Commentary Magazine


Four Europeans

Caveat emptor. Around 1960, when the Bergman bandwagon was gathering full steam, this writer made room for one more convert to climb aboard by jumping off. Since then, I’ve admired some of Bergman’s films, and loathed some others; and some (The Touch, for example, among a half-dozen others) I’ve deliberately not gone to see. I think this needs to be said at the outset. Criticism isn’t written in unbiased objectivity, nor should it be; and to the discussion of Bergman’s latest work I haul a heavy load of prejudice.

If this admission qualifies my inability to concur in the consensus that Scenes from a Marriage is yet another Bergman masterpiece, perhaps it also lends weight to my saying that I find much to admire in Bergman’s new film. Scenes from a Marriage, a two-hour-and-forty-eight-minute condensation of a five-hour work Bergman originally filmed for television, is a study of a middle-class married couple in the throes of their marriage’s coming apart, and, by implication, an examination of the institution of (middle-class) marriage itself. In the first of the film’s six sections, we see husband and wife, Johan and Marianne, being interviewed by a magazine writer as an instance of the ideal married couple; afterward, we see them over dinner with some friends of theirs, another husband and wife, who are tearing each other apart with their rages and recriminations. In the second section, we see Johan and Marianne at their jobs (he’s engaged in psychological research, she’s a divorce lawyer), each with one other character. Thereafter, there are no other characters but Johan and Marianne on screen, and the drama emerges almost entirely from their dialogue, shot without frills or flourishes, much of it in close-up. This is a Bergman film without dreams (apart from one briefly described in conversation), Gothic horrors, or metaphysical mysteries. The effect of this radical paring down of cast and means is quite different, however, from the self-proclaimed “chamber” works which Bergman produced in the early 60′s (Through a Glass Darkly, etc.) and which suffered, I think, from a textural thinness. It is, rather, to create the impression of an utterly unhistrionic naturalness and simplicity, of what seems, at least for a Bergman film, a hard-won and exceptional lucidity.

Yet if one has at every moment the impression of this extreme lucidity, of the truth of a marriage yielding itself to the film’s compassionate but unblinking gaze, what is, in fact, the truth that is revealed? Why, exactly, does this marriage fail, and out of what need do its survivors continue to cling to one another: why are this man and woman both unable to live together and unwilling to let each other go? Though the opening interview scene seems to be setting us up for a doll’s-house feminist tract (asked to describe themselves, he enumerates his many admirable qualities, while she says of herself merely that she’s married to him), such signals soon prove deceptive. Indeed, it’s he who leaves her, for another woman but chiefly claiming that their bondage to domestic routines and familial pieties is stifling him. Yet it’s she we first hear complain of this, asking him if he wants their life to be like this, to which he replies that he does; and, at the moment of signing their divorce papers, it’s he who balks, telling her he’s bound to her in a deeper way than he knew, and is dependent on home and a family life. (In the opening interview, Johan itemizes the virtues of their marriage as security, order, comfort, and loyalty, an inventory almost identical to that given of her twenty-year, loveless marriage by a pathetic woman who later consults Marianne in seeking a divorce.) Nor, despite a spasm of physical violence at the moment of letting go, is there any sense of their marriage as the hellish Strindbergian battlefield one sees in the marriage of their savagely quarreling friends, who truly do seem bound to each other by the very compulsiveness of their need to flay one another alive. One looks to Johan’s and Marianne’s sexual relations in the search for some specificity, but here, too, one finds instead more vacillation, from her apparent indifference to her claims of intense sexual longings for him, and from his accusations of her unresponsiveness to what seem to be problems in his own performance. The criticism of marriage itself, at least. would seem to be clear and consistent, for it’s only after their marriage is ended that Johan and Marianne, now remarried but back with each other in a long and perhaps permanent affair, seem truly able to unblock their feelings for one another (while their second marriages are, presumably, experiencing the same failures as their first). Yet are these failures inherent in the institution of marriage, or only the by-product of any attempt of two people to live together on a sustained and exclusive basis?

