Tagged: art cinema

Max von Sydow 1929 to 2020

Max von Sydow is the key figure in one of the most famous shots in world cinema; a world weary knight plays chess with the figure of Death on a stony beach as a grey sea rolls behind them. For me this was one of the key images and revelations of contemporary art cinema when I saw the film on 16mm at the Bournemouth Film Society. After a decade of mainstream entertainment I became engaged with a world of cinema that was often slower, usually more ambiguous but which was intellectually challenging in a wholly different register.

Max von Sydow became interested in acting during school trips to the Theatre. After military service he trained at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where Bibi Andersson also trained. Both had small parts in Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie / Fröken Julie (1951). He moved to work at the Malmö City Theatre where Ingmar Bergman was chief director. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) followed. Few actors can have enjoyed such an iconic character in their first leading role. His ability to play characters that were reflexive and cerebral made his performance stand out in the film and in contemporary cinema.

There followed a series of films with Bergman, defining both the work of the director and of the actor. Max von Sydow at times seemed to represent an alter ego for Bergman, He appeared in both leading and supporting roles in the films. The Virgin Spring / (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was another medieval tale, this time following the revenge of a father (Christian Per Töre) for his raped daughter. Once more the film was censored [parts of the rape scene] in the USA. Like The Seventh Seal this was a grim and dark tale, but with a ray of light at the resolution.

Then in Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spege, 1961) he played Martin, the father of Karin (Harriet Andersson) who suffers from schizophrenia. This is an intimate small-scale drama set on the island of Fårö, a location Bergman was to use for several more films. This is one of my personal favourites among Bergman films. I have watched it numerous times and I am always completely taken with the writing, acting and the development of drama and character. And the film enjoys the great artist, Sven Nykvist, as director of cinematography,

Bergman made a further series of what can be described as ‘chamber pieces’. Max von Sydow was a lead in the fine Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963). As Jonas Persson von Sydow is part of a small church congregation. The film then explores question of faith and of the wider issues in the world, including the then ever-present threat of the bomb [nuclear]. This film, along with the other chamber works, set up exploration of faith and the spiritual which seemed to dominate Bergman’s work in this period.

There were three films in which Max von Sydow played opposite Liv Ullmann. Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1967), filmed on an island in the south-west: Shame (Skammen, 1968), film  on the island of Faro: and A Passion / The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) also filmed on Faro and the only title of the three in colour. I was not quite as struck with these films as the earlier chamber pieces but the acting of Ullmann and von Sydow was really impressive.

‘Shame’

Von Sydow had parts in later Bergman films and also worked with the director in theatre (‘Peer Gynt’ and, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) and dramas for Swedish radio and television. He also worked with other Swedish film-makers, notably in Jan Troell’s two part The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) which followed people from the old world to the new world of North America. In the 1950s and 1960s von Sydow had resisted offer from the USA and for international productions. Then in 1965 he accepted a lead part in The Greatest Story Ever Told. This was against the advice of Ingmar Bergman, and after seeing the film I agreed with the latter.

Better was the 1967 Hawaii, adapted from a sprawling James Michener novel. Von Sydow played opposite a miscast Julie Andrews but the plotting was fascinating; one could read this as a dramatisation of Jane Eyre’s possible life if she had accompanied St John Rivers to the missions.

The other key film for his career was the 1966 The Quiller Memorandum. Von Sydow is part of a gang of neo-nazis, notably violent and sadistic. And frequently in his subsequent career his particular persona was used for villains, often pretty over the top. Three Days of the Condor was a happy exception where he was a completely professional assassin. But Escape to Victory (1981) was more typical; we, like he, had to watch Sylvester Stallone pretending to be able to play British-style football. This long trajectory as a villain always rather puzzled me. It crept into the European art scene with a film by Jan Troell’s Hansum (1996) as a real-life collaborator from World War Ii.

‘Pelle the Conqueror’

There were other pretty good films. Von Sydow won an Academy Award for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987) where he performed the most difficult challenge for an adult actor; playing opposite a child. He also won an Academy Award for The Exorcist (1973). I have never understood Mark Kermode’s love of this film. It seems to me that Bergman’s religious dramas are both far more interesting and closer to the real world.

Max von Sydow clocked up 163 credits for work in film and television. I have only seen a fraction of these. Some actors are very careful in the parts they considered and take on; Jeremy Irons would seen an example, even in a conventional genre film his character is really interesting. Max von Sydow appears closer to someone like Michael Caine who seems to take everything they are offered; fine films and dross. And I am not really certain why?

In retrospect, like his fellow thespian from the Royal Dramatic Theatre Bibi Andersson, I think he is defined by the work with Ingmar Bergman. Some of the director’s best and most memorable films feature his fine acting. And as I expect these to remain classics of world cinema I expect Max von Sydow to be long remembered.

