy bouncing baby boy imminently. The youngest expectant mother is Hjördis, who wishes she could terminate her pregnancy as the lack of support from the father and her fear of her parents' anger makes her situation seem hopeless. The restricted location of the ward and the very different circumstances of each of the patients makes for an intense and emotional drama.
A fascinating collection of early Bergman films, these are all thoroughly engaging stories which contain many themes that would appear in his future work. Some of his earlier films are comedies, and, although many of the films presented here contain moments of typically dry humour, be prepared for melodrama and tragedy. The Blu-ray prints are crisp and clean and contain a couple of documentaries.
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