Category: Swedish Cinema

Pleasure (Sweden-Netherlands-France 2021)

Sofia Kappel as Bella

Here’s a film made by a creative team comprising mainly women with impressive credits from a range of critically acclaimed productions. For writer-director Ninja Thyberg this is her début feature after several years of research and short film productions. (Peter Modestij is credited as co-writer.) Thyberg’s fellow Swede, Sofia Kappel the young star of the film, makes her first film appearance. It’s a European co-production but made in English and focuses on a young woman attempting to become a star in the Los Angeles porn industry. The film has been screened to some acclaim at various festivals including Sundance and Cannes and is now being distributed in the UK and Ireland by MUBI. In the UK, the BBFC have given the film an 18 Certificate for cinema screenings and the film was shown in a cinema the night before it began streaming. The reviews of the film seem generally positive as do the ‘user ratings’ on MUBI, but I suspect that audiences who are less aware of what they have chosen to see may find it less to their taste.

Outline

Linnéa (using the name ‘Bella Cherry’) arrives in Los Angeles and sets out to make her way in the LA porn industry. The film’s title is of course ironic. “Pleasure” is Bella’s response to the Passport Control question about whether she is entering the country for ‘Business or Pleasure’. She soon seeks out an agent and prepares for her first shoot as an 18 year-old in a scene with a “semi-middle aged man”. She moves in with two other young women in the same business in what is termed as a ‘model house’. At first she is wary of her house companions but soon makes friends with them, especially with Joy and Ashley. At her next shoot, she also meets Ava who seems more stand-offish. Bella learns that Ava is a ‘Spiegler girl’ – a woman associated with the leading porn producer in LA. The narrative will then focus primarily on Bella, Joy and Eva. Bella’s determination to get to the top means she will have to seek out jobs in which she will be expected to perform in the hardest and most extreme forms of porn. She will take dangerous steps in order to do this and it will be painful in various ways, including testing her relationships with Joy and Ava. The narrative’s resolution is probably best described as ‘open’ in terms of the goal Bella has set herself.

Bella and Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) become friends in the model house

Commentary

I streamed the film and there were a couple of scenes I did find very difficult to watch. I then found the French Press Pack on UniFrance and, assisted by Google Translate, I found it a useful guide to the stated intentions of Ninja Thyberg and the experiences of Sofia Kappel. Thyberg tells us that she began as an anti-porn feminist activist at 16 (in 2000) but then studied film and gradually realised that instead of fighting against porn she could attempt to make different, alternative stories about it. She did make a short film about a porn film shoot titled Pleasure in 2013 that won a prize at Cannes, but the current feature was developed from 2014 onwards involving extensive research into the LA porn industry. The Press Pack material makes interesting reading and answers many questions about the film. The central statement, picked up by many reviewers is that the film is not about women as victims. The film does not focus on “Why does this young woman want to be a porn star?”, but instead on “What does she get from the experience?”. I confess that the ‘Why question’ was something that occurred to me. There is a sequence when Bella phones home to talk to her mother in Sweden. It appears that her mother thinks Linnea has an internship of some sort. Linnea is upset on the phone but her mother gives her sensible advice. Bella is not portrayed as a victim but Thyberg doesn’t want to explain exactly what drives Bella to take the steps she does. There seems to be a sense that Linnea is a young Swedish woman exploring what the American dream as a personal narrative might mean. Thyberg admits that Sofia Kappel is from a new generation that thinks and behaves differently than she did as a 20 year-old. It’s even more difficult for those much older, such as this reviewer, to understand!

Bella in a simulated sex scene with careful camerawork 

When a film is about pornography, the inevitable questions are about whether the sexual acts depicted are ‘real’ or simulated. In this case, Thyberg used porn actors for many of the roles (arguing that they were actually better in the roles than mainstream actors). The scenes we see involve only simulated sex and they are shot in such a way that we don’t see any examples of what in porn is termed a ‘money shot’. Thyberg says she wanted to employ a ‘female gaze’, so while there are many nude shots of genitalia, both male and female in preparation for a shoot, the sexual acts themselves conform to mainstream conventions of what can be shown. But don’t mainstream representations objectify women in sex scenes? Here’s an extract from the Ninja Thyberg interview in the Press Pack:

In the film, Bella objectifies herself. She creates an image of a sexual object. To tell this story I myself had to objectify her. The challenge was to ensure that the film always took her side. It had to be faithful and honest to her. 

