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SARABAND (TV) (director/writer: Ingmar Bergman; cinematographers: Per-Olof Lantto/Sofi Stridh/Raymond Wemmenlov; editor: Sylvia Ingemarsson; cast: Liv Ullmann (Marianne), Erland Josephson (Johan), Börje Ahlstedt (Henrik), Julia Dufvenius (Karin), Gunnel Fred (Martha); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Pia Ehrnvall; Sony Picture Classics; 2003-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)
“Any Bergman is better than most of the art-house dramas that have been shipped to the States from Europe in recent times.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Saraband (derived from a 17th century court dance) is an intense family drama made for Swedish TV (shot in digital video) that was also given a theater release. Ingmar Bergman (“Fanny and Alexander”) was 85 at the time of filming his first film in some two decades, supposedly his swan song. This provocative, spare and bleak film shows the human condition as heavy sledding for its lonely and unpleasant characters who are trapped by either the aging process or their own character faults or their inability to help themselves. Their domestic spats leave them unconnected with one another, as Bergman in a number of painful scenes tries to see if it’s possible to get them to connect without clinging or using the other. The master filmmaker (though not in this slight and passe film) revisits the divorced middle-aged couple Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) of his 1973 Scenes from a Marriage as they reunite for the summer and try to nonchalantly pick up the pieces 32 years later, who do so without either party making much of an effort to get things on again but nevertheless being friendly.

The film opens with Marianne, a lawyer, looking through a series of scattered photographs on a large table in her home, as she in a matter of fact tone (annoyingly posing for the camera) tells how isolated she is from her family. The film is divided into ten chapters and deals with many of Bergman’s usual themes — death, love, marriage, domestic problems, and the arts as a staple of the educated. It will close with Marianne still looking through the photos, as she fills us in on what happened after she returned from visiting her intellectual ex-husband.

In Marianne’s opening monologue she says she’s proudest of her married lawyer daughter Sarah in Australia, who regularly telephones and writes; her other daughter Martha (Gunnel Fred) has been placed in a home because of her mental illness and no longer recognizes her. Marianne’s 86-year-old ex-husband Johan of 16 years, whom the 63-year-old woman left because he was unfaithful, encourages no contact and remains reclusive. Both had gone on to marry someone else after their breakup. Now Marianne, with time on her hands before her next court case and feeling lonely, impulsively visits Johan in his isolated villa in Orsa, some 200 miles from Stockholm, in the wilderness, where he retired to after leaving the university when inheriting in his old age a fortune from a Danish relative.

Hungering for people contact, Marianne soon gets involved with her ex-husband’s troubled 61-year-old son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), from an earlier marriage, who lives rent-free in a guesthouse on his father’s grounds. He’s a music professor who is considered not a good teacher, losing his job at the university the first chance the school had in getting rid of such a meddlesome fellow, and is consumed with inconsolable grief since two years ago his saintly wife Anna (supposedly a character derived from the filmmaker’s wife) died after a long bout with cancer. Henrik has made his cello playing daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) the focal point of his life and uses her as a surrogate for his wife, which takes us into incestuous grounds. The aspiring cello player is being short-changed by her father’s inadequate teaching and she goes for advice to Marianne as to whether or not she should leave her father to study abroad at a conservatory, fearful he will die without her support. The relationship between father and son is unbearably hostile, but the grandfather has a soft spot for Karin and is willing to help her achieve her musical goals.

All these neurotic characters use the repressed Marianne as a catalyst to bear their souls and this gives us a chance to see that they are all tired of life and emotionally drained, as tired as Bergman must have been when he made this tired film. Though the mise en scene is magnificently accomplished, the story had the feel of Woody Allen doing Bergman. It’s middle-brow fodder for the art-house crowd, who must realize that they’re not getting vintage high-culture Bergman but are probably right if they think that any Bergman is better than most of the art-house dramas that have been shipped to the States from Europe in recent times.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”