A self-confessed conjurer, Bergman’s films are tricky in every sense. What makes these movies so difficult is what makes life itself difficult – the overwhelming desire to know the unknowable, and the opaque relationship between the mythic and the real. That Bergman’s films have received so much, and such widely diverse, critical attention shows how important it is for us to figure them out.
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At the time of his death in 2007, Ingmar Bergman not only personified the high-water mark of Scandinavian cinema, but also marked the broader accomplishments of European art film as a whole as one of the most revered modes of contemporary art. Films such as Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), and The Virgin Spring (1960) solidified Bergman’s reputation as an artistic visionary as much as it brought him standing as a profound thinker. His films open up a range of the most personal, psychological, and metaphysical enigmas, transforming the philosophical riddles that dominated his interior life into intense – and often devastatingly beautiful – symbolic dramas.
While the attention lavished on his trademark visual style and unique treatment of philosophical concerns brought him renown as one of the greatest directors of all time, Bergman has not been immune to backlash. The weight of his reputation often sparked suspicion as well as adoration, and Susan Sontag observed in 1969 that the “auteur” stamp even then threatened to overpower the content and quality of his work: “(Bergman’s) signature has come to mean a prodigal, tirelessly productive career; a rather facile, often merely beautiful, by now . . . almost oversized body of work; a lavishly inventive, sensual, yet melodramatic talent, employed with what appeared to be a certain complacency, and prone to embarrassing displays of intellectual bad taste.”1 The films he produced during the late 1940s and early ’50s were retrospectively met with some hesitancy by US critics. Even those enraptured with Bergman tended to dismiss his earlier films as somehow lesser, primitive, or quaint.
This see-saw of prickly suspicion and gushing praise emphasises the challenge Bergman’s earlier work presents, particularly as the multicoloured carnival of postmodern cinema may in the contemporary filmgoing consciousness render his often dour high modernism as not just archaic but an unabashed downer. While the significance of Bergman’s work is undeniable, these undoubtedly are difficult films, and even for those with highbrow aspirations they can imply a sense of pretension and exclusion.
But this very notion of difficulty is crucial to Bergman’s films, be it his famous works or earlier titles like Dreams (1955). The designation of Dreams as a lesser work can be challenged through a comparison to the much acclaimed Persona: less grand in its aesthetic and conceptual adventurousness, there is still something startlingly honest in its engagement with what are, by comparison, lightweight romantic dramas. What Doris (Harriet Anderson) and Susanne (Eva Dahlbeck) learn is not that different from the thematic concerns of Persona regarding identity and the commodification of the self. There might be less cock-montages in the introduction, but illusions are still shattered, exposed, and torn apart.
A self-confessed conjurer, Bergman’s films are tricky in every sense. What makes these movies so difficult is what makes life itself difficult – the overwhelming desire to know the unknowable, and the opaque relationship between the mythic and the real. That Bergman’s films have received so much, and such widely diverse, critical attention shows how important it is for us to figure them out. His work questions the feasibility of this project, for as he continuously suggests, meaning itself is unfathomable, and even nonexistent. It is this unknowability that we seek to address in our daily lives through love, through work, and through art, which although successful in the short term, ultimately provides only a quick fix. It is this curiosity that contains the very essence of life, keeping us – and many of his most memorable characters – from calling it quits.
As in most of his films, Dreams combines Bergman’s formal adventurousness with an unquenchable desire for enlightenment and a dependence upon the symbolic. The eponymous dream state itself therefore in some ways recalls the structure and atmosphere of Bergman’s films themselves. The title of this film makes this concern central, provoking the question: What are these women’s dreams? It may initially seem easy to dismiss Doris’ statement that “being a working woman isn’t easy” as a cute if simplistic core theme, but in the face of the struggles that burden contemporary women juggling family, relationships, and careers, it is a message that should not be so readily dismissed. Regardless, the ingenuousness of Doris’ delivery seems to pale in comparison to the more overtly epic significance of The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring as they tackle the big themes like life and death, redemption and faith. But so much of the impact of Dreams is contained within its painstaking attention to the minutest detail of the too-easily-dismissed melodramatic form.
Dreams opens with a black screen, the repetitive tick-tock of a clock introducing a mechanical rhythm that will be continued throughout the film as its most constant motif. Like the clack of the projector at the beginning of Persona, this sound is granted the privileged opening moment, so integral in providing a context for what follows. These sounds construct a reflexive manifesto, aurally framing each film: while Persona identifies its own self-referential status as a text from the outset, Dreams offers a stopwatch, acknowledging the temporal constraints of the story – and life – itself. Time ticks away: we cannot fight it. A darkroom appears, and disembodied body parts collide as floating hands develop a photograph of a woman’s lips.
