Ingmar Bergman passed away this morning, leaving behind his wife, Theater, and mistress, Film, both of which he loved equally and fervently. He doted on them, dividing his time as best he could and occasionally bringing them together when he felt they might get along for a couple of hours or more. But the terms of these mostly separate romances were quite different: Bergman served Theater, but nurtured Film.
Bergman first took up with Film in 1944, when he wrote the screenplay for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment; two years later, the love affair went public with Crisis. The infatuation was fierce and all-consuming; the young Swede had no use for discretion as he pursued and flattered and exploited his mistress for the delectation of moviegoers the world over. An exhibitionist by nature, Film did not rebuff Bergman’s advances; she had already been ravished by lovers as brusque as John Ford, as devout as Carl Theodor Dreyer and as unabashedly perverse as Alfred Hitchcock. Griffith and Eisenstein educated her, Lubitsch and Renoir lent her sophistication, and Welles turned her into a goddess. She could handle the son of a Lutheran minister.
But what was it about the not-yet-thirtysomething Swede that interested the experienced whore? Was it his pessimism? His obsession with Death? His overwhelming sense of guilt?
Many will look to his most iconic dalliance with Film, The Seventh Seal, and say it was a commingling of the three, and this may very well be the case. Many of Bergman’s scandals – The Virgin Spring, Sawdust and Tinsel, Shame, etc. – were oppressively serious examinations of humanity’s failings; their mixture of exacting, austere craftsmanship and allegories of, per Truffaut, "astounding simplicity" were captivating to audiences unfamiliar with such brutal clarity. As the specter of armageddon slowly draped itself over the world in the form of nuclear confrontation, Bergman’s definitive statements on man’s inherent cruelty and stupidity almost seemed hip. Embracing this bare aesthetic – attributable in part to cinematographer Sven Nykvist – was to make a statement in a decade that found most societies frantically distancing themselves from the horrors of the Second World War. Bergman may have been far from "Rock-and-Roll", but he was counterculture in his rebelliously staid way.
And yet the nearness of Death throughout Bergman’s long-term relationship with Film could be exhausting; he was so rigorously unsentimental that one could admire the brilliance of his technique without deriving any joy from it. Obviously, this was not the case for everyone; Woody Allen would’ve never matured into a rambunctious Lothario without a prolonged exposure to Bergman’s "blinding cinematic purity"*. Those who craved darkness and hopelessness could find ceaseless validation for their cynicism in Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence (Lars von Trier was an avid student).
But this is Bergman merely pumping away (granted, "merely" for Bergman would qualify as "brilliantly" for most everyone else). It was when Bergman allowed himself to see the good and the ribald and the lightness of humankind’s terminal condition that he revealed the full extent of his genius. That’s why the two masterpieces to emerge from his Film amour are Smiles of a Summer Night and Fanny and Alexander (the 312-minute Swedish TV version), wherein Bergman’s persistent pessimism is leavened by an affection for his foolish dramatis personae. The latter is utter enchantment, a career summation that is more fluid and magical than anything the director had attempted since… well, the former title, a lascivious farce that makes one wish Bergman had cut loose more frequently.
It’s Smiles of a Summer Night that finds the master celebrating his greatest obsession: women. Here’s Bergman’s most damning quote on his mania (taken from Truffaut’s The Films in My Life):
"All women move me – old, young, tall, short, fat, thin, thick, heavy, light, beautiful, charming, living, dead. I also love cows, she-monkeys, sows, bitches, mares, hens, geese, turkey hens, lady hippos and mice. But the categories of female that I prefer are wild beasts and dangerous reptiles. These are women I loathe. I’d like to murder one or two, or have myself killed by one of them. The world of women is my universe. It’s the world I have developed in, perhaps not for the best, but no man can really feel he knows himself if he manages to detach himself from it."
There will be those who tout the formal perfection of Cries and Whispers, Persona and Wild Strawberries – and these are all unimpeachable achievements. But they are too worked out in advanced and too devoid of unfettered passion. Bergman was a more attentive lover than that. Like Carl-Magnus in Smiles of a Summer Night, there was a touch of the tiger in the master, an unrepentant licentiousness. And this is why he is beloved. Bergman could craft flawlessly, but, when it mattered, he really knew how to fuck.