“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”
We hesitate to contribute anything further to “Bergmania!”1 given the voluminous scholarly, not to mention outright pretentious work devoted to Ingmar Bergman, and given that he’s been more or less sanitised and Americanized for a more popular audience already in the knowing homages of Woody Allen (e.g., Interiors, 1978). To be honest, we experience something of a love/hate relationship with Bergman. We admire his consummate craftsmanship, of course, his ability to lay bare aspects of the human condition and his commitment to taking seriously issues such as religious conviction and faith (e.g., Winter Light, 1963) which no-one, with the possible exceptions of Robert Bresson (e.g., The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) or Andrei Tarkovsky (e.g., Andrei Rublev, 1966), has cinematically matched. Our ambivalence, moreover, has nothing to do with his much lampooned “arty-fartiness”; we don’t really see why his “intellectualism” should be considered any less worthy of study than Bresson’s “minimalism,” Ken Loach’s “plebeianism,” or even, for that matter, Howard Hawks’s “masculinism” — although Bergman is, deservedly, the butt of better proletarian jokes.2 No, our mixed feelings about Bergman turn, rather, upon the manner in which he cinematically (mis?)represents the sociological issues of social class and patriarchy. We’re particularly concerned about the way this work of mis-representation functions in two of the undoubted “masterpieces” of his mature period: Persona (1967) and Cries and Whispers (1972).
First, a note on the way we’re deploying our central notion of “cinematic representation.” We’re sociologists by trade, so we don’t pretend to be theoreticians of “cinematography,” “editing,” “sight and sound,” etc. For instance, although we’ve previously written about Bresson (Cresswell and Karimova, 2011), who we regard as one of the greatest auteurs, we don’t concern ourselves with debates about Bresson and filmic “representation” of the Gilles Deleuze (1986, 1989) or Jacques Rancière (2006) variety. Not that these are not important or even necessary strategies, and lots of interesting work has been clearly conducted in this vein (e.g., Kafala, 2007). But we wanted to step back from this purely “filmic” form of theorisation in order to establish a more direct relationship — a relationship of “representation” — between what we see and hear on the screen and what we see and hear “out there” in reality. This is not simply to envisage a relationship of representation which is one of naïve mediation — what David Pears (1987) once called “uncritical realism” in which what you see on the screen and what is “given” in reality are one and the same thing — but, rather, a relation based upon a “critical realism” (see Bhaskar, 1989) which accepts that the relation obtaining between the production and the consumption of cinematic reality is one that is multi-perspectival and multi-determined. The key theoretical voice sounding here is that of cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1992, 1997), for whom the world of mass communications, including the cinema, is one saturated with power relations and within which stereotypical representations — e.g., of patriarchy and class — may be (1) produced at the point of cinematic production, (2) reproduced at the point of cinematic consumption, but also (3) resisted at either point in the process. This is an explicitly political approach to cinematic inquiry that in purely film-theoretical terms has its origins in the Marxist theory of Cahiers du Cinema (e.g., Comolli & Narboni, 1971) plus the post-Marxist “ideology-critique” of Slavoj Žižek.3 And the key political argument that we want to make about Bergman is this: that in terms of patriarchy and class, he tends to systematically produce and —because of the longue durée of his oeuvre — repeatedly reproduce stereotypical representations. That he does it so beautifully, so intellectually proves to be, not a mitigating factor, for us, but a point of exacerbation. The situation is admittedly complex, however, insofar as, paradoxically, Bergman sometimes hints at a “resistance” to stereotypical representations of class and patriarchy at the very point of producing them. This article attempts to explain what that means.
