Playing Your Song
July 6, 2020
On Intermezzo and A Woman's Face
the film was shot, is Anita, a blossoming concert pianist and part-time music teacher. The movie is about the affair she embarks on with the professional violinist and professor father (Gösta Ekman) of one of her young students (Britt Hagman), and the catastrophic ripple effects it has on her illicit lover’s family life. (It’s been on shaky ground for some time: “In this home, you’re a rare guest,” the professor’s long-suffering wife Margit, portrayed by Inga Tidblad, says.) Anita declares soon into the affair that she’s so in love that she would give up her burgeoning career for a life with the professor, Holger. We know this declaration amounts to empty words, however, and not just because she is clearly a very young woman caught up in the excitement of a dramatic romance and as such is prone to speaking in hyperbole. When she finds out that she’s the recipient of a potentially world-changing scholarship toward the end of the movie, we can sense that this relationship is heading nowhere. Anita is so eager about the news that we never question whether she’s going to choose professional gains over a romantic one.
Holger makes the mistake in the middle of Intermezzo of actually going through with the “giving up everything” deed. “My past and your future — can they be joined?” he wonders aloud to Anita at one point. We know that she doesn’t have to have an answer; he already knows what it is. He quickly knows he’s made a terrible mistake. In Intermezzo, this romance doesn’t convince. Bergman and Ekman, who’s been so thickly makeuped that he looks a tad clownish (at certain angles he’s like a male Baby Jane), don’t have any chemistry. Anita isn’t very developed, either. She’s pretty facilely made out to purely be “the other woman”; we don’t get to know her very well outside of what role she plays in Holger’s destruction. One could argue that her insubstantial characterization was intentional — a way of making clear that Holger doesn’t know her that well either and is merely projecting his fantasies of a new life, a self-revivification, onto her.
But Holger also isn’t a sympathetic character; we aren't necessarily keen on seeing the world through his eyes. The writing, and Ekman’s self-pity-imbued performance, don’t permit him to even be a compelling anti-heroic protagonist. He just grates on us. He’s a one-dimensional, if instantly recognizable, middle-aged man searching for meaning, ignoring the reality that purpose will not come in the form of a hasty romance with a woman who has more ahead of her than a long-term relationship with a depressed older man. “I was just thinking that we’re not so young anymore,” a friend of Holger’s observes. The scene ends before Holger can respond. We would ultimately rather know more about Anita, but the film doesn’t extend that far.
What works in Intermezzo — and what also works in its rock-music-oriented 1980 remake, Honeysuckle Rose — is its portrayal of familial ruin. Margit isn’t respected by Holger, but she’s resilient. She isn’t passive about how much her husband is hurting her — she tells him exactly what she’s feeling whenever she has the chance, which is difficult because, being on tour so often, he’s usually away. There’s a clear-eyedness to Tidblad’s terrific performance. We’re not being presented with a flat, identity-less “I’m nothing without my husband” type. Her Margit is frustrated by her husband’s unceasing solipsism, irritated that she’s being made to embody the long-suffering wife trope and that her children are suffering the consequences of her husband’s impetuousness.
Intermezzo often prioritizes family drama over its torrid side romance. There is no electricity when Bergman and Ekman share a kiss or some loving words. But there is in one moment when one of Holger’s live performances is playing on the radio and Margit says “Daddy doesn’t play to us anymore” to her still-shocked kids and shuts it off. The wife character, as brought to life by a radiant Dyan Cannon, was also the strongest asset in Honeysuckle Rose. I observed upon reviewing that film last year that she was so fascinating to watch that I sometimes would have preferred it if the movie had foregone the affair subplot and had instead solely focused on the crumbling marriage at its center. Same goes for Intermezzo. Tidblad, like Cannon, is splendid, more alive than the movie in which she’s appearing.
None of the characters in Intermezzo are drawn complexly enough to cut through their respective types, but the film does soundly portray a strong sense of hurt. It’s difficult to like Ekman, but we can commiserate with the people he consistently injures. The movie might’ve been more resonant if he weren’t the nucleus; the victims of his recklessness mostly function as tools for him to use to get to his inevitable redemption and renewed sense of purpose — a couple of things I didn’t want him to, and I don’t think he deserved to, get.
