In the 1940s, in dear old Blighty, our idea of a grim black and white tale of doomed love and strained relationships rested on Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard gazing in a mildly constipated fashion across a cup of tea in a greasy railway station cafe. Themes of adultery, passion and despair displayed as stiff upper lip stoicism with ne’er a peck on the cheek. Not that there’s anything wrong with the classic Brief Encounter (1945) but while Britain was horrified at the merest hint of infidelity our Scandinavian friends were enjoying more frank, powerful and, let’s face it, depressing fare.
By the late 1940’s Bergman had built a reputation as a director who could deal with less than cheery stories (after all, the title It Rains On Our Love (1946) hardly lulls the audience with feel-good anticipation). However Three Strange Loves Bergman approached a number of themes that were, for the time, considered taboo in a frank and adult manner a thousand miles from the staid implications of Britain’s heavily censored cinema (indeed Three Strange Loves was severely truncated on its release). The film opens in naturalistic style, as Rut wakes up in a grotty bedsit, which sets the tone for the film’s combination of melodramatic contrivance and cinematic realism.
This ordinariness is counter-pointed by the flashback structure and the tale to be told. Rut’s life is one of three strange loves, all revealed as the film unfolds. While her plight could be viewed as a victim in the sort of melodramatic sense of a 1920’s Lillian Gish role or a 1940’s Hollywood "woman’s" picture, the film’s tone is distinctly matter-of-fact and decidedly European (as, say, Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) but without the exhilarating editorial flourishes). We learn of Rut’s tale as she admonishes her lover for his lack of masculinity. What initially seems like impotence driven by the impoverished couple’s existence fuelled by his drinking has a more disturbing twist. Rut’s previous love Raoul ("Raoul was a rat but at least he was a man" she admonishes her beau) was a cad of an army officer with a wife and children – a minor detail the dallying soldier neglected to reveal to Rut. When she fell pregnant Raoul’s reaction was an unsympathetic accusation that she was a whore and the child clearly not his.
A botched abortion left her sterile and needing psychiatric help to overcome her dreams of spilling intestines and blood spattered walls. Into this fray she becomes vulnerable to the attentions of those who seem to want to help her and finds solace in the arms of a lesbian ballerina.
Three Strange Loves’ taut running time (just 80 minutes) packs in a lot of incident and detail. The dialogue of despair means that the camera is free to concentrate on the basic details of humanity – the look in the eyes of the desperation. A brave film examining abortion, sexuality and abuse, Three Strange Loves nonetheless has a ray of hope in the strength of its central character and the sense in which she doesn’t passively accept her status as victim but tries to rise above it. That she generally fails to does not diminish her struggle. Bergman’s look at psychiatric help as a double-edged sword shows the burgeoning realisation that psychoanalysis isn’t a total solution to psycho-sexual trauma.
Naturally such frankness came at a price and much of Three Strange Loves was edited at the time, particularly the lesbian relationship and the graphic talk of abortions (these monologues of female pain would reach their natural conclusion in Bergman’s almost unwatchably bleak Cries and Whispers(1972)). What is remarkable is that it still retains its power as a piece of honest, intelligent, adult film-making. The DVD transfer is adequate and apparently fully restored.
Sadly there is little in the way of extras to provide a context to the film (not all of us are old enough to remember arthouse rep cinemas!) but still comes recommended.