Persona and the “Bourgeois Soul”
Ostensibly, Persona and Cries and Whispers are “women’s” films — that is to say, they concern the relationships between women occurring in primarily patriarchal milieus. To paraphrase Sheila Rowbotham (1973), these are films about the “lived experience” attendant upon possessing a “woman’s consciousness” yet inhabiting a “man’s world.” In Persona, renowned actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) responds to her theatrical and domestic milieus by “performing” muteness and being psychiatrically hospitalised in consequence — the film charts the increasingly symbiotic antagonism between her “silence” and the unpredictable behaviour of the loquacious “mental health” nurse, Alma (Bibi Anderssen) assigned to her case. But whereas Persona is, primarily, a two-handed chamber-piece, Cries and Whispers multiply layers the complex of symbiotic relations by trafficking, in Chekhovian fashion, between three sisters (Agnes [Harriet Andersson], Karin [Ingrid Thulin], Maria [Liv Ullmann]) — one of whom (Agnes) is, literally, in her death throes — and the family servant-cum-dogsbody, Anna (Kari Sylwan). Two of the sisters’ husbands (Fredrik [Georg Arlin], Joakim [Henning Moritzen]) and a male family doctor (David [Erland Josephson]) make fleeting appearances.
Social class relations are not represented prominently in the two films, but they can be unearthed. In Persona, the designated “mental patient” Elisabet, is an actress from the Swedish upper strata; Nurse Alma, by contrast, is of the lower-middle class, aspiring to a “good” marriage and a respectable home life with her doctor fiancé. Alma is at first flattered by Elisabet’s haughty “attention” — mistaking her dewy-eyed muteness for actually giving a damn — but realises the true depth of her contempt after sneaking-a-peek at a private letter in which Elisabet betrays Alma’s confidence. Predictably — this is Bergman-territory, after all — their “friendship” thereafter descends into violence and vitriol but also a putative merging of the two women’s identities. In demonstrating the latter symbiosis, Bergman indulges in some of his most ostentatious cinematography — film spools unreeling before our eyes, religious iconography of animal sacrifice and crucifixion, the postmodern self-referentiality of filmic production itself, etc. — about which (too) much has been written. But the point we would more simply make about “class” here is this. Bergman clearly represents an economic disparity between Elisabeth and Alma — Alma works hard for her living and could not afford the luxury of Elisabeth’s “retreat into silence” and a lengthy sojourn. Although we are not told explicitly — Bergman never resorts to the “vulgarity” of financial minutiae — Elisabeth is either a “celebrity” of independent means or is otherwise “kept” by her husband. When Alma’s injudicious garrulousness — she confesses to a sexual transgression — is betrayed by Elisabeth, Bergman certainly allows Alma revenge: she “treats” Elisabeth to some shooting-from-the-lip lay diagnostics regarding her “condition” and does not stop short of physically brutalising her. Yet, far from turning the tables in the power stakes, the upshot of this is merely the futile manifestation of a desire to merge, to become upwardly mobile — hence the celebrated dream-sequence in which Alma not only merges in sexual congress with Elisabeth’s husband (the obligatory Gunnar Björnstrand) but also with Elisabeth herself. Yet there is no egalitarian pay-back attached to any such “mergers.” At the conclusion, as Bergman makes plain, Elisabeth maintains her “celebrity” status and (possibly) relapses back into her privileged silence — the cue, perhaps, for more bed baths and nursing attention? Alma simply jumps on a bus and heads back to her job. Although she desires the actress’s persona, her lifestyle, her “mask” — like a wannabe “reality” TV “star” — it remains, at the end of the day, simply out of material reach and very far from her own.
