He said no. She said YES.
This is the basic argument, if you could call it that, between dueling auteurs Ingmar Bergman and Sally Potter. One is male, one is female; one is Swedish, one is English. Despite their differences, both of their new films share some odd similarities. Both begin with a character directly addressing the camera, one in Swedish, the other in iambic pentameter, which gives them both a lilting singsong delivery. Both films deal with the complication and complexity of human relationships, between men and women, parents and children, friends and lovers. One will make you weep, the other will make you dance. Which would you prefer?
The one thing that strikes you upon seeing any serious film is that life is largely an adult affair. There is no Fantastic Four, No Herbie the Love Bug, no War of the Worlds, only the real terrible things of life: age, the dissolution of love and lots of suffering.
The last dance
Saraband is supposedly Bergman's last film, although we've heard that before. The story concerns the man and wife at the centre of Scenes from a Marriage: Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) who still seem ill prepared for what their lives have wrought.
Told in ten chapters with four central characters, Johan and Marianne, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and Karin (Julia Dufvenius), Saraband takes its title from the Bach cello suites that were based on an erotic dance. After 32 years without contact, Marianne suddenly takes it into her head to go visit her ex-husband at his isolated country estate near Uppsala.
In the dark northern woods, things aren't going so well. For one thing, it's always dark, literally and metaphorically. Johan lives alone with his inherited millions and lots of books (Kierkegaard in particular). On his estate, his son Henrik and granddaughter Karin have moved into the cottage on the lake. Henrik's wife Anna has died from cancer and grief has rendered everyone somewhat mad.
Redemption and catatonia
In this forlorn place, Marianne finds herself listening to three different stories, one from each player. All she can do is watch while Karin cries and rends herself, Henrik and Johan play merciless games with each other, and the ghost of a dead mother watches silently. Women go on, but men it seems, don't.
Without the redemptive power of feminine empathy, they quickly get up to all sorts of trouble. If this is indeed Bergman's final outing, what are we to make of it? If it's a summation of his 87 years, a great many of them spent making film, theatre, television and whole mess of kids, what does it all mean? Or does it mean anything at all?
There are various personal references in the film that suggest the director's own experience, the most haunting being the portrait of the dead Anna. The picture is of Bergman's own wife, Ingrid Von Rosen, who died from cancer. The film is dedicated to her memory. In the twisted ugly scenes between father Johan and son Henrik, a line from Bergman's argument with his own son shows up. The autobiographical elements are evident too, when Johan wakes up one night with an anxiety attack. He knocks on Marianne's door and the two old people huddle together like naked children, the only comfort in the dark hour before dawn is the warmth of another frail human body.
Certainly Bergman is what he is: the great man, with almost countless films to his credit. But when I describe the plot of Saraband to my mother, we both start to laugh at some point. At some point, one of the too many towering bleaknesses threaten to topple over on top of you: death, old age, lost love, incest, catatonia and solo cello.
Dance is a potent symbol for existence and YES uses it also, but unlike Bergman's film that ends with Marianne helplessly weeping, Potter's film winds down with laughter on a sunlit Cuban beach. It is perhaps curious that as one of the few female big-name auteurs around, Sally Potter inspires critical savaging while Bergman the grand old man of cinema is pretty much impervious to the slings and arrows from the critical crowd.
But YES, despite its faults, is a brave effort, and throws in more ideas into one 100-minute period than any film in recent memory. Like James Joyce, who also loved tap dancing more than he loved writing, Potter has populist leanings. And if her film suffers a little from excess, there is still energy and joyfulness in amongst the clutter. Everything goes into the kitchen sink and gets all mixed up: science and God, East and West, man and woman, and so on. Sometimes it loses its way wandering from London to Beirut, Belfast to Havana, but this is one big movie, tackling all the big subjects in iambic pentameter no less.
Potter, who began writing the script on September 12, 2001, has said that she was inspired by the last word in James Joyce's Ulysses. She (played by Joan Allen) is a scientist. And although we're never sure exactly what she does, we know it has something to do with staring into a microscope at tiny little squiggling things.
She meets he
She and husband (Sam Neill) are trapped in a marriage that is sounding the death rattle: it's so open it's collapsed on top of itself. The first person to speak is the maid, played by Scottish actress Shirely Henderson who, like any good Shakespearean foil, offers up observations on the main action. It is a useful convention: hers is the first and last face we see, making crisp white linens extra crisp. But she is only one of many women, maids, cleaners, the people you don't notice, who inhabit the same space you do, cleaning up your messes for you. It’s part of Potter’s theme of class and glass. Scenes are often shot through surveillance cameras, or through the wavering distortion of a water glass. Each different series of lenses alters our perception of events.
At a fancy dinner, She meets He. He is a surgeon from Beirut, now a cook at a restaurant. Simon Abkarian is equal parts clown and dark lover, silly and serious at the same time. The pair take up with each other, and during the course of their affair, wrestle with problems that separate all humans: race, class, sex, whatever.
The ultimate argument, however reductionist, is that all divisions are merely illusory and at a certain level we are all the same stuff. The only language for such a conceit is poetry. Or as Karl Jung once put it, "Everywhere I go, I find the poet has been there before me." In Potter-ese..."And, in the end, it simply isn't worth / Your while to try and clean your life away. / You can't. For, everything you do or say / Is there, forever. It leaves evidence. / In fact it's really only common sense; / There's no such thing as nothing, not at all. / It may be really very, very small / But it's still there. In fact I think I'd guess / That "no" does not exist. There's only "yes"." Or more properly, YES.
The one quality that Saraband shares with YES, is that life has a few small moments where you truly wake up, and you get a glimpse of what is beyond. For Bergman this glance is only that: one glimpse, a brief touch, a meeting between mother and child. For Potter, this wakefulness is simply the beginning, not the end. Bergman described film by saying, "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul." If so, I'd like out of that twilight room and back into the sunlit Cuban beach.
Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.