Bergman opens the film with this magic trick, as the image appears before our eyes. With the ticking clock providing a steady backbeat, a female voice hums, the tune not dissimilar to that hummed by Alma (Bibi Anderson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) in Persona after they pick mushrooms. This is Act Two of the opening magic show, the disembodied voice impossible to separate from the photograph of the unmoving mouth, a moment of discreet, abstract ventriloquism. The camera pans to a pile of photographs, and one is turned over and the hand stamps “Susanne Frank, Modefoto, Stockholm” on the back. Susanne’s brand is shown before she is – the indelible mark of authoritive femininity, taking precedence over Susanne herself.
She is an earnest career woman, sensible and elegant, sitting in her studio. Sifting through this pile of photographs offered by that anonymous hand, she chooses one and tears it up (does she just not like it, or is there – like Elisabet tearing up the photograph of her son in Persona – a more significant reason?). The occasion is a photoshoot with the young model Doris, but the scene is far from glamorous. The make-up assistant exerts an exaggerated yawn, the drabness of the moment and the boredom of onlookers palpable as it emphasises the hollow illusion of staged glamour. Mr Magnus (Benkt-Åke Benktsson), obese and frog-like, looks on, leering and licking his lips. His tapping fingers now provide the beat, joined by an incompatible cocktail-party score that contrasts tellingly with the unmitigated disinterest of those in shot.
Doris preens into a hand mirror, its non-reflective back replacing her face as her image ironically obliterates her own reflection. Her identity vanishes as she becomes trapped in the mise-en-abîme of narcissism. Reflections abound in Bergman’s films, these surfaces providing a literal forum for protagonists to ponder their very being: this is taken to the logical extreme in Persona in the famous doubling of Elisabet and Alma’s faces that concludes the climactic “double monologue.” For Doris, however, her introduction into the film is marked by her absence and the overwhelming presence of something not-quite herself.
The music stops dramatically at the snap of the camera’s shutter, a flash of silence jarring the bored and increasing tension. This silence becomes almost suffocating as Doris leaves to change into another ensemble. Looming into a signature Bergman extreme close-up of Susanne’s face, the scene cuts to a close-up of the fat man’s knuckles, and they begin their relentless drumming once more. Inevitable and insufferable, like the ticking of the clock marking the passing of time, it overwhelms Susanne and she storms suddenly from the room. The percussive beat returns to its original source as the tick-tock in the darkroom returns, and an anxious Susanne paces in the dark, pondering what can only be gloomy thoughts in this enclosed chamber of shadows.
Doris and two colleagues gossip idly, their chatter shattering the intensity of the opening moments and providing nuts-and-bolts exposition. Susanne, it appears, is on edge, recovering from a yearlong “hot affair” with a married businessman. Combined with the previous image of Doris’ introspective boss, Alma’s description of her affair with a married man in Persona recalls Susanne’s situation: “He was married. We had a relationship . . . Then he got tired, of course. I was very much in love, that’s for sure . . . I remember it all like a long torment . . . Thinking of it afterwards, it’s really banal. A real pulp fiction. In a strange way, it was never really real.”
The parallels between Alma and Susanne’s stories are inescapable. While this “banal pulp fiction” positions Persona in opposition to the Dreams formally, it simultaneously functions in drawing narrative and arguably thematic parallels that continue to appear through comparative analysis.
After a comic argument with her fiancé Palle (Sven Lindberg), Doris joins Susanne in a work trip to Gothenberg. This journey offers not only the film’s most memorable sequence, but is a feat of such profound visual poetry that it equals some of Bergman’s most highly praised sequences. The sound of the train continues the unrelenting, inescapable beats of both the darkroom clock and Mr Magnus’ knuckles, its mechanical and inevitable tick-tocking dominating the atmosphere.. In almost total darkness, heartbroken Susanne is shown in extreme close-up, her white-blonde hair glowing but her face obliterated in shadow. Her expression may be hidden but her emotional state is perfectly clear: rain falls heavily on the window in front of her, the metaphor expressing her agony without cliché or triteness while acknowledging the privacy of this suffering moment. A sudden, fast-paced montage succinctly demonstrates the depths of this pain, cutting between a poster warning of the dangers of opening the door on a moving train, and Susanne’s fleeting glances towards the door handle that stands between her and death as she considers the feasibility of suicide. As the montage increases in speed, the drumming of the train tracks again builds the intensity similar to the drumming fingers, but this time a piercing scream disrupts the rhythm. What initially sounds like a woman’s scream is in fact the screech of the train’s brakes. Repeating the ventriloquism of the opening darkroom sequence, we can hear the “scream” but the sound does not come from the figure we see: Susanne is silent as she opens the window and lets the rain soak her head. Her pain, however, is audible and intolerable, the brakes continuing to screech.