What remains paradoxical in Bergman is just the hint that he knows so much more about Elisabeth and her cashed-in class-dividend than he deigns to present — more about the underbelly of what Francis Barker (1995) has dubbed “the bourgeois soul.” Of course, Bergman always mercilessly lays bare his subjects sexual peccadilloes. But in a peripheral scene from Persona he suggests a far more totalising critique. Following hospitalisation, Elisabeth is seen pacing her room, whilst the TV blares away in the corner. A newscast is on. The year is 1963. Suddenly, we witness Elisabeth recoil from the screen in horror. We see enough to know that she is watching images of the celebrated self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in protest at the treatment of the Buddhist majority by the Christian Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Thich Quang Duc’s suicide was the subject of a famous photograph taken by Malcolm Browne4 and transmitted, via mass communications, all over the world. It was truly a global media event and described by the historian Ellen Hammer (1987) as having “evoked dark images of persecution and horror corresponding to a profoundly Asian reality that passed the understanding of Westerners.” The image of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation is so thoroughly beyond Elisabeth’s own Western self-understanding that the juxtaposition of her cloistered “suffering” — her psychiatrist (Margaretha Krook) diagnoses her muteness not as a psychopathological symptom but as strategic behaviour — throws into relief her own superficiality but also the depth of privilege that inhabits her bourgeois “persona.” She has the decency, at least, to look shocked! But this sort of political with a big “P” insight never assumes the status of a Gestalt-image for Bergman: the big “P” of globalised capitalism and colonialism always possesses, for him, a vanishing epistemology; it recedes into the “background,” nothing more than a colourful “context” the foreground of which is always the chamber-politics of the small “p,” of his Western obsession with intimate relations and sexual foibles.5
Cries, Whispers and “Bergman’s Breasts”
Any class analysis of Cries and Whispers revolves, also paradoxically, around the ample figure of Anna. Between the “three sisters” and Anna, the class gap is much more pronounced than in Persona. She is their servant, their dogsbody, their confidante and (possibly) in the case of the dying Agnes, a lover on call. The representational strategies deployed by Bergman in respect to the juxtaposition of Anna and the three sisters reveal him in his most stereotypical light. Consider, in this respect, the issue of their sexual aesthetic: Bergman here employs three of his luminous travelling troupe — Andersson, Thulin, and Ullmann — to portray the three sisters ensconced in their country retreat with nothing but time on their hands. So, cue lots of portentous close-ups of clocks. Maria and Karin are basically just waiting for Agnes (Andersson) to die. The surroundings are sumptuous, and Maria (Ullmann) and Karin (Thulin) are ladies of conspicuous leisure married to, respectively, an industrialist and a diplomat. Their great physical beauty, of course, goes without saying — they are, after all, “Bergman’s Women,” and two of them (Andersson and Ullmann), along with Bibi Anderssen (Nurse Alma from Persona), had been Bergman’s actual sexual muses. For Bergman, the “upper crust” are apparently, to modify Scott Fitzgerald (1998), different from “us”: they’re more beautiful. But what about the proles?
In the key role of Anna, Bergman cast the non-regular and little-known Kari Sylwan, and the contraposition to, especially, Karin and Maria is hard to resist.6 Here, we have a case of the beauty-apartheid at full throttle. Where Karin and Maria are represented as sleek, loquacious, and sexy, Anna is big-boned, large-breasted, and brusque. Indeed, we see quite a lot of her breasts in this film as, indeed, we do of Maria’s (Ullmann) — her killer cleavage, at least — but the representational difference is marked: whereas the coquettish Maria, who has been “having-it-off” intermittently for years with the local GP (David), deploys her breasts as a tasteful décolletage that is heterosexually designed to seduce, Anna’s pudding-basin bosoms are demanded by the ailing Agnes to provide comforting Earth-mother succour. The juxtaposition is clear: Maria is sassy, clever, and sly — her décolletage is an aspect of her feminine mystique, which she knows expertly how to deploy; Anna is maternal, loving, and crude — her breasts are an analgesic for Agnes that she is contractually obliged to prescribe. Maria’s breasts get her what she wants and desires; Anna’s, by contrast, provide what her bosses require.
This is part of the paradox of Bergman. Maria is stereotyped as one of the “great unwashed,” it is true — yet Bergman remains at the same time completely au fait, as only an insider could be, with the manifold cruelties of the bourgeoisie. He does not spare their exposure. In this respect, Anna’s termination of employment following Agnes’s protracted demise must be considered, in so many senses, a paradigm case of “unfair dismissal.” After Karin complains to Maria that she has become “over-familiar” — after twelve years of service — Anna’s unwritten contract is summarily severed: she’s offered a pittance in cash and a keepsake of Agnes’s “of her own choice.” With mock-magnanimity, given that she’s about to be made homeless, Bergman has the assembled throng (Karin, Maria, Fredrik, and Joakim) allow her the shelter of “staying on until the end of the month.” Anna flatly responds that she “wants nothing,” but it is clear that, for Bergman, as for Fitzgerald’s (2007) mid-Western narrator of Jay Gatsby’s rise and fall — someone else who “got ideas above his station” — she’s “better than the whole damned bunch put together.” About this fact, Bergman is unequivocal: for the keepsake she chooses, far from being of material worth — it would have been understandable if she’d opted to eke out her severance pay — is her mistress’s (Agnes’s) diary. And it is only through the proletarian prism of this act of selfless devotion that Bergman can end his angst-ridden piece with an upbeat peroration; for now, Agnes’s memories, unclouded by physical torment, are at last accessible, and the film closes with memories of the three sisters and their servant in halcyon days: as Agnes (via Anna) memorialises: “I feel so profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.”
