As Bergman goes, so go attitudes toward European art cinema.
Nowhere in the history of European art cinema, nor alternative cinema generally, is the fickleness of critical taste more marked than in Ingmar Bergman‘s fall from 1960s auteur preeminence to recent neglect. Along with Fellini and Antonioni, Bergman was regarded as the greatest hope of attaining for the screen the same status as painting, poetry, and literature. He confronted modernist themes and developed instantly identifiable stylistic motifs. Since the mid-1970s, however, a tendency toward structuralist and feminist approaches to film criticism have conspired, together with a postmodernist mainstream, to undermine Bergman’s once most revered oeuvre. The intention of this study is to examine the impact of these changes and, having done so, to carry out a brief assessment of what if anything a Bergman text still has to offer today’s savvy audiences. Initially, however, let us provide a context for such a discussion by looking at Bergman’s early success.
As can be seen in the above excerpt from a review of Crisis (1945), criticism of Bergman’s films between 1945 and 1954 was less than favourable in his native Sweden. Critics there decried Bergman’s pessimistic existentialism — his preoccupation with marginalized, disaffected, young figures — urging domestic filmmakers to avoid diverse formal techniques, in particular, the gritty mise-en-scéne and harsh expressionism of Rossellini and the Italian Neo-realists. Instead, they pushed for greater alignment of Swedish cinema with Hollywood; its three-point lighting systems, its spatial and temporal continuity, and its classical narratives.
In spite of this, Bergman went on developing what would become his authorial hand, establishing by the time of Summer Interlude (1951) his concern with not only the female protagonist and circus clown, but also layers of memory and existentialist quandaries, chief among them, how to derive meaning from life in the apparent absence of God. It was not until Summer with Monika (1953) and Godard‘s “Bergmanorama,” a Cahiers du cinéma article in celebration of Bergman, however, that the director’s tendency toward the idiosyncratic began to pay off.
For the writers in the increasingly influential Cahiers, cinema was primarily a means of self-expression. The filmmakers held in highest esteem were those perceived to imbue their material with a single sensibility, auteurs like Bresson and Renoir who acted, in Truffaut’s words, “[to] bring something genuinely personal to [their] subject . . . instead of merely transferring someone else’s work faithfully and self-effacingly.” The influence of the politique des auteurs — taking seriously, often for the first time, great directors from both America and Europe — spread quickly, and with it the attention paid to Bergman’s increasingly complex, increasingly personal cinema.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, critics on either side of the Atlantic, following the approach of Godard and Cahiers, carried out close textual analyses of both Bergman’s early films and, as his authorial intensity strengthened, each new release: The Seventh Seal (1956), Wild Strawberries (1957), Through a Glass Darkly (1960), Winter Light (1961-62), The Silence (1962). In so doing, they hoped to establish the continuity of themes and style. Of particular interest, beyond those formal-thematic signatures recognised already, was the growing use of symbolism, temporal layering, sexual metaphor, and, with the refined “chamber dramas,” the close-up. Continuity of personnel was also considered important, both in front of and behind the camera. Here, repeated casting of, for example, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Bibi Andersson was vital in allowing the identification of the audience to pass from the characters to the author himself. Never before had Bergman’s work, nor that of any other alternative filmmaker, been treated with such deference. Books by auteur-based critics rolled off printing presses and, with Persona (1966), Bergman began to indulge himself, offering commentators and art-house audiences even greater tests of their emotional and intellectual commitment. Such intense interest and acclaim, however, would prove transitory. For as early as the turn of the 1960s, the first signs of the politique des auteurs‘ move from a way of ordering film history to a means of assessing a film’s worth were in evidence.
By 1961, Cahiers writer and filmmaker Jacque Rivette had developed the notion that it was a “divine spark” that divided the auteur from what had by now become known as the metteur en scene, defining the ability of the former to make a film truly his own and the inability of the latter to disguise the fact that the spirit lies elsewhere. It was only when American critic Andrew Sarris took on the politique des auteurs, however, that this distinction became more regimented. Herein, the preoccupation with the “wholeness” of a director’s work meant even the failures of the auteur were considered to be of more artistic value than the successes of the metteur en scene. Amid this, Sarris’ auteur theory appeared ever more like a cult of personality. Forgotten was the social and industrial context from within which the filmmaker creates, the emphasis squarely placed on the demonic author creating independent of time and place. The auteur theory had become a criterion of value but one to which critics, both emerging and established, were less and less inclined to subscribe.
If the late twentieth century can be defined in cultural terms by the devaluation of its artist and their works, it is arguably here, with the critical shift toward a structuralist approach in the late 1960s, that the process begins. In Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, first published in 1967, Peter Wollen observes:
The structuralist approach was short-lived and, for many of its more militant advocates in the film medium, constituted little more than a rebellion against the auteur-based critics’ deification of its leading directors, principal among them Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman. Nevertheless, it was successful in opening the floodgates for a greater degree of irreverence toward the previously sacrosanct work of the auteurs.
