His Master's Voice
The weakest moments in Ingmar Bergman’s latest—and last, he claims—film Saraband are the least cinematic. Shot on digital tape for Swedish television, and suppressed by Bergman because he hated the ultraclean look, Saraband feels more like a theater piece than a story that must be told on film. Each scene of two people talking comprises one of the ten chapters that open with simple white titles on black backgrounds and end with a momentary black frame.
Awash in a torrent of Bergman tropes—scenes of only two people talking, Liv Ullman speaking directly to the camera, Erland Josephson stark naked, sumptuous, melancholy string music, harsh naturalist lighting, clean voyeuristic frames, horrible psychological truths spoken plainly, brutally straightforward dialogue rendered in carefully modulated, soporific Swedish—it takes a minute to sort out whether the blackouts and titles are a Bergman trope or a Woody Allen-copying-Bergman trope. In the end, it doesn’t matter. We’re stuck with the whole Bergmanesqueness of the thing, and whether or not that seduces you, Saraband remains frustrating and surprisingly powerful.
My confusion reflects the central issue this film raises, and that’s the continued necessity of Bergman, period. His gestures have weakened with familiarity. So aped by Allen as to have his own effects obscured, Saraband strains for much of its first quarter. Liv Ullman’s many off-screen presences—as author, icon, symbol of worthy causes, etc.—make it hard to believe her as a character. It doesn’t help that Bergman opens with her chatting directly to the audience. After that, her participation in the drama never feels credible, and her scenes with Erland Josephson don’t convince. Those two—after forty years of collaborating for Ingmar—remain Liv and Erland, rather than their supposed characters. Their scenes together hover between dramatically real and a too-aware-of-the process hyperreality. Josephson’s still a master, though, impenetrable and wholly open at the same time. His effortless bringing forth of emotion is always perfectly scaled to the shot, the scene, the moment.
The story is simple. Saraband, a continuation twenty years on of Scenes From a Marriage, finds Ullman seeking out her former husband Josephson as he retires into increasing isolation somewhere in the deep Swedish woods. Living on Josephson’s property is his sixtyish son, a frustrated cello performer and teacher who hates his dad (while yearning for his approval) and is pitied and despised in return. The plot revolves around the son’s ravishing daughter, played by Julia Dufvenius, a cello prodigy who must escape her old man’s emotional grasp to have any chance of seeing her life and talent blossom. Ullman stands to the side as Erland and offspring share that Bergmanian unblinkered father-son hatred. Watching them so straightforwardly express their loathing, mutual need to be loved and mutual refusal to do so, I was reminded of Lenny Bruce’s comment on Lyndon Johnson’s family: “The world’s biggest non-Jews; they could pass any non-Jew test you wanted to give.” Do all Protestants express their dark side with so little neurotic camouflage? Or only Swedes? I guess I should expand my social circle.
This not exactly recognizable (at least in my house) ownership of usually repressed emotions robs the film of any metaphorical depth. We take these characters’ pain as theirs alone; the resonance comes only when it parallels ours. The daughter, so dewy, fresh and succulent as to incarnate Youth Itself, also hovers in this real/not-real space. During Bergman’s extended dialogue-free close-ups of her, Dufvenius seems the embodiment of Bergman’s career-long connoisseurship of exquisite young blonde women who can act. During other, darker, scenes, she inhabits her character as fully and without visible effort as Josephson does his.
The irritating distance created by Bergman’s affectless style falls away when Bergman hints as the true nature of the father-daughter bond. The dad hops into his daughter’s bed to snuggle down for the night, as he clearly does every night, and one wonders; this wonderment increases during a confrontation between the two when he kisses her passionately. It’s disturbing to the core. And because, unlike every other emotion in the film, their connection is never fully explained, the pathology of their relationship becomes the film’s most lingering memory. As Kubrick said, “Truth and multifaceted ideas seldom yield to frontal assault.” Bergman’s straightforwardness works against his dramatic purposes.