I think I know what she means but this is surely something to be debated. ‘Real sex’ in any part of the film would mean an ‘R18’ certificate in the UK, allowing only screenings in licensed sex cinemas or sold through sex shops to adults only. Thyberg’s film includes an almost procedural study of the porn industry at work, including the consent forms and contracts etc. The film is straightforward in presenting the issues and debates around how it works. As an industry, porn in LA has shrunk somewhat with the explosion of access to free online porn. Thyberg argues that she did attempt make the shoots more colourful and bright than they might have been, she didn’t want to make pornography herself. At the same time her aesthetic decisions do not mask any of the harsh realities of the industry – which the porn actors and producers who appear in the film seem to have accepted. The only male character in the film who has a developed role is played by the Black performer Chris Cock. He, along with Joy and Ashley provide some humanity outside the circus of shoots and parties.

Bella and Joy together on set of a shoot

I can’t say I enjoyed the film. It only fleetingly felt erotic. Occasionally it is funny, mostly it is wince inducing. Even so, I’m glad I watched it and read the interviews which made me think about a wide range of issues. I am baffled by the attraction of the LA porn industry’s products as presented here. MUBI has streamed a range of ‘erotic films’ as part of its streaming offer, some recent, some from the archives. Many of these are quite boring I think, some are enjoyable if not profound and occasionally there are films that are important in making statements. The Argentinian feature The Daughters of Fire (2018) discussed on this blog is one such film and Pleasure may be another. It is intelligently thought through as a project and technically very good. I was intrigued to see that the film was shot by Sophie Winqvist whose work I admired on the very different Clara Sola (Costa Rica-Sweden 2021). Editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm has credits on other successful titles such as Victoria (Germany 2015) and Border (Sweden-Denmark 2018). The music by Karl Frid and Costume Design by Anna Wing Yee Lee are other major features of the film, but both a little beyond my understanding in this case. Finally, I must commend Sofia Kappel’s stunning performance as Linnéa/Bella – and Ninja Thyberg’s direction of her mix of actors from the mainstream and porn industries. Here’s a trailer designed to be suitable for a mainstream audience:

¡Viva! 28 #7: Clara Sola (Sweden-Costa Rica-Belgium-Germany-France-US 2021)

My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.

Clara is the centre of attention at religious festivals

Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.

Clara with Yuca

Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?

Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.

Director Natalie Álvarez Mesén with Wendy Chinchilla Araya as Clara

The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.

Clara in the blue dress she wanted strikes out on her own

The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.

A Second Chance (En chance til, Denmark-Sweden 2014)

Simon (Ulrich Thomsen, left) and Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)

Susanne Bier has had a 30 year directorial career so far, reaching a prominent position in Scandinavian cinema with Open Hearts (Denmark 2002) and going on to move into ‘international’ cinema (i.e. English language productions) with Serena (US 2014). Currently she is making a US TV series about the decisions made by ‘First Ladies’ in the White House. She’s had her share of flops but before Serena she made A Second Chance a film drawing on the repertoires of the police procedural, family melodrama and psychological thriller. Melodrama is definitely one of her strengths for me and this film, co-written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, is certainly powerful and at times I found it difficult to watch because I feared what might happen next.

Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Sanne (Lykke May Andersen)

Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a police detective who with his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) is called to a social housing block where they find Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a drug user they had previously arrested for violent assault. He is living with a young woman, Sanne (Lykke May Andersen) and her baby. Andreas is angered to find the baby in a filthy state, lying in its own excrement. He calls social services but they seem reluctant to act. We know Andreas has a young son at home and he is perhaps over-emotional. His chief warns him off. Simon meanwhile has his own problems, separated from his wife and son and drinking too much. Narratives about law officers with family problems are familiar enough in crime fictions and especially in Danish-Swedish TV serials such as The Bridge, but this feels like a slightly different take. At this point there is the likelihood of a domestic abuse case but no hint of the kinds of major crimes that have characterised ‘Nordic Noir’ film and TV crime narratives over the past twenty years. (This doesn’t mean I think that domestic abuse is not a serious crime.)