Upon seeing Intermezzo, American movie producer David O. Selznick was more struck by Bergman than he was the more-established Tidblad. He sensed, and was hardly alone in his sensing, that she was an idol in the making. So he offered her a contract with his studio. For her debut English-language performance, he thought it best to remake Intermezzo (this version would be released in 1939) with Bergman again in the Anita role and Leslie Howard in the professor one. Edna Best would embody the left-behind wife. Selznick’s ploy worked. Bergman, aside from Swedish project June Night, which came out in 1940, would work exclusively, and very successfully, in the states for the next decade, until her scandalous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini essentially forced her into a periodic exile for almost the entirety of the ‘50s.
Ingrid Bergman and Gösta Ekman in 1936's Intermezzo.
an effective soap opera. It’s sort of Sirkian at first blush — a takeaway assisted by its creamy, soft photography. It’s pretty to look at. But the longer it has sat with us, the more emotionally insular and psychologically narrow it feels. I wonder if my not much paying attention to its shortcomings in the present tense had to do with the fact that I was enraptured (as most tend to be) watching its lead, Ingrid Bergman. She, per usual, is so transcendent that she can make material that would be in other instances unbearable bearable. Intermezzo marked the first time she led a movie. You get the exciting sense seeing her here that you’re witnessing the arrival of a giant, à la Lauren Bacall in 1944’s To Have and Have Not. The role doesn’t give her much to do; she makes something out of very little.
In Intermezzo, Bergman, just 20 at the time
ustaf Molander’s Intermezzo (1936) is treacly. It engages us in the short-term and has been capably and stylishly made; for its 93 minutes, it strikes us as
nother Bergman-starring, Molander-directed Swedish property, 1938’s A Woman’s Face, would also be remade for American audiences. Though it would not also be headlined by Bergman and it wouldn’t be
backed by Selznick International Pictures, like Intermezzo. The leading role would go to Joan Crawford, still in the middle of her legendarily fraught “box-office poison” period (which would be broken with 1945’s sudsy but smart Mildred Pierce), and the adaptation would be backed by MGM. I found the remake chiefly ridiculous when I first watched it a couple of years ago. Still, I thought it was
bolstered by a credible and sometimes-moving leading performance. Same goes for the original, it turns out, though I like Bergman a lot better in this part than I do Crawford. She gives more of a plausibility (and an essential vulnerability and vitality) to a character that could perhaps only exist in a melodrama like it.
In both iterations of A Woman’s Face, we focus in on a career criminal named Anna who is involved with a blackmailing ring. She has turned to a life of crime, we learn, because half of her face had been burned in a childhood accident that killed her alcoholic parents. Crime is catharsis for her. It wasn't sought out for its financial benefits; Anna was fixated on hurting others in the way the world had hurt her. “I was alone with a face that scared people,” Bergman’s Anna explains at the end of the movie. “I grew hard, bitter, and hated everybody.” Then, in the middle of the film, she is given a kind of second chance when she serendipitously meets a plastic surgeon who sympathizes with her and “restores” her face. (In both films, it’s a ceremonious occasion to learn that underneath these extensive burns, Anna looks like a movie star.)
When she is tasked, post-surgery, to take on the guise of a nanny to kill a child related to one of the ring’s clients, who cannot receive an inheritance until said child is out of the picture, Anna is suddenly overcome with doubt. Beauty, essentially, has turned her into a new person. Upon confessing her change of heart to her criminal employers, one remarks, “Your newly acquired morality has made you stupid.” But Anna doesn’t think so. This new face, and the
subsequent chance at love it brings, has “saved me from something far worse.” The conflation of a woman’s sense of morality with her appearance and whether she is loved is dubious, dated. The film is as soap operatic as you would expect. But Bergman, like Crawford, gets us to believe in and care about this character even if we cannot really get ourselves to believe in or care about the movie in which she makes both things possible. Of course Selznick saw something in her.
A Woman's Face: B-