It’s true, of course, that these seeming shifts and inconsistencies can be given various interpretations. As Johan at one point says (apropos of a letter his mistress has written to Marianne about him), “You can say anything about anyone. Somehow it always fits.” But the case with Johan’s and Marianne’s relations is not so much that many interpretations seem at times to fit them, though it’s this, I think, which chiefly accounts for the film’s ability to connect emotionally with its audience: almost anyone who’s married or been through a marriage can recognize some aspect of his or her own life in this couple’s volatile ups and downs. Rather, it’s that no interpretation seems really quite to fit. Nor is this what’s meant, I think, by Johan (who seems rather to be referring to their marriage’s mediocrity) when he says, “I can’t get at the truth about us. There isn’t any truth.” Despite the strong and persuasive impression conveyed of a moment-to-moment truth in the depiction of these characters’ relations, their relationship as a whole somehow doesn’t parse. Though Scenes from a Marriage is blessedly free from the metaphysical murk which has marred a number of Bergman’s films—most recently, Cries and Whispers—there is, beneath its deceptively lucid surface, a kind of murkiness nonetheless.

In writing about Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, I borrowed someone’s observation that what was ultimately wrong with the couple’s marriage in Bresson’s Une Femme Douce was that they had Bresson for a director, and, for all the roundedness with which Bergman has imagined his characters in Scenes from a Marriage, something akin to this, some sort of axiomatic unhappiness, seems to be at the heart of what’s plaguing them. Scenes from a Marriage it is called, with a bid for the universal, though it might as well be called Scenes from a Bergman Picture. But the difference between this Bergman picture and one of the late Bressons is that, while Bresson’s world has narrowed to that of spiritual essences, Bergman’s at his best (and he’s at his best, I think, in Scenes from a Marriage) is capacious enough to accommodate beer and sandwiches: to accommodate, that is to say, so much of the things of life, so many of its material and social constituents. In The Passion of Anna, there is, for instance, a scene of the characters exchanging profundities over dinner that is carried by a wonderful attentiveness to the social nuances of the occasion of conversation at the dinner table, an attentiveness one sees likewise in the scene at the dinner table with the two couples in Scenes from a Marriage, and throughout the film, despite its reduced cast of characters. And, in a way, despite one’s lingering sense of the film’s incompleteness, the open-endedness of these scenes from a marriage contributes to the sense of the work’s spacious life. The perfected artfulness of Cries and Whispers is stifling in its airlessness. The pieces of Scenes from a Marriage may not quite fit, but, perhaps even because of this, there is air let in for the characters to breathe.

And if the work is, essentially, an anthology of scenes, it should be said that these scenes can be splendid; and, surely, it must be said that Bergman’s celebrated flair for getting the most from his actors (and he’s never gotten anything more marvelous than what’s done by the virtuoso duet of Liv Ull-mann and Erland Josephson here) isn’t attributable just to his gifts as a director of actors but also to his ability to write scenes that give actors the opportunities to get so much out of them. It’s time for me to say also, however grudgingly, that anyone whose films are as filled as Bergman’s with acting of such order is a more estimable filmmaker than my often temperamentally unsympathetic responses to his work have sometimes allowed. It says much about Bergman’s strengths (and weaknesses), I think, that this new film, which is somewhat grainily blown-up from 16 mm. and focused almost entirely on the faces of its two leading characters is, at least to me, visually enthralling far beyond anything from Bergman’s Gothic bag of tricks, no matter how more brilliantly photographed in the past than is anything here by his usual cameraman, Sven Nykvist.