Writing in the late 1960s, Robin Wood had contended that Bergman, even above the more obvious choice of George Cukor, should be considered the greatest director of women. Indeed, from Summer with Monika onward, Bergman had come to be regarded by (largely male) critics as the director unique in his understanding of the female psyche and female sexuality. During the 1970s, however, Joan Mellen led a revolt. She observed the conformity of Bergman’s “chamber dramas” to what was essentially a conventional male perspective on female subjectivity. Here, in films like Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, and Cries and Whispers (1972), the failure of the women protagonists to find meaning derives from an inability to choose a lifestyle independent of the female sexual role. “In this sense,” Mellen argues, “Bergman is arbitrarily far harder on his women than on his men. They are depicted as if on a lower notch of the evolutionary scale.” Indeed, even those characters who refuse the constraints imposed by their physiology — the frigidity of Ester in The Silence by way of contrast with her submissive sister Anna, for example — must suffer death for their rebellion.
Joan Mellen’s indictment of Bergman’s treatment of women broke new ground, leading to a critical about-turn among even previously approving female critics. Like Mellen, Pauline Kael also recognised the conventionality of Bergman’s fascination with women — the sense of “women as Other, women as mysterious, sensual goddesses of male fantasy.” Birgitta Steene, in her 1979 essay “Bergman’s Portrait of Women: Sexism or Subjective Metaphor,” meanwhile, derided the director’s equation of femininity only with states of hysteria and heightened emotion. In the relentless progress of modern criticism, modern society, and, as it would transpire, modern cinema, Bergman was being left behind. The auteur once considered to be, along with Antonioni, the woman’s director par excellence now stood accused of preventing a liberated image of women on film.
Such irreverence toward Bergman, together with other European auteurs, also permeated a formerly deferential mainstream. As the 1980s approached, Bergman became the subject of derision. In a world where commitment to the notion of the “popular” rather than the “personal” was of increasing value — the “physical” rather than the “metaphysical,” as Richard Corliss observes it — Hollywood homages and television spoofs painted Bergman as the chief proponent of art cinema gravitas. This shift left each new Bergman release, with its earnest dedication to modernist themes, latterly the predicament of the artist with Hour of the Wolf, The Shame (both 1968) and The Ritual (1969), looking increasingly irrelevant in a postmodernist age. The questions Bergman asked by the turn of the 1980s had it seemed been answered, commercial attention shifting toward the auteurs of the new Hollywood cinema, such as Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola. Less serious and, arguably, less sincere in approach than their marginalized art-house antecedents, the auteur credit increasingly provided little more than a basis on which to market a film. Names like Altman, Allen, and Coppola here offered, in the tradition of Hollywood’s best-loved genres, a guarantee of a certain cinematic experience.
It was for this reason that critics grew wary of the excessive foregrounding of a director’s formal signatures. Thus, where academics had previously delighted in noting and analysing for significance the inclusion of, for example, an infamous Bergman close-up, they now regarded it as little more than self-parody. For them, the icon of the alternative cinema was cynically giving the audiences what they wanted and expected from a Bergman film. It was yet another form of hegemony. Writes Peter Matthews of Autumn Sonata (1978) and the internationally successful, if for Matthews and other more ardent fans “Bergman-lite,” Fanny and Alexander (1982):
Surveying the impact a changing view of authorship has had on the critical approach to Bergman’s films, we can better understand his continued absence from film academia. Today, as with so many of his contemporaries, Bergman represents nothing more or less than a period in the cultural history of Europe and the alternative cinema. Yet Bergman is more than formal experiments overcome by newer progressive models; more than the mere sum of his authorial signatures; more than an artist to be placed on a pedestal and admired from afar. Bergman is a filmmaker of the people and for the people. And to forget the ability of his films to act as a form of catharsis for the viewer as well as the author is to forget what first attracted early critics and, more importantly, early audiences.
Bergman’s characters are shown to be caught in a conflict between the inner world and the often menacing outer world. Regardless of gender, age, or status, Bergman’s interest is rooted in how they choose to compromise the two. As Godard observes in his essay: “the cinema is an art. . .. One is always alone; on the set as before the blank page. And for Bergman to be alone means to ask questions.” Time and again, Bergman challenges our sense of both individual and collective identity (who are we and how do we live with others?) — ethical, political, and social considerations every bit as relevant to the current climate, modernist or otherwise, as any moment previously. It is for this reason, however valid the re-evaluation of the alternative critics, however necessary the revisionist approach, that the study of film cannot afford to be without such a cinematic force, and particularly one so central to its institutionalisation, as Ingmar Bergman.