I’m not sure how I can set up the rest of the narrative without spoiling the whole story but I want to make clear that Andreas and his partner Anna (Maria Bonnevie) are having problems with their new baby who, as they are both in their early forties, might be a son they have struggled to conceive for one reason or another. Later there are hints that Anna might had a difficult childhood herself. When things go wrong Andreas makes a stupid decision but one that could conceivably happen. I have no experience of babies and child-rearing and others may disagree me. Now we have the ingredients of a heavyweight crime melodrama which some might see as a psychological thriller.

Andreas and Anna (Maria Bonnevie)

Modern day reviewers and critics really hate melodramas. I sometimes feel it is an almost pathological hatred for a form that predates cinema and has continued to be important throughout film history. I find it bizarre. Some of the criticisms of A Second Chance are that the film is heavy-handed, contrived and manipulative and worst of all it is using plotlines taken from TV soap operas. I had to go back through sections of the film to try to find some of these terrible crimes against scriptwriting and direction. I do have to note that some of this criticism comes from critics I generally admire, so perhaps I’m gullible and naïve? That might be true , but what baffles me is the idea that melodrama stopped being ‘acceptable’ at some point, despite the fact that some of the most revered directors of the 1940s-70s made mainly melodramas. It’s an expressionist dramatic form so criticising the use of music, mise en scène and close-up photography to communicate feelings and emotional responses seems pointless. I thought that the music by Johan Söderqvist and cinematography by Michael Snyman were appropriate for the melodrama narrative. There is also the problem that some critics see the use of a comparison between a middle-class couple with a baby and a working-class couple with a baby as banal or as overly didactic (the same kind of comments are aimed at Ken Loach and Paul Laverty for their melodramas). But Susanne Bier does not make the kinds of expressive statements that her critics rail against. She ‘shows’ but she doesn’t ‘tell’ and doesn’t necessarily come to conclusions.

The pram suggests horror or psychological thriller?

Could the writing be improved? Yes, I think so. I do agree that Simon as a character wastes the talents of Ulrich Thomsen and that making him an alcoholic police officer is perhaps just too familiar. But this film has a very starry cast that offers the great performances in compensation and as a co-production it includes Swedish characters. Anna’s family are Swedish with her father played by Peter Haber (best known in the UK as Martin Beck in the long-running police procedural series) and her mother by Ewa Fröling, an actor in Swedish films since the 1970s. The most remarkable performance is by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a well-known face from Danish TV series as well as films, who is almost unrecognisable as Tristan. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a star on Game of Thrones I understand. I’ve never seen that series but he has a remarkable presence. I remember him from the Jo Nesbø adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). In that film he looked a little too ‘smooth’, but in A Second Chance I think his angular good looks are utilised well. There is also a small part for Thomas Bo Larsen, another of the familiar Dogme graduates in Danish film and TV. Bier certainly surrounded herself with actors she knew.

If you are sure that you don’t like melodramas perhaps you shouldn’t watch this film: if you are open-minded and want a film that will keep you watching, albeit feeling that you should turn away, you should give it a go. I was pleased to fill in another gap in my viewings of Susanne Bier’s work. The trailer below gives away the key plot point in the film, so beware – but you’ve probably guessed what happens already.

Tove (Finland-Sweden 2020)

Still not comfortable about returning to cinemas but wanting to see a new/recent release I watched this film streaming on BFI Player. I knew little about the Moomins and even less about their creator Tove Jansson, but I’d heard a couple of good things about this part-biopic. It’s fair to say that I was bowled over by the performance of Alma Pöysti in the title role and I very much enjoyed the story set in the immediate post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The committed artist

