Ingmar Bergman Unmasked

 

In the second of the Berkeley Circle’s three meetings touching on Ingmar Bergman, James Kendall, who also lectures at the University here, spoke on ‘Ingmar Bergman and the film canon’. That suggested a very full evening since Bergman had directed some sixty feature films between 1944 and 1996. But Kendall reassured us. He would give his attention to one crucial work, the mid-career ‘Persona’ of 1966. He was going to dig deep rather than rake lightly over half a century.

‘Persona’ was generally recognised as ‘experimental’ and even after five decades remains something of an enigma requiring a determined pursuit of clues. We began by a hard look at the introduction Bergman had given his film. Watching the clips, we soon gathered that the director was not an explainer. He didn’t issue statements. He was a dramatic poet that left it to viewers to make what sense they could of what they had been shown. The introduction raised as many questions as it answered. It did indicate, however, that we would be much concerned with inner life as revealed by ruthless close-ups of actors’ faces.

We understood what situating Bergman in the canon implied when Kendall examined, again with clips, the introduction to ‘Le Chien Andalou’, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s landmark avant-garde shocker of 1928. The forty-year interval and the road filmmaking had traveled meant that another kind of shock, another order of mystery, had been necessary to break new ground for the seventh art in 1966. Young Roman Polanski’s ‘Knife in the Water’, we learned, did something similar to ‘Persona’. In a general way, however, Kendall opposed Bergman’s manner of shooting to that of Hollywood’s or the ‘mainstream’. It would be interesting to hear him again, perusing that mainstream and sorting out what was worthy of interest and why.

For the present, he took us, with clips, into the drama of Alma and Elisabet (Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann) and showed how Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist had used light, positioning of actors and camera movement to put into relief the strange dialogue in which facial expression said much more than words. Perhaps Kendall’s most enlightening remark was about the length of time Bergman lingered over a frame before cutting. It was much longer than that of most other filmmakers. Here there was no mystery. Bergman clearly didn’t want us to hurry on, but to take time for thought, even if it discomfited us. In the end, we had to agree that ‘The Man Who Asked Hard Questions’ had been the perfect name for the 2012 traveling exhibition about the director. Ingmar Bergman left it to us to find the answers.

Peter Byrne

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