Whether Karin and Maria are worthy of such an apotheosis, we would suggest, Bergman leaves, correctly, open to doubt.
Patriarchy and Resistance
So far, we have been talking fairly freely about “social class,” although the concept itself has been left undefined. The omission is deliberate insofar as the disparities (mis)represented in Bergman “speak” to the question of “class” in a way that mere occupational classifications cannot. We did not want to fall victim to what Ernesto Laclau (2005) has called “sociological descriptivism.” And, in any case, the issue of “class,” if it is not to be represented in the “vulgar” Marxist tradition, which is to say reductively, only really makes sense when combined with a theory of “patriarchy” in which multiple masculinities and femininities partake in strategic games of power relations of which their economic “bases” form only one part (see Connell, 1987, 1995; Walby, 1990). It is to Michel Foucault (2000) that we owe the notion of “strategic games of power-relations,” and it is also to Foucault (1998) that we owe the mantra, “where there is power, there is resistance.” But if it is true that the notion of “strategic games of power-relations” could have been coined precisely with Bergman’s chamber pieces in mind, what, then, for “Bergman’s Women,” are the prospects also for strategic “resistance”?
Not great, we would conclude, in its collective dimension. If “patriarchy” means, literally, “rule of the father,” and, if more expansively, it entails structures of power in which hegemonic masculinities systematically enforce their will upon subordinate women and men, we might expect to find some “kickback” against precisely those powerful men. But given Bergman’s approach to representation, what do we actually find?
In the chamber pieces, on the contrary, all we ever find are individual acts of resistance targeted as much at other women as men — often less powerful women. Elisabet’s muteness in Persona is the classic example. As her psychiatrist insinuates, it may well have begun as a strategy directed against the patriarchal impositions of the theatrical and domestic milieus — the twin imperatives of motherliness and sexiness — but in the course of the film it’s Nurse Alma who bears the brunt of the game. “I have learned a lot,” Alma exclaims in the midst of a typically less than reciprocal exchange — and the lesson clearly isn’t sisterly solidarity. Similarly, in Cries and Whispers, Maria and Karin’s strategies are essentially Janus-faced: they maintain a balance of power within the marital relation through the contrasting manipulation of sexual acts — Maria through promiscuity, Karin through celibacy — but they simultaneously seek ascendancy within the sisterly relation — Karin by taking charge of the administration of Agnes’s estate, Maria, in typical fashion, by homoerotically shattering Karin’s glacial reserve. One suspects that the “administration” of the family estate is, in reality, the nub of the game, in which case it may be the solidarities of the husband-and-wife teams that prove the more durable, the more economically maximising, bond. But, in this latter respect, we shouldn’t think that Karin, by assuming “executor” status, has “won.” As Bergman makes clear at their parting, Maria’s incestuous homoeroticisms have substantially transformed the relational cathexis — the emotional balance-of-power. “You touched me!” Karin protests to Maria, who slyly responds as she leaves, “What a pity!”
Here, finally, is the crux of the paradox of representation in Bergman. True, he represents individual acts of resistance. Yet he may only do so via the deployment of the oldest trick in the patriarch’s representational book — that of depicting women precisely in and through their biological sex. Given that the charge of “biological essentialism” goes back at least as far as Simone de Beauvoir (1974), it’s not surprising that feminists also have been generally ambivalent about Bergman (see Shaw, 2003; also Blackwell, 1997).
The paradigm case of ambivalent representation in Cries and Whispers is Karin’s shocking act of vaginal self-mutilation. The traumatic scenario is this. Her aging diplomat husband is waiting for her in the bedroom to partake of his habitual “patriarchal dividend” before slumber. Karin’s been intoning to herself over dinner that, “it’s all a tissue of lies” — meaning mainly her marriage but probably more — and, in anticipation of her husband’s desire, has secreted upon her person a shard from a broken wine glass. Now, having been undressed by Anna in her boudoir — and having slapped her for insolence — she takes the shard and slices her vagina open, presenting herself afterwards, legs apart, to her husband in bed whilst smearing the blood over her mouth in the sort of cannibalistic gesture of a Hannibal Lecter.