But, finally, these are scenes, with the limitations that implies: parts that don’t quite add up; and whatever opportunities they may provide the performers, there is something about them, as about Bergman’s films generally, that seems, for all their artistry, artistically not fully worked out. Bergman gets closer, I think, to his sources of feeling, to the roots of that despair which underlies all his work, when he situates his work, as he does here, in the contemporary, everyday world, and comes at his subject without dreams or fantasies or other (as they are in his work) fancy trappings. And though Scenes from a Marriage ends on a note of (heavily-moderated) hopefulness, the distinction between this and the despairing pessimism of a Cries and Whispers seems to me essentially arbitrary, rather like the difference between Anouilh’s pièces noires and pièces roses. I am, however, rather more inclined than I once was to credit the seriousness of Bergman’s darker feelings. Yet for all the ostentatiously tragic postures that Bergman’s work has struck for the past fifteen years, there remains something about those darker feelings that is not yet fully articulated. To judge from what seems to me most powerfully affecting in Bergman’s films, I suspect those feelings really have very little to do with the death of God and other such grandiose questions, and films like The Silence and Cries and Whispers strike me as elaborate edifices designed to keep a confrontation with the source of his feelings from him. Despite the occasional mellow lightness of Scenes from a Marriage, it seems to me much closer than Bergman’s more openly despairing films to facing the trauma his work has been skirting. Had it come closer still, perhaps the pieces would fit.

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Of course, critical objectivity can be as effectively warped by favorable predisposition as by the reverse. If I’ve found myself at times half-hoping that a new Bergman film be bad so as to confirm me in my would-be settled opinion of him, there are few things in films that I hope for more ardently than that each new Renoir and Buñuel film be great. Despite which, I’m obliged to say that the most recent films of each of them seem to me decidedly among their less important works. In the case of Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir, a collection of three short films plus a musical interlude which Renoir made for television some four years ago, one feels that, even if he’d realized in it everything he’d wished to, it would still be a minor work, a divertissement. Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberté is more of a puzzle, coming immediately after a master work, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, to which it bears a considerable resemblance. But the Phantom of Liberié is like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie without the sting, and, though its first sequences unfold with a lovely dreamlike fluidity (and Buñuel is an artist for whom dreams and fantasies aren’t merely fancy trappings), it soon degenerates into what seems like a series of the less good skits left over from the earlier film. Just where this later film goes wrong I find it hard to pinpoint, though my guess would be that it has at least something to do with the absence in The Phantom of Liberté of an equivalent to the earlier film’s cast of continuing characters, and the consequent lack of a unifying narrative thread (though, like the earlier film, the new one is full of structural symmetries, doublings, etc.). And it may well be that, without the dazzling example of the film which preceded it, The Phantom of Liberté would seem very much less of a disappointment than it now does.

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By now, I hardly know what kind of predisposition I bring to a new Fellini film. The Fellini of The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, and Il Bidone is a filmmaker I admire enormously, and, as late as 8½ there’s a Fellini film which is of the caliber of those earlier works. Yet, for me, sitting through Juliet of the Spirits or Fellini Satyricon or Fellini Roma is a species of punishment. Perhaps one way of distinguishing between artists of the first rank and their inferiors is that, when the former fail, their failures never seem disgraceful. And that’s just what most late Fellini films seem to me to be. Garish, orotund, overblown, Fellini’s later work is, in the main, a shameless cannibalization and grotesque parody of the earlier. If hope for the best still mingles valiantly with expectation of the worst as one approaches each new Fellini film, it’s little wonder that, by this time, expectation has the upper hand.