But no matter how slowly matters unfold, or how Bergman’s reliance on repeated forms might separate audience from story, there remain those moments that no one expresses as he can. Josephson, lost in his bed in the lonely middle of the night, cries out (to himself): “My anxiety is bigger than I am. I’m too small for my anxiety!”
THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY
The anxiety of the overeducated and well-fed in Sweden seems not to count for much compared to the simpler anxieties suffered by Damien Nguyen as Binh in The Beautiful Country. His anxieties are: Can he get enough to eat? Can he escape Vietnam? Whatever became of his father? Nguyen plays a Bui Doi, the “less than dust” unwanted offspring of a Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father who vanished between the time Binh’s mother was pregnant and Binh was born.
It’s a weird mélange, this film set in Vietnam and rural America, directed by a Norwegian—Hans Peter Moland—written by an American and produced by America’s most accomplished producer, Edward R. Pressman. Pressman produced all of Terrence Malick’s films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), and early Oliver Stone and has always backed up his quirky good taste with a mighty, mighty checkbook. Malick is listed as a coproducer on Beautiful Country, and it’s easy to see his hand in some of the more elegiac landscapes and resonant silences. Perhaps the riot of creative cultures and a surfeit of good intentions are to blame when this compelling story isn’t quite as involving as it should be.
With a neorealist’s eye for detail and pretty much no money, Morland details Binh’s hand-to-mouth existence as a racially and culturally inferior slave to his rural relatives in the boonies of Vietnam. Binh flees to Ho Chi Minh City to find his mother, and here the weaknesses of the film appear, all rooted in the screenplay. However tragic and singular the plight of Asian refugees striving to reach America, the screenwriter relies repeatedly on themes of social oppression as expressed in Dreiser and copied endlessly since. These familiar notes take the story out of its nourishing, specific cultural setting. When we should most feel the struggle of the characters, the struggles of the writer to find an original way to express the story takes center stage. She falls back on melodrama far too often, and undermines the natural power of the cultural detail that forms the film’s finest moments.
These include a documentary-like evocation of the business of human cargo and the Darwinian universe a locked-down ship’s hold of refugees can become. Captaining this ship, in a genuinely incongruous appearance, is Tim Roth, scruffy and underplaying like the genius he is. Like Ullman, he never seems wholly his character. The sense of: Wow, here’s Tim Roth doing this killer tiny part and doesn’t he rock? never abates. Lucky for us the star, Damien Nguyen, can match Roth scene for scene. Nguyen is another ferocious understater, but Morland knows how to read his face.
Binh makes it to America and suffers another avalanche of oppressions. These are economic and offer him less freedom than he had in Vietnam. Accompanying Binh until this point in the story is Bai Ling. I knew her only as the bimbo interest in The Crow, Red Corner and The Wild, Wild West. Here she plays a worn-to-the-nubbin prostitute. And she underplays as effectively as her costars. Binh represents her one opportunity to experience a recognizable human emotion, and she tries to feel something in her poisoned heart. But neither in Vietnam nor America can Binh garner the juice to rescue Ling. She drifts off to her doom, as have Binh’s mother and little brother.
The film changes tone and identity as Binh sets off, Paris, Texas style, hitchhiking across the big sky country, to find his long-lost dad. During these sequences Country seems to have once been a longer, more detailed picture. While the Vietnam segments feel properly scaled, the American section seems rushed and underdeveloped. The audience urge, and requirement, is to keep cutting the picture slack on the basis of its low budget and understated acting.
That slack bears fruit when Binh encounters Nick Nolte. The ease and naturalism of the dialogue raises the question of how much input the credited screenwriter had; these exchanges bear the fingerprints of Terrence Malick. Since Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Nolte seems to be embracing the ravages of age. He performs so quietly, with so little vanity and such a calm center. His scenes with Nguyen anchor the film, and render the journey worthwhile. They suggest the possibility of redemption in the multiculturalism of this production. When the cultures understand each other, the film transcends. And when they clash, it weakens. That right there is metaphor sufficient.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.