Arriving at their hotel, Susanne’s pain continues. After some hesitation, she succumbs and calls her ex-lover Henrik in a high-contrast close-up profile shot reminiscent of that on the train. The awkward conversation is conducted with her elegant gloved hand to her cheek, as if holding an aching tooth. They agree to meet, and the film turns its attention to Doris. With time to kill before her modelling job, she indulges in some window shopping – sauntering from store to store, she sees her own reflection superimposed over displays of her desired products: gloves, jewels, frocks. But is she looking at the items she covets or her own reflection – and, perhaps most importantly, is there a difference? Otto (Gunnar Björnstrand), her elderly would-be suitor, takes her on a shopping spree, culminating in the purchase of expensive pearls in Mr Bose’s jewellery store. Each pearl, the jeweller says, is beautiful, but their true power is attained in their collective presentation. Distracted by orgasmic greed, she misses the significance of this to her own giddy adventure. In the background of the store, a clock ticks. Time moves on.
Missing her photo shoot, Otto fulfils Doris’ request to go on a rollercoaster. As she screams excitedly, Otto is instead frightened; the sound of the rattling cars and her thrilled screams echoing the train and screaming breaks earlier in the film. Dancing phony skeletons are intercut with Otto’s overwhelmed reaction shots, releasing a cache of questions – is Otto the monster, seducing a clearly naive young girl? Is the dizzy glee of youth monstrous to him, or is it his own aging that horrifies him? He collapses, perhaps in response to these questions.
Invited back to his palatial house, Doris puts on her new outfit and together, she and Otto drink champagne. Before her childlike guzzling begins, Doris enquires about a large portrait of a young girl that hangs on Otto’s wall – it is his daughter, Marianne, of whom some awkward passing commentary has already been made. Does the striking similarity between herself and the girl in the painting occur to Doris, as it does to us? Throughout this scene, Doris is shown often in long shot, Otto’s disembodied and bandaged hand (he hurt it when he fell at the fairground) appears offshoot, continuing the parade of stray body parts that litter the film. In one shot, he dangles the pearls in the foreground as bait to lure her closer to him – both are in a position of power, and both are in a position of weakness. The youthful Doris cannot resist the temptation of the expensive jewels, even knowing she must supplicate to the “ugly” Otto. His bandaged hand, however, signifies that the power does not totally belong to him – he has been wounded in pursuit of his prize, Doris herself. After a nasty confrontation with Marianne, Doris flees from Otto altogether, leaving her spoils behind. Her adventure is over.
Reunited with her lover, Susanne’s romantic encounter is no more successful. Awkward conversation with the lost Henrik collapses into a passionate kiss, filmed so close that the camera becomes a third party in the embrace and its slow zoom fading into a blank screen of assumed lovemaking. Afterwards, Henrik speaks of being a “worn out product of consumption,” time proving victorious over his broken spirit. His wife disrupts the reunion, speaking earnestly and courageously to Susanne – not of Henrik’s love, but of his tiredness. As the women discuss him in the third person, Henrik literally fades out of focus in the background. Susanne realises the futility of her passions – no love in the world can stop the clock ticking, the rhythmic onslaught of encroaching time.
Returning to Stockholm, lessons have been learnt, not only for Doris and Susanne but for Bergman’s audience. Viewers for whom Dreams is an introduction to Bergman’s work are in an enviable position, recalling his own reflections upon his work: “For me there is only one loyalty: to the film on which I am working. What comes (or fails to come) after is insignificant and causes neither anxiety nor longing. This gives me assurance and artistic confidence. The material assurance is apparently limited but I find artistic integrity infinitely more important, and therefore I follow the principle that each film is my last.2
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Author’s note: An earlier, different version of this article appeared accompanying the Australian DVD release of the film by Madman Entertainment as part of their Director’s Suite series.
- Susan Sontag, “Bergman’s Persona.” In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Ed. Lloyd Michaels. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000: 62. [↩]
- Ingmar Bergman, “Each Film Is My Last.” (Translated by P. E. Burke; Lennart Swahn; edited by Erika Munk from two speeches published by Svensk Filmindustri). The Tulane Drama Review, 11.1 (Autumn, 1966): 100. [↩]