Ingmar Bergman. (
The major plot line in the film is really the relationship between Henrik and his talented and beautiful daughter Karin. Henrik, writing a critique of Bach’s cello suites, has been his daughter’s teacher for some time now, and they live together in the small cabin. Early in the film Karin comes by her grandfather’s house and finds Marianne there, preparing some food. The young woman pours her heart out and complains that her father does not understand her. In a flashback, we see the outcome of their argument—a horrible physical struggle (which we learn later is really an analogue to their “at least metaphorically” incestuous relationship. And I mean this physical struggle is intense. Afterwards, Karin runs through the woods like a frightened animal. Alone in the woods, the girl screams what has to be a primal scream. She is trapped and she knows she is trapped. As the young girl tells her story, the reaction shots of Marianne’s face speak volumes. Is she remembering her own failed relationship with Johan? She recounts that she was married 16 years to Johan, and then he fell in love with another woman. She remarried, but her second husband left her. So she moved back in with Johan again for a few years. But he could not stop being unfaithful to her. Karin hears all of this as if hearing stories about another person—a stranger—certainly not her grandfather. Oh, how the young think nothing has ever happened of consequence to the old. But how could they know, when their forming egos require all of their personal attention. In a conversation like this one, I am reminded of how much intimacy can flow back and forth between two human beings. How much these two women, from different generations, share with each other. I am impressed at once with Bergman’s writing, as well as with his subtle filmmaking. Examples: When do you decide to track in on a character, thus changing the shot from wide to close? When do you decide to move the camera in a panning shot, from left to right, or from up to down? Camera movement is meant to reveal metaphoric truths. Bergman shows a sure hand with technique. Simple, but eloquent.
In the next scene Bergman uses what I call The Graduate shot. In Mike Nichols’ 1967 film Ann Bancroft lies on one side of the bed, and is turned to face the camera. Behind her, facing in the same direction, is Ben, her neighbor’s son. The point of this shot is that the character behind can never see the face of the character in front. But viewers can. Bergman uses this shot in an extraordinary scene of Henrik and his daughter lying in bed together. Now I imagine that this is the only bedroom in this small cabin. But I was shocked to see the parent in bed with the daughter because of the incest theme it provokes. And Henrik, lying behind his daughter, is the one who is metaphorically in the dark. The camera reveals her face’s expression as her father talks about his wife, Anna, and the life they had together. Again, there is so much intimacy in this scene that all of the viewers in the audience strained to focus their attention on this father-daughter interaction. (I cannot recall, by the way, when I have been in the presence of a quieter audience.) The things he says to her in this scene. In effect, he is relating to her exactly in the way he once related to his wife. I can appreciate how much this sharing of intimacy meant to the father, but I still felt awkward and uncomfortable about his fixation upon his wife—and his transference of that fixation upon his daughter.
Bergman divides the film according to a series of acts, each of which begins with a
graphic giving the title of the next section.
In the next scene intimacy is replaced by hostility (or is there really
much difference between the two), when Henrik visits
Johan to ask him for money to purchase a better cello for Karin as well as
money for future lessons. Henrik’s dream is for Karin
to play cello in a famous orchestra. In
effect, Johan dismisses Henrik’s existence. He cares nothing for his son. It may appear that all he cares about is
Karin. But we learn later that is not
exactly the truth either. In the next
section Marianne visits a nearby chapel, and she hears Henrik
rehearsing a piece by Bach. He speaks to her about his love for his wife Anna. Now he admits, “I’ve become disabled. Karin is all that gives life meaning.” A note about the music in
the film. All of the music is
performed on a cello, and later in the film I realized that all of the cello music
is a reference to a particular section of one of Bach’s solo cello suites—and
in one of the great moments of the film that is exactly the music that Karin
performs for her father after a climactic scene. I was reminded of the effective use of cello music
in Mike Leigh’s films, especially in Secrets
& Lies (1996). In the next scene
Karin visits her grandfather, and he makes her an offer he thinks she cannot
refuse. He has arranged (or should I say
manipulated) to have the conductor of the
In the next segment, Karin visits Marianne, who has stayed on much longer than she had expected to. Karin found a letter her mother wrote to Henrik a week before she died. Her mother pleaded with Henrik to let Karin go. But what will Karin do? “If I abandon Henrik, he’ll die,” she admits. Marianne’s insight into this plot is simple. “This letter is what love is.” She realizes that Anna saw, she understood. She knew that Henrik had to let go of his obsession. How is Karin going to get out of her entrapment. In the next scene her father asks her to play a duet. She will have to play the most difficult part of the Bach passage. She is afraid she is not capable of doing so. But they play together, and it is beautiful. And then her father leans over and kisses her right on the mouth, just as he would have kissed his wife. Karin pulls away, just as if she had been bitten by a snake. Have they been having sex? Has the incest moved from metaphor to reality? Whatever the case, Karin now makes her decision—and it is a climactic moment we have seen in other films, where the character caught in the middle between two powerful forces (in this case, father and grandfather) strikes out for a third way—her own way—to resolve her entrapment. Although this is a conventional resolution, still it is powerful dramatically. Then her father makes one more request. Would she play Bach’s fifth Saraband in the cello solo? She plays, and he listens, and it is a mesmerizing moment. The camera tracks in on Henrik. We wonder, “Will he survive when his daughter leaves him?”
Later, Marianne receives a call from Karin, who tells her that her father did try to commit suicide. When she tells Johan this information, his response is disgusting. “It’s incomprehensible that Henrik was given the chance of loving Anna.” The only way I can understand this is to think that Johan would have preferred the chance to love Anna himself. It must have been the great disappointment of his life that he could not conquer her—or, that if he had a sexual relationship with him, that she would not give up Henrik for him. As he talks, the camera is on Marianne, and I felt that her face was communicating—finally—that she had given up now on any hope of ever regenerating her love with Johan. It was over. In a last scene in the narrative, Johan suffers an extraordinary emotional crisis. He comes to Marianne’s room in the middle of the night. He asks to lie down with her. He takes off his night shirt, and we see a naked 80-year-old man standing in the doorway of her room. She gets out of bed and takes off her nightgown, but her body is shown in silhouette only. They lie together in the bed. He asks her why she came. She tells him she is leaving in October. Then the last scene: Marrianne sits at the table littered with photographs. She holds up the photograph of Anna. She looks directly into the camera and says, “Anna’s love.” Then she tells a story about a connection she made to her mentally disabled daughter—a last story of hopefulness and connection and perhaps grace. And we are done.