Monday 9 November 2020

100 Films

When the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant lockdown measures reached the UK back in March, I somehow got the idea into my head that I'd watch one hundred films and give each one a short (one paragraph) write-up, generally focusing on a particular representative image or scene from the film. One hundred seemed both sufficiently large and sufficiently arbitrary a figure, a structure for meandering viewing, a way to focus attention, with the process as something that both mirrored and staved off the thought that this situation wouldn't end any time soon. Now that we've come to the other end of the year, one hundred films have been written up. I've been posting them periodically on a dedicated Tumblr site, but have now added them as a page to this site--you can see them by clicking the link on the sidebar, though they look more elegant on Tumblr. 

Includes films by: Bergman, Burnett, Clark, Clouzot, Collins, Demy, Dovzhenko, Duras, Gerima, Gunn, Hondo, Kramer, Mambéty, Poole, Rocha, Maldoror, Pasolini, Sembène, Resnais, Varda, Von Praunheim, Wakamatsu, Woodberry, Yoshida, etc etc.

Image from Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's Byker series, seen in Edinburgh back in February.

Sunday 8 November 2020

The Name: Aurélia Steiner (Vancouver) (1979, dir. Marguerite Duras)

A film of the name— Aurélia Steiner a name invented by Duras to stand in for and (this a matter that’s more complicated, and perhaps more dubious) to identify with the losses of the Holocaust—the girl of 18 (as Duras was when she left Vietnam for France; as is ‘she’ in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amor’ when her lover is killed), on the cusp of adulthood, who decides, as Duras did, to write. To write: as Aurélia’s name is written on the screen; as a passage of the dialogue appears in handwriting—as when dialogue appears on a chalkboard in ‘Le Navire Night’—the intertitles of silent film. Duras later said that to write was like silent screaming, something that, unlike other art forms, did not entail the social context of making things exterior in terms of performance, sound. In these films, all sound is cut from image save Duras’ speaking voice: is this ‘texte’ or ‘écrit(ure)’; how does this sounding tread between text and film, a sound film which, like many of Duras’ other films from this time, sound is central, but which in other ways feels like a silent film?

The name is that which is given, over which on has little control—here, not the name of the father but of the mother, passed on (the Jewish maternal line)—a name signalling ethnicity (‘Juden Aurélia Steiner’ repeats a lover)—a name which echoes the name of the dead mother and stages a revenant return even as it also associates the living with the dead, on that wider scale of historical horror. Half way through the film, we see the handwritten name on screen—though we never see a face, a body, a person to put to that name; and towards the end, Duras speaks the voice of repeating the name in an erotic encounter, obsessively, turning over each syllable until those are the only words he can speak, yet which become more and more detached from personal connection and meaning the more he repeats them. This erotic pairing plays throughout the film, in multiple variants: the man with black hair and blue eyes, who is at once the father hanged in the camp for stealing soup to feed his new-born daughter, and the speaker, the daughter Aurélia, seeking her father in teenage sailors and other lovers—the pairing of I and you, she and he that so preoccupied Duras at this time, in writing that grew out of epistolary texts to absent or imaginary addressees.

Filmed in black and white, unlike the majority of the films from this period, the visual methodology, the movement of the film is that of the tracking shot—the use of this particular form echoing the debate about Holocaust and famously emblematised in Jacques Rivette’s excoriation of the tracking shot in Pontecorvo’s ‘Kapo’, later turned into a kind of basis for a critical ethics of film by Serge Daney. While, in ‘Les Mains Négatives’, humans appear fleetingly at the edge of the picture—moments that, as I argue here, are central to how one might interpret that film politically—this ‘Aurélia Steiner’ is devoid of any such traces. What we see, however, serves as symbolic representation or displacement of a trauma which, as Rivette had argued, lies beyond the ethical boundaries of representation. Thus, the figure of the ‘white rectangle’ described as the spot of execution—the camp under a German sky—seems to find its equivalent in a burst of sun through cloud; and the tracking shots of trees, chopped down and laid out, numbers inscribed on their lopped off trunks, of the overgrown tracks and platforms of an abandoned railway station, suggest the mechanisation of death in transport and execution of the camps, as the speaker describes substituting erotic encounters for the impossible encounter with the dead father. Or the space with which the film begins—that of the edge, viewed in calm—the sea, the horizon, the waves—reconstructed by the voice as, on the one hand, the space of death, of execution in the camp, and on the other of erotic desire, felt as a giving over of self, of entry, which seems at once to assuage and to replay the trauma of that death, Aurélia Steiner an infant laid on the ground beside her dead mother in the ‘white rectangle’. The speaker recollects a storm, real or imagined, that has previously exploded over (and under) the city, then receded: landscape in calm bears the trace of a foundational, invisible disruption, and, even in calm, the white rectangle (the sun through clouds) and a ‘black spot’ on the horizon form something like visual floaters on the most absent or distant of landscapes.

Duras picked Vancouver and Melbourne as Aurélia’s locations, though filming in France, because of their distance from Europe; trauma is not bounded by geography. Spending so much time by the sea—as in many of Duras’ other films—a space at once of arrival and departure, the film ends as the lover sails away, bids farewell. Aurélia Steiner seems to become both the woman he sails with, or to, and the one he leaves behind: Aurélia, this figure who Duras later said ‘is everywhere, writes from everywhere at the same time’, as a figure of total identification, disavowal and loss, of writing as survival—writing to the impossible recipient, here, the dead father and the lovers who replace him, in the companion film, another lost lover. The address seeks to bring back to life the lost object against the impossibility of resurrection, whilst the activities of the living—writing, sex, the present inhabitation of a landscape far removed from the horrors of Europe—is itself under/over-written by death. For Duras, such paradoxes are the only way to represent that which is hijacked, overdetermined, defamed. Duras said that it was this project that brought her back to writing after years of writing only for the cinema—yet a writing whose conditions of possibility seem here to be that of cinema, a cinema whose conditions of possibility are those of writing, all for that which cannot be written, that which is written in numbers on skin (the number equivalent to that of the camp tattoo which appears after the words of Steiner’s name in the close ups of