It’s an unbearably traumatic event to observe — but it’s important to locate precisely where its representational uncomfortableness lies. For Bergman, it seems, has here fallen victim to a double whammy of patriarchal representation. He has done so by: 1) representing the act of resistance as necessarily sexual in nature, by honing in not on the female body as a holistic battleground (see Harrison, 1995), but upon the sexual organs solely as representing that battleground; and 2) by representing the act of resistance as a simultaneously pathological act. There is an ignominious history of women’s resistance to patriarchy being interpreted as a form of psychopathology (see Chesler, 1972) — especially self-injurious behaviours such as eating disorders and self-laceration (see Bordo, 1993; Brickman, 2004) — and an equally ignominious cultural history of the prejudicial representation of women’s resistance as, quintessentially, “mad” (see Ussher, 1991; Showalter, 1987). In this latter respect, Cries and Whispers represents something of a retrograde manoeuvre for Bergman insofar as, in Persona, whilst Elisabet was psychiatrically hospitalized for her catatonic behaviour, neither her psychiatrist, nor her nurse, nor, we suspect, the actress herself interpreted her behaviour as anything other than rationally motivated.
The problem with representing Karin’s genital self-mutilation, however, is of a radically different order, and its traumatism, we suspect, arises on account of the visibility Bergman affords it. Representationally, this places him in an invidious position; for in making visible the act of self-mutilation and then immediately making visible Karin’s demonstration of resistance before Fredrik, Bergman constitutes, via a process of visual regress, a voyeuristic tendency in the consumption of the cinematic image. The dynamic of the production/consumption process in Cries and Whispers is somewhat analogous to the effect famously conjured by Hitchcock in Rear Window (1954) (see Denzin, 1995), except that in the Bergman example, the representational and sexual politics at stake are so exceedingly high. This constitutes part of his paradox. By process of visual regress he shows us 1) the act of self-harm for which he as Director and we as “consumers” are voyeurs; and 2) the defiant demonstration of Karin’s “resistance” for which her husband, then he as Director, then we as “consumers” are, likewise, voyeurs. It’s not at all clear that Fredrik, or Bergman, or by process of extrapolation, “we” the “consumer” won’t be as thoroughly titillated by Karin’s act of “resistance” as we might be by a more conventional depiction of heterosexual sex (see Pembroke, 2004 ). The saving grace here, though, lies, not at all in Bergman’s direction, which simultaneously demonstrates Karin’s “resistance” even as it pathologizes it, but in Hall’s model of cinematic representation sketched out above. For if Bergman does, indeed, stereotype Karin at the moment of cinematic production, we don’t have to reproduce his stereotypical representations at the point of “consumption.” We can and should administer to such representations what Hall (1992) called an “oppositional” reading, reinterpreting Karin’s act of self-harm within an “alternative frame of reference.” We think that such an “alternative frame” would be a socialist and feminist one (e.g., Rowbotham, Segal, and Wainright, 1979) and would stress both the potential for sisterly solidarity and the “lived experience” of Karin herself (see Cresswell, 2005). But whatever the alternative framework might be — and we would accept there might be many such “frames” — our argument in this article has been that there is none unproblematically available within Bergman’s own representational scheme. A love/hate relationship with Bergman appears to be, ultimately, the only viable ethical one.
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- See. [↩]
- See [↩]
- Minus Žižek’s Lacanian psychoanalysis (e.g., 1993), for which we have no time. [↩]
- See. [↩]
- We think the same problem of “foreground” and “background,” of “big P” politics being systematically “trumped” by “small p” politics also afflicts the later work of Krzysztof Kieślowski in his post-Decalogue films. [↩]
- We could hardly include Agnes in this analysis of the “sexual aesthetic.” Harriet Andersson plays it “ugly” for Agnes — but then she spends nearly all of the film dying of cancer. [↩]