Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Restless legs… Bergman – A Year in a Life (2018), screenings at BFI and across UK from 25th January

Lars von Trier tries to sum Ingmar up with something like “he was a shit but I love him!” and I suppose it takes one to know one. In truth Mr Bergman can certainly be filed in the “complex character” section of cinema genius but that’s a pretty packed category; he was “lonely in his soul” as someone who knew him in later life put it which is an odd thing to say about a father of nine who had many overlapping relationships, married five times and who seems to have slept with every Harriet, Bibi and Liv he ever directed. Fassbender may have been addicted to amphetamines but, it’s claimed, Bergman was hyper-sexual.

More than anything else though it seems that Bergman was exceptionally talented and for this he may be forgiven with the usual caveats. He was incredibly driven and occasionally merciless, in his third theatrical production of The Misanthrope, he ripped into his cast after they had deviated from his direction and singled out up and coming actor/direct Thorsten Flinck for personal humiliation that still brings a tear to this otherwise confident man.

Bibi and Bergman
Bergman admitted that his work came first and, in addition to occasionally losing count of his children, he also confessed to not knowing their birthdays or even birth-years… he had other priorities and in 1957 this saw him release two of his masterworks, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries as well as a five-hour long theatrical production of Peer Gynt, his first production of The Misanthrope, and two radio plays, oh and he also wrote the script for Lars-Eric Kjellgren’s Night Light. His quality of output was unfeasibly high and he established himself as a world figure who would gain an almost untouchable rank in his home country and beyond.

Excerpts from a 1971 interview with US talk-show legend Dick Cavett are shown in which the still sprightly Cavett describes how nervous he was with the great man, so much so that he called him “Ingrid”… he can laugh about it now, just about.

Elliott Gould is effusive in his description of Bergman’s direction, saying he was a director who put so much trust in his performers telling Gould that “I will never mislead you”… Barbra Streisand, then in a power coupling with Elliott, watched with awe. Liv Ullman, one of Ingmar’s wives who I refuse to believe is 80,  describes the director as her best friend, welling up with tears a decade after his death… light and shade and, yes, through a glass darkly.

Bergman's shock revelation to an astonished Dick Cavett...
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation, for me at least, having little familiarity with his life story, was Bergman’s support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi cause. Quite possibly he fell victim to the dictator’s powers of performance and undoubted eloquence but it wasn’t until 1947 that he turned away, announcing that he would never again embrace politics. Given his preference here, we can all agree on that being a good thing.

Instead, Bergman’s work was focused on his own experience whether the specifically autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982) or based on his own “key moments” as with Wild Strawberries which featured one of my silent heroes, Victor Sjöström, as a director realising his work has left his life behind when it is all so late. Here Bergman had a man of substance like his own and, in spite of his worries that the 77-year old would struggle he needn’t have worried. I’d happily watch a whole documentary on these two and the making of that film.

His brother Dag is featured in a previously unseen documentary, which Ingmar refused to allow screen during his lifetime – there’s clout for you – and it’s not hard to see why. Dag felt that the younger Bergman boy was more of a conformist swot than he and, indeed, more Fanny than Alexander… either way they shared a tough upbringing with their father a strict and very conservative parish minister.

Ingrid Thulin and Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries (1957)
Again, all grist to the amateur screen psychologist but it’s the testament of the many who worked with him that is most revelatory with some conflicted emotions generally being over-written by admiration for work-rate and incredible quality control.

Director Jane Magnusson pulls together so many diverse voices into a coherent and compelling narrative that presents the personality of Bergman with an emotional richness that doesn’t shy away from his darker tones.

The BFI’s Bergman expert Geoff Andrew, who programmed last-year’s retrospective at BFI Southbank commented that while the anecdotes are offered by many who knew him are illuminating, “…none, however, are perhaps quite as revealing as Ingmar’s own testimony.” Indeed it his candour that gives weight to those other voices and convinces you that we’re seeing an authentic record of his life and personality.

Bergman in later life, still working...
Not surprisingly Bergman – A Year in a Life (2018) won the European Film Academy Documentary Award - Prix Arte and it is that good.

The film opens at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, ICA and selected cinemas UK-wide from 25 January 2019 and this Friday's screening at BFI with include a Q&A with director Jane Magnusson. Details of the full list are on the BFI site.

You can also watch the new BFI trailer. Fascinating and disturbing all at the same time: a man absolutely driven but not always towards the empathy so deeply evident in his films... How does that happen in a person of such intelligence?

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