Tove Jansson is a woman approaching 30 when the narrative begins, living in Helsinki and sheltering from Russian air raids before the end of the ‘Continuation War’ with the USSR in September 1944. A trained artist who has studied in both Finland and abroad, Tove is still dominated by her father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson who is supported by state and local commissions. She lives at home with her mother Signe, a graphic artist, and her younger brother Lars as well as her father. Her first move is to find a room in a bombed house and renovate it before pursuing her painting and graphics work. The narrative that develops has three strands which are woven together over the next ten years. One is the family drama involving her father on one side and her mother and brother on the other as Tove seeks her independence as a ‘visual artist’. The second strand, focusing on her artistic visions sees the development of her ‘visual storytelling’ which involves the creation of the Moomins, something which actually started several years before the film narrative begins. Finally, there is an intense romance that develops with Vivica Bandler, a wealthy married woman, and in the background an equally strong but less sexually charged relationship with Atos, a married man and socialist editor/publisher. The surprise for audiences may be that these relationships take up more screen time than the artistic practice and the development of the Moomin world. Having said that, all three strands are strongly connected. Tove’s love for Vivica is unrequited but Vivica is a genuine supporter as well as an exciting sexual partner. She spots the ‘special’ qualities of the Moomin drawings and will help promote them by staging a theatrical adaptation. Atos is important as a socialist and a true friend and lover in every way. Tove is, in the language of the period, a true ‘bohemian’ but she still needs friends like Atos.

Tove with Atos . . .

. . . and with Vivica

I realised as the film progressed that I did know something about the Moomins, the ‘soft’ creatures that live in a secluded valley. At one point in the narrative we see and hear Tove speaking English and agreeing to produce a regular comic strip for The Evening News in London. This started in 1954 and continued until 1975. I usually bought the Standard, but I must have seen the Moomins strip in The News, though I didn’t learn about its creator until many years later. It’s not surprising that Tove was able to speak several languages. Her family was part of the Swedish minority in Finland and she had studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But little of Tove’s background is included in the film. It is alluded to only as necessary for the central narrative. The film is being promoted as a lesbian romance and its first UK appearance was in the BFI Flare Festival for LGBTQ+ cinema. I found myself identifying strongly with Tove and I think that it’s important for the narrative that it concludes in the mid-1950s when Tove has just met the woman with whom she’ll spend the rest of her life. The end credits include ‘home movie’ footage of the real Tove dancing al fresco with her new lover.

The theatre show devised by Vivica and Tove

There have been some criticisms of the film. It is in narrative terms quite conventional and that often provokes a reaction as if films need to be ‘difficult’ to be worthwhile. Perhaps more to the point is the charge that because it only focuses on part of the life, we don’t get the full impact that her early and later experiences have on her development as an artist .Also, this means that we don’t have time to fully explore the creativity in the presentation of the Moomins world. Beyond the fact that her father is obstructive and that both Atos and Vivika are encouraging we learn relatively little about why the Moomins become such an international success. I suspect that is something the fans in the audience might miss. It’s particularly an issue in the UK perhaps where graphic artists/storytellers are still not properly accepted by cultural commentators, though it is better I think than in the 1950s-70s (and I note that Tove Jansson’s paintings were exhibited in the UK in 2016). These kinds of criticism are inevitable with biopics and to include everything is impossible, even if the final film was twice the length (this one is 103 minutes and the Press Kit mentions a 117 minute director’s cut). One of the other criticisms is that the artists’ parties and the alternative lifestyles of the period are too clichéd. I actually enjoyed the parties and they looked realistic/authentic to me. I particularly liked the music (especially Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’) and Tove’s enthusiastic and wild dancing. There is a good selection of songs to complement Matti Bye’s more muted score.

Tove puts on a show for Vivica

I hope I’ve suggested many reasons why Tove is well worth watching. That central performance is really something. I think I was particularly drawn towards Alma Pöysti by what I perceived to be her ‘naturalness’ or authenticity. I liked her best without make-up and hair styling when she is working as a ‘free spirit’. I understand that she is a theatre actor and that she has done voicework on Moomin animations. Part of her freshness is that she is not presented as a film star. Krista Kosonen as Vivica and Swedish actor Shanti Roney are both experienced film and TV actors and very good second leads, but it’s Alma Pöysti’s film. This is director Zaida Bergroth’s fifth feature and she leads a production crew with several women in significant production roles including Linda Wassberg as cinematographer and Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth as production designer. The script is by Eeva Putro who is also an accomplished actor and plays one of Tove’s friends. Andrea Reuter shares the production credit with Aleksi Bardy. The film’s budget of €3.6 million makes it one of the most expensive Finnish films. Shooting on 16mm film is argued to give the images the right texture for a presentation of the period. It’s difficult to confirm that on a computer screen but the film looked good to me. This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

One final note. The film has been given a 12 rating in the UK. At last we now seem able to tolerate a few glimpses of naked body parts without everyone worrying about frightening younger teenagers. I do wonder though, with teenage smoking increasing what the impact of such heavy smoking characters might be. You can watch Tove on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.