I suspect, then, it’s a tribute to the power of goodwill that Fellini’s Amarcord has been hailed as a triumphal return to form, and I’m truly sorry that I can’t bring myself to assent to the general opinion. Amarcord isn’t garish or orotund or overblown; rather, it’s modestly proportioned, gently elegiac, and carefully tasteful. Above all, it’s careful—stultifyingly careful. To the pathology of Fellini’s deterioration, one must now add a further stage: from grandiloquent overreaching (La Dolce Vita) through flagrant repetition (Juliet of the Spirits) to the cautious attempt to recapture the moods and effects of those smaller scaled, early successes. Probably, one couldn’t exactly say one had seen everything in Amarcord before, despite the numerous echoes in it of Fellini’s early work (though Nino Rota’s Fellini-movie music has certainly come to sound like a broken record), but the film does strike me as the sort of thing Fellini can spin out by the yard, endlessly, which probably amounts to the same thing, or at least has the same dampening effect. To be sure, there are some nice things in Amarcord: some comic memories of school; a family’s frenzied dinner-table row, through which the mother’s pampered brother sits, hair net in place, imperturbably gnawing his chicken; a priest’s professionally undeceived ferreting out of “touchers” at confession; an outing in the country with a crazy uncle; a boating excursion to view a passing luxury liner. (Only two “stylized” sequences, having to do with how the town belle was given her nickname and with a harem-toting sheik, lapse into the old vulgarity.) Yet even the nice things are all curiously without the resonance such moments have in Fellini’s early work. Partly, this is due, I think, to the fact that the film’s dominant emotion—nostalgia for a lost innocence—is in itself stultifying, and even offensively frivolous given the social realities of emergent Fascism to which the film’s account of provincial life in the 30′s alludes. And partly it seems due to the fact that, though Amarcord’s discontinuous, mosaic effect has been likened to that of 8½, the earlier film cohered around a fully formed character whose evolving crisis of identity gave it some sort of spine. I should confess it took a second viewing of 8½ for me fully to appreciate how little it was merely a stringing together of bits and pieces. But then another difference between 8½ and Amarcord is that, after seeing the earlier film for the first time, I wanted to see it again.

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To go to a new film by Louis Malle is for me to attain a kind of objectivity by default; given a career so chameleonlike as Malle’s. what expectations could one reasonably bring to a new Malle film? And if I don’t care for the Malle who directed Frantic or The Lovers or Zazie, I can still find things to admire in the director of The Thief of Paris and The Fire Within (Le Feu Follet) and Murmur of the Heart. (I haven’t seen Malle’s Vie Privée and Viva Maria!, or his documentaries, Calcutta and the six-hour long Phantom India.) I say “things” to admire because even the two Malle films I like best seem to be deeply divided in themselves. Though The Fire Within intends a Bresson-like austerity (Malle at one stage served as Bresson’s assistant), its actual effect owes far more to the glamorous performance of Maurice Ronet, one of the authentic staraura performances of the past decade, in the lead. And for all its accomplishment, Murmur of the Heart seems unwilling or unable to decide whether its account of the bourgeoisie’s ability to render even incest genteelly innocuous is up to anything more consequential than discreet charm. At the film’s end, the uncertain laughter of its principal characters seems a reflection of the film upon itself, as it vainly tries to decide whether or not to take itself seriously.

Lacombe, Lucien takes itself seriously, though not at all solemnly, and knows precisely what it’s up to in both intention and effect. That intelligence which one sees dispersed through Malle’s previous films, and which one is inclined to characterize as either restless or dilettantish depending on one’s opinion of them, coalesces here brilliantly; and if the artistic limits of Lacombe, Lucien are defined by what is implied by intelligence in the arts, the film is nevertheless a triumph within such limits. Indeed, it first appears the film may know its effects and intentions a little too well: the opening sequence of Lucien, its youthful protagonist (who will soon drift into becoming a Gestapo agent in Nazi-occupied France), felling a sparrow with a slingshot is, one fears, a heavy underlining of things to come. But what this sequence seems to reveal about the protagonist’s brutality is called into question by its echo in another sequence later on, when Lucien, listlessly participating in an outdoor gunfight between the Gestapo and some Resistance members, suddenly spies a rabbit running across a field, and instinctively swerves to shoot at it.