Bibi Andersson 1935 to 2019

Christened Berit Elizabeth, in her professional life this actress used Bibi. She is best known for her work with the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. She graced some of his finest films, along with what must be the finest group of women actors to work with a single artist. Intriguingly, her first work with the famous artist was at age 16 in an advertisement for a detergent.

He [Bergman] also wrote and produced a series of commercial for Bris, a deodorant soap manufacturer by the Sunlight Corporation. It marked his first contact with teenager Bib Andersson who was to become part of his acting stable both on film and in the theatre, and with whom he was to establish a Higgins-Eliza relationship, a Pygmalian liaison that the actress eventfully would withdraw from. (Birgitta Steene in Ingmar Bergman A Reference Guide, Amsterdam University Press, 2005).

Andersson appeared in the eighth of nine episodes, ‘The Princess and the Swineherd’; a variation on a tale by Hans Christina Anderson. In the commercial version the swineherd attraction is a ‘remarkable soap.

Her early career involved study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School and then work at the same Theatre in Stockholm. An early film role was as a supporting player in Alf Sjoberg’s film version of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ (Fröken Julie, 1951). Another regular of Bergman also appearing in a supporting role was Max von Sydow. She then had a supporting role in Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende, 1955), one of my favourite Bergmans with a fine cast and fine production values.

Her early major role was in The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1956) as Mia, the wife of Jof, the juggler, and mother of their child Mikael. Mia and Jof provide a simple and good family in contrast to the either cynical or villainous characters mainly encountered by Max von Sydow’s world weary knight. At the film ends, cutting from a stark silhouette of death and his victims, we see the family ride on in the sunshine in a new day.

This was followed by another major Bergman film, Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957). Birgitta Steene notes that the English title does not quite catch the-Swedish sense:

Literal translation would point to a spot where smultron or wild strawberries grow. Since these berries are rare in Sweden, places where they grow are often kept a secret in the family. But the word smultronstället also carries symbolic meaning and refers to a person’s ‘jewel of place’ or special retreat.

Bib Andersson plays Sara who the protagonist, Isak Borg, sees in a reverie from his past. Sara is picking wild strawberries while being courted by Isak’s brother. Andersson also plays another Sara in the film present. Both Sara’s are involved in the final comforting sequence. Alongside Bibi Andersson, Isak is played by the veteran filmmaker and actor Victor Sjöström. This and the way that the film mixes reality with dream-like sequences creates a masterful and complex relation between past and present.

Brink of Life (Nära Livee, 1958) takes us to the other end of life, set in a hospital maternity ward. Three women: Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) who suffers a miscarriage: Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) is overdue: and Hjördis (Bibi Andersson) is considering an abortion. The three actresses, along with Babro Hiort af Ornäs who plays Sister Britta, shared the Best Actress Award at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival whilst Bergman won the Best Director Award.

After a couple more leading roles Bib Andersson joined Liv Ullmann in what I believe to be Berman’s finest film and one of the great modernist art works; Persona (1966). Andersson and Ullmann are alone together for almost the entire film. Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler is a famous actress who has suffered withdrawal and become mute. Bibi Andersson is Alma, the young nurse, who is to care for Vogler. In order to help the pair move to a summer house on an Island where they are alone. The relationship is intense though not always obviously. As Elisabet’s silence continues Alma becomes more and more voluble. There is one sequence where Alma recounts an earlier sexual encounter to the mute Elisabet; it is all on the voice and is one of the most erotic sequences that I have seen on film. At one point the two characters appear to merge and the ending is suitably ambiguous.

Alma’s monologue on her sexual experience was cut in the English translation for the US release as was an erect penis seen in the pre-credit sequence. Bibi Andersson won a BAFTA as Best Actress in 1967 and in 1968 the US National Society of Film Critics honoured the film’s direction, screenplay, acting [Andersson] and cinematography. Bergman later commented that he had written the screenplay with the two actresses in mind. It is possibly the best work of both. Perhaps Andersson won the awards because Ullmann has virtually no dialogue; her acting is still superb.

Andersson made several more films with Bergman, including a major supporting role in Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap,1973). This drama, spread over six/four sections and an extended period, was seen on Swedish television as a 281 minute mini-series and in a film print that was reduced to 167 minutes. Then, as Birgitta Steene noted, Andersson pursued a career away from her personal mentor.

She was, though, involved in theatrical productions directed by Bergman, including playing Ase in Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ in 1991. She made a number of programmes for both television and radio about Bergman and his work; some involving Bergman himself.

She also had an extensive career in Swedish films by other directors and in international and US based films. She also worked in the US theatre. And in the 1990s she directed theatrical productions in Sweden.

I have seen hardly any of these and it remains that her reputation rests on the films she worked on with Ingmar Bergman. These are some of the best of Bergman’s films and are rightly classics of European and world cinema. Surely films like Persona will remain classics in the years to come and Bibi Andersson will remain an important actor in cinema history.

The Daughters of Fire (Las hijas del fuego, Argentina 2018)

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On the utopian road

This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.

Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made a meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to comment on and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the two characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up other women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!

Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).

There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.

The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.

Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor Brazil, 2012)

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Bourgeois complacency

It was good to catch up with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut film (on MUBI) after being wowed by Aquarius and Bacurau. Its narrative is like the latter’s in terms of lacking a clear protagonist and both share a political dimension. However, it lacks the thrust of his latest movie as it offers a mosaic of life in an upmarket housing complex in Recife, Filho’s home town. Like the roaming Steadicam of the opening shot, we spend our time with different neighbours: Maeve Jinkings’ Bia, a bored housewife tormented by next door’s howling dog; Joao (Gustavo Jahn) who works, unhappily, as his grandfather’s estate agent; Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) who at first appears to be a hustler offering street security. Minor problems, a broken into car, a receptionist asleep on the job, seem to all the conflict available to drive the narrative forward.

The film actually begins with a montage of photographs that seem to be from colonial era sugar plantations; the patriarchal grandfather (WJ Solha) bemoans the fact his family no longer visit the sugar mill. The purpose of these images is not clear until the very end. I say ‘not clear’, I mean not to me whose knowledge of Brazilian history is extremely limited. While indigenous audiences are always likely to get more from a film, in this case I suspect it is substantially more.

Filho, an ex-film critic, came to directing in his 40s (he also wrote the script) and has clearly absorbed all the ‘lessons’ of making films. The sense of space could easily have been confusing as we buzz about different apartments, but the film is skilfully constructed to ensure we know where we are. There are a couple of odd moments: a couple steal into a apparently empty apartment to have sex and, in a horror movie moment, a person suddenly runs past the bedroom doorway! And when Joao is standing underneath a waterfall, whilst on a visit to the countryside, the torrent of water suddenly turns red. Whilst the former moment is not explained, the expressionist purpose of the latter is made clear at the end.

If I sound somewhat disengaged from the film then that was my experience. It clocks in at over two hours and Filho makes few concessions to entertainment, though there is some humour (the gag with the boy and his football should have run longer) and some sex scenes. That said, the cumulative effect of experiencing a slice of affluent Brazilian life, contextualised by the ending, is more than worth the effort.

It is certainly an antidote to the ‘poverty porn’ of City of God (Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) and has some similarities to the Mexican La Zona, though that was much more genre based.

The Silence (Tystnaden, Sweden 1963)

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Sisters at war

I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.

In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.” Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.

The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:

One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified. (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)

I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):

Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.

Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code. (Lacey, 2016: 118)

Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.

Chaotic Ana (Caótica Ana, Spain 2007)

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Digging into past lives

Writer-director Julio Medem can be guaranteed to get you thinking with a narrative graced with ravishing imagery and likely much nudity, particularly female. Chaotic Ana (newcomer Manuela Vellés) suddenly finds she has visions linking her to (possible) past selves, women who died young and violently at the hands of men. Her life as a naive artist in Ibiza, where she lives with her dad in a cave on the coast, is disrupted by Charlotte Rampling’s Justine (presumably named after de Sade’s character but the reason for this I can’t fathom) who runs an artists’ colony in Madrid. Here Ana meets video artist Linda (Bebe Rebolledo) and Said (Nicolas Cazalé), with whom she enters into an intimate relationship. She discovers she can dream for the first time and, under hypnosis, filmed by Linda, she investigates what might be her past. The paintings that had so enraptured Justine were doors on the cave dwelling walls: doors and dreaming = Jungian psychoanalysis. For many this will be a problem: Jung as hokum or as insight? It’s the former for me, however I’m willing to suspend disbelief in return for interesting narratives and Medem certainly succeeds on that level. There are moments (like when Ana appears on Linda’s dad’s boat) where credulity is over-stretched (I assumed it was a dream for a few minutes) but there are enough ideas whirling around to engage to the end.

At the end Medem has flung in American aggression in the Iraq war (UK was culpable too) in a very strange scene with an American politician. We also end up in Arizona (Ford’s mesas and buttes are on show) at an Native American Reservation that, as aquarello concludes is:

an awkward juxtaposition [for the film] that proves especially flawed during a pivotal encounter at a Navajo bar, where Medem’s trenchant parallel illustration of dispossession and institutional segregation between the Native American reservations in the US and the refugee camps of displaced Saharans in the Middle East – and by extension, the Iraqi occupation that has also resulted in geographic factionalism along ethnic and tribal lines – is undermined by the facile sight gag of a patron’s inebriated uncoordination.

The refugee camps in Africa are drawn into the narrative via the mysterious Said and there is a degree of Orientalism in his representation. The film was dedicated to Medem’s sister Ana, an artist who was killed in a car crash in 2001. Clearly the film is a form of therapy for the director, which explains the narrative lacunas.  Her beautiful paintings are used as her namesake’s in the film and knowledge of her death adds to the melancholy that infuses the movie.