About Endlessness (Om det oändliga, Sweden-Germany-Norway-France 2019)

This doesn’t really need a caption . . .

Now streaming on MUBI, this Roy Andersson film appeared at Venice in 2019 and has been joined on the international arthouse circuit by a documentary about Andersson’s work, Being a Human Person (UK-Sweden 2020) by Fred Scott. I’d like to see the documentary. It is suggested that Roy Andersson is unlikely to make another feature and this, possibly last, film certainly feels like a distillation of his ideas, emotions and aesthetics. It’s a shortish feature, just under 80 minutes and I think that it will take me at least a couple of later viewings to appreciate it properly.

The priest who has lost his faith . . .

The structure and the distinctive style of the last three Andersson films Songs from the Second Floor (2000) You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) is continued in the new film with no plot as such but a series of vignettes, shot with a static camera and often great depth of field, usually on meticulously painted sets featuring a very subdued colour palette and white-faced actors, mostly selected to represent ‘ordinary people’. The two different scenes that stand out are one of a couple moving through the sky over a bombed city (Cologne) like Lois Lane and Superman and the other a shot in which what seems like an entire defeated army is marching through the snow to Siberia. I assumed that Andersson couldn’t afford thousands of extras but I couldn’t see the join as the faceless soldiers presumably walked past the camera more than once. There is at least one mini narrative threaded through the series in which we follow a despairing priest who has lost his faith and there is one sequence which melds into another – i.e a character walks out of one scene and ends up in another. Unlike in the previous film, I don’t think there is a key scene which in some way provides a focus for the others (e.g. as the Breughel painting does in the Pigeon film).

One of the senes in which mirrors offer the sense of depth in the image

Andersson has been seen as influenced by painters rather than filmmakers. His scenes, usually in a tableau arrangement, dispense with cuts, close-ups and camera movement – those cinematic devices that lead us to make connections by controlling our gaze. But he can still use the movement of figures within the frame and music, dialogue and effects. And we can let our gaze run freely round the scene to find details not apparent at first glance. One important point to note is that this film is shorter than the others at under 80 minutes. It also appeared only five years after Pigeon, rather than the seven year gaps between the earlier films. Perhaps Andersson was more concerned to get the film out while he was still able. This is mentioned in the documentary film cited above. My own feeling is that About Endlessness is if anything even more bleak than the earlier films but this then throws into greater relief the two moments most associated with love and joy and the human spirit. One of these is a musical interlude outside a café. The other I found quietly devastating. A man and a little girl are standing with umbrellas during a heavy downpour. They are out in the open, crossing a large playing field and we understand that they are going to a party. The man bends down to tie the little girl’s shoelaces and as he does so his umbrella is blown away. He has to chase and retrieve it through the mud and puddles. He does so and returns to tie the laces on the other shoe. In one sense, it is a nothing scene, but it’s also a reference to ‘silent’ comedy and in the context of the other scenes it seems like a blast of pure humanity. I’ve just watched this scene again (the benefits of streaming) and I realise I’d forgotten that there is a disembodied female voice telling us that this is father and daughter on their way to a partner. I’m not sure yet what this commentary (which runs across several scenes) adds to or changes the way the film works differently to the earlier films.

This does resemble a Chagall painting but it’s also Lois and Superman

Without a central narrative, it is difficult to remember all the scenes or the order in which they appear (if this is important) but it also means that the viewer can return to the film and find something which feels new each time. These 21st century Andersson films are unique in their style and tone. Yet sometimes a scene reminds me of another film or in one scene here, a Swedish novel I was reading just before I watched the film. I’ve mentioned the benefits of re-watching scenes when the film is available on a subscription streaming service, but I’d still like to watch this film on a big screen in a cinema. If you haven’t seen any of Andersson’s work, I’m not sure if this is the best one to start with, but I urge you to watch at least one. I think you’ll then want to see the rest.

Ingrid Bergman: in her own words (Jag är Ingrid, Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2015)

I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.

Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.

A still from her first screen test for Selznick

Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).

In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.

Ingrid with her three children by Roberto Rossellini

What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says  “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh,  vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.

Bergman’s beauty remained throughout her life . . .

I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised  that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.

[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]