“It’s strange, but I can’t seem to entirely dislike you.” This line, spoken of Lucien by one of the film’s characters, seems to express the attitude toward him of the film itself. Lucien is seen as a kind of premoral, natural being, a creature of impulse and instinct. Uprooted from the farm by his father’s internment as a prisoner of war and the usurpation of his father’s place with Lucien’s mother by their landlord, and alienated by his job scrubbing hospital floors and emptying bedpans, he tries at first to join the Resistance, but is rejected as unreliable in his lack of commitment. He then doesn’t so much join as get adopted by the French arm of the Gestapo, picked up and taken in, rather like a stray dog, when they recognize usefulness in his malleability. The character who makes the aforementioned comment about Lucien is an elegant Jewish tailor from Paris, living in hiding with his mother and daughter in the provincial town in which the film is set in the hope of fleeing to Spain. Lucien is introduced to the tailor by his tutor in Nazi intimidation, and, when this character departs, Lucien takes his place as the bullying protector of the tailor and his family. Attracted to the tailor’s daughter, whose name is France, Lucien more or less takes her as his position’s due, eventually moving in, uninvited, to the family’s home; while, for her part, France, who finds her Jewishness an unwanted burden, seems fascinated, however ambivalent her feelings toward him, by Lucien’s brash self-assertiveness. At last, unable to tolerate the humiliation of his situation any longer, the tailor (played by a Swedish stage actor, Holger Lowenadler, in a performance whose meticulous Tightness would do credit to any Bergman film) turns himself in to the Gestapo in an act of desperate and thoroughly believable bravado. Lucien, now sought by both the Gestapo (one of whose agents he’s killed) and the Resistance (in whose favor the war’s tide is turning), flees with France and her grandmother in an attempt to reach Spain. But, as we learn from a closing title, he is captured by the Free French, and executed.

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Given what I’d heard in advance about Lacombe, Lucien, comparing it with The Sorrow and the Pity as a study of collaboration, the intense concentration of Malle’s film on the particular situation of Lucien’s relations with the family of the tailor was extremely surprising. Though the Jewishness of the tailor’s family is very convincingly portrayed, it is seen chiefly in the aspect of a kind of fastidious hauteur and a clinging to culture (the daughter’s piano lessons); and the gulf between Lucien and these people is less a matter of Jew and Gentile than of social class. Though he listens open-mindedly to the anti-Semitism of his Gestapo colleagues, the importance of these people’s Jewishness to Lucien is simply that of its making them society’s legitimately designated victims, a class even less privileged than his own, in whose presence he can act without inhibition. Lucien in the home of the tailor is rampant id invading the domicile of superego, and it is the collision between id and superego which underlies all the other colliding antinomies in the film (Gentile and Jew, peasant and aristocrat, etc.), and gives the scenes of Lucien in the tailor’s household their multilayered, occasionally excruciating, ironies, and the film as a whole its peculiarly disturbing ambience. For one needn’t be a Nazi to find something somehow gratifying as fantasy in seeing Lucien, whom these people would ordinarily disdain if they would deign even to give him that much notice, lording it over them. Nor can one help, given the narrative conventions, half-hoping for the improbable happiness of Lucien and France together when they finally go on the run, and their concluding idyll—living with France’s grandmother in an abandoned farmhouse and eating what Lucien hunts and traps—is, in its precariousness, as anxiety-ridden as any such sequence I know. (One’s hopes for the impossible happy ending crystallize in a stunning moment in which the grandmother, who has hitherto scorned Lucien totally, scrutinizes a lizard or insect as we sense her wonder-struck awakening to the strange beauty of that natural world into which Lucien has led them.)

One would be wrong, I think, to deny such feelings on account of one’s moral aversion to Lucien. For it’s precisely the measure of the film’s success that, while one is never brought actually to like Lucien, we, too, can’t seem entirely to dislike him: that we come to accept him as a fellow creature, and not even an innately evil creature despite his capacity for becoming an instrument of evil. Nor is he even an instance of the so-called “banality of evil” as he’s been described, which, if it means anything, refers to the bureaucratization of evil, to the clerk’s bottomless capacity for following orders. (One does see instances of this in the film, but not in Lucien, who isn’t good at taking orders.) And though it’s been complained that the words of Santayana which the film uses as an epigraph—“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it”—do not apply, one would be wrong to dismiss Lucien’s case, however extreme, as too special. How many like him are there waiting, how many of the dispossessed, having nothing and with nothing at stake, stray dogs ready to serve any master who will throw them a bone?

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