Saturday 25 July 2009

The Passion of Anna (1969)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson

The Passion of Anna is a hard film to review for a lot of reasons. It's an Ingmar Bergman film with a lot of depth but then which Ingmar Bergman movie doesn't have a lot of depth? The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is easy to look at but offers more the deeper you look, so again nothing surprising there. The actors are a collection of Bergman regulars: we really focus on four of them, all of whom have done so many Bergman films together that they can't help but know him and each other very well indeed to the degree that filming must have felt like a family affair.

And this all feels very much like a cop out. I'm here to the review the film and it's really cheating to throw out something elusive like, 'Hey, it's an Ingmar Bergman movie, so hopefully you know what to expect. If you do, you'll get something roughly in line with what you expected. If you don't, you'll be lost.' It's unfair and more than a little frustrating to say that I really want to watch it again before putting virtual pen to paper, but I really do. I'm just not sure what I think about it, what it's really trying to say to me and where Bergman was trying to go with it.

I've seen a lot of Bergman now, as I try to get take every opportunity I can to watch his work. After all, he's the name that all the great names name as the name that inspired them and that they look up to. I loved many as soon as I saw them, from the acknowledged greats like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Wild Strawberries to lesser known films like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Virgin Spring. I haven't always been knocked out, as The Silence left me dry and Cries and Whispers was less than I expected. Hour of the Wolf is still resonating with me, not a great Bergman but a great memory.

And I know where I stand with each of these. I don't with The Passion of Anna. It feels like one of those films that are probably going to say something different to each viewer because of their own perspectives at the time. It feels like a film to grow with, go back to every few years for a long time until it finally condescends to reveal itself to us. What does it really focus on, beyond say, anguish? It's a film about a theme rather than a plot and those are always hard to review because doing so often gives away what you should find yourself in the material. That's especially true here given one particular focus on truth.

We meet Andreas Wilkelman first. He's 48 but he's up on his roof smoking his pipe and repairing his shingles. Nothing seems to want to play ball with him though. The weather threatens to change and even his bucket won't do what he wants it to do: he puts it on the roof, it tumbles to the ground; he puts it on the ground, it falls over. Unsurprisingly, this mirrors his life. He had been married, to a woman named Anna, but they separated through what seems to be sheer incompatibility. He doesn't expect her back but seems to be waiting anyway.

Enter Anna Fromm, played by Liv Ullmann. She's a girl who needs to use his phone because she obviously has things that won't play ball with her either. She was married too, though she lost her husband and son in a car accident that left her damaged physically and mentally. She's on her fourth operation, walks with a crutch and is still tormented by nightmares. I should add that while Andreas was married to an Anna and Anna to an Andreas, they are new to each other at the beginning of our film. The names match those of their respective former spouses deliberately, of course. And they become a new Andreas and Anna couple, apparently happily but with trauma down the road.

The other couple in the film is Elis and Eva Vergerus, who are going through their own psychological problems are who are played by Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson respectively. Elis is dismissive of everything, including what he does for a living: making lots of money as an architect of international renown. Eva is utterly unsure of anything, at least when her husband is around. Even when she's asked whether she believes in God, she asks her husband. The key is that Eva wants to be someone who matters, but who seems to always end up around people who utterly don't need her, thus depriving her of any means of measuring self worth.

While the title suggests that Anna is the focus, that's just the American title, which makes it sound like a porn film. The original Swedish title is merely En Passion or A Passion, as it was simply translated in the UK. We probably see more of Andreas than anyone else and all four of these characters have enough depth to fill your average movie. Behind them all, periodically popping into the picture to remind us to look at the thematic parallels, is an unseen figure who commits acts of deliberate animal cruelty, from hanging a dachshund puppy to slaughtering sheep and burning horses.

And quite how this fits in I really can't write about, partly because I'm still unsure about a lot of it myself and partly because what I am sure about runs so deep into the realm of spoilers it's unreal. I can't tell you about most of what happens because the end doesn't just explain most of went before, it makes us reevaluate most of what we've seen. I'll be thinking about this one for a while and I'm sure you will be too if you've seen it. It demands a second viewing, from an entirely fresh perspective, if not more than just one more time through it.

Without a clear script, it's left to the actors to instil life in their characters which they do magnificently. It's an especially difficult job for von Sydow, as he explains to us, because he has to express himself through lack of expression. Perhaps this is why Bergman chooses to add narration and also to break the story off at points to effectively ask his stars what they think drives the characters they play. This is how we find out that Max von Sydow sees that Andreas has tried to hide but that his hiding place has become his prison; and that Bibi Andersson suggests that Eva will end up committing suicide.

Perhaps the key is truth. Anna is especially vehement about her direction in life, her passion is for being true to herself and she emotes this at us, as if the most important thing in the world is that we understand what she's trying to tell us. The power of Ullmann's performance is highlighted by Bergman choosing, as he often did, to let his actors run with scenes that play out without cuts, effects or camera movements. Two examples in particular stand out here: Anna telling the story of her car accident and Andreas reading a letter from a local man about to commit suicide. They're both heartfelt scenes full of pure acting that can't help but give us the naked truth of the scene, something that can be extrapolated up in no small way to the film itself.

Incidentally I should add two notes about Swedish. Firstly, the title we see on screen is actually L182, which doesn't seem likely to translate into The Passion of Anna, however efficient a language Swedish might be. Well, we discover the reason later: Elis Vergerus takes photos of people, good ones too, that he stores in categorised boxes, like Stanley Kubrick did in real life. Everyone in the story has posed for him and Anna presumably lives in the L182 box. This fact itself tells us things about the characters that I'm not comfortable in quite believing yet, but you'll have to watch through to the end to know what I'm talking about.

The other note is to explain a word that may mislead viewers who aren't expecting it. Like films from many countries, Swedish films often end with those old two words, 'The End', though obviously in the native language rather than English. However those of us who aren't Swedish don't often see them because they're cut out of international release prints. The reason is because the Swedish for 'The End' is 'Slut'. I was taken rather aback to transition so quickly from Liv Ullman's face to the word 'Slut' as the film ends, as I'm sure others are too. It's hard not to see a connection when there really isn't one or meant to be one. I'll watch for it next time.

1 comment:

Elif KARADA─× said...

'Hey, it's an Ingmar Bergman movie, so hopefully you know what to expect. If you do, you'll get something roughly in line with what you expected. If you don't, you'll be lost.'
this is a great determination. But people are sometimes attached to small details (bergman's perfect 'small' details) and don't understand -what we are losing. maybe Bergman's magic that.
nice article.