Saraband May 1, 2018
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Marianne (Liv Ullmann) has emptied her scrapbooks. She sits before us, looking over a table she’s covered in candids of days past. The room is spare. A spread of white-curtained windows, letting in heavenly light, back her. She looks at us, nostalgia and pain alternately throbbing in her eyes. She tells us of the people in the pictures, and her life. She is a lawyer, twice-wed and lonely. She was married to her first husband, Johan (Erland Josephson), for a number of years; their union was ultimately ruined by his inveterate cheating. She had two children with him. One
is married and lives miles away, though Marianne never sees her; the other is mentally ill and resides in a faraway psychiatric hospital.
Marianne tried to revamp her life the second time she got married. But the guy she decided she’d come home to for the rest of her life was a bore, and eventually fell victim to a freak accident. Her life hasn’t really recovered since. Now 65, she wonders where the time went. Happiness has become a distant memory. In her mind, she was most contented when she was still married to Johan all those years ago. She’d prefer not to think about the darker days of their marriage. She figures they’re both past that now. They’re older and wiser, no longer caught up in outrage and grudge-holding. She hasn’t seen him in 30 years. But a strange thought has repeatedly crossed her mind lately. What if she were to see him again? A reunion might bring some much-needed closure to their lives. A smile overcomes her. Says Marianne just before the screen fades to black: “I ought to visit Johan.”
This idea soon becomes a reality, and the rest of the film in which she plays the protagonist, 2003’s Saraband, covers the reunification. And there’s something elegiac about it; a deathly musk always seems to be in the room, and many of the characters seem aware that their dying days are near. This was likely premeditated. The movie was the final feature of the prolific Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, then nearing 85 and more artistically meditative than ever. It was also the sequel to the influential Scenes from a Marriage, from 1973, which depicted the end of Marianne and Johan’s union, warts and all.
It's a profoundly pessimistic swan song of a film, to be certain. Where most directors might choose to close out their careers with something sentimental or at least a redux of their previous works, Bergman concludes on a sour note. In Saraband, existence is circuitously joyless and futile. The world is fucked, happy endings are an unobtainable fantasy, and even the best of intentions prove themselves meaningless. This is unmistakable pretty immediately. Once Marianne arrives at Johan’s flat, which is perched in the middle of a thicket of trees in the countryside, her hopes of an upbeat reunion, or at least a turning point, are dashed: Johan is battling demons of his own. He's embroiled in a hateful relationship with his grown son, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), which has just peaked in its contention due to the latter’s trying to get an advance on his inheritance. Henrik, increasingly desperate, wants the money so that he can purchase a cello for his daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who will be auditioning at the local music conservatory soon.
Henrik’s relationship with Karin isn’t much better. His wife, and her mother, Anna, recently died. Ever since, Henrik has dominated his daughter, unhealthily controlling her every move and acutely working to dissuade her from doing anything on her own terms. They even sleep in the same bed. He can't bear to lose somebody else. Marianne’s timing, then, couldn’t be worse. Johan makes it clear he doesn’t want to see her. And Henrik and Karin, who are the result of a later marriage, unleash their sorrows on this stranger simply because she’ll listen.
None of these characters will find peace. Marianne personifies that moment in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, from 2014, when Patricia Arquette’s character climatically says that she thought there would be more to life. She isn’t a miserable person per se, but she’s found that so much disappointment informs who she is that even the successes don’t seem to matter anymore. Johan is a narcissist, and has come to a point where the only thing that seems to bring him pleasure is verbally lacerating those who care about him, just because he can.
Henrik, despite having just turned 60, reminds us of a little boy lost. All his life, he’s pined for fatherly approval, and his never getting his hands on it has destroyed him. We sense that he’s never known happiness. And Karin, in lieu of having so much ahead of her, has no idea what it’s like to live a guiltless life. She feels responsible, somehow, for her mother’s death, and feels culpable whenever she so much as thinks of leaving her father behind in pursuit of her dreams. Even if Karin does someday get out of this parasitic relationship with her dad — which she will — she will always be haunted by her past traumas. This is a devastating movie. Without Bergman’s expert touch, and without these performances, all so aching and true, it would be an exercise in misery with no real rewards. But Saraband, like so many of Bergman’s films, is not needlessly depressed — it mourns what could have been, and the realization that life won't reward how hard you've clinged onto your optimism. The passage of time can't always heal old wounds. Growing older does not necessarily make you wiser. Not everyone can have a perfect marriage,
childhood, life. Because we’re always running away from something. Because things will never be as good as they used to be. Saraband is a paean to the imperfections of the human experience — a subversion of all the idyllic existences we so frequently see in the movies. It’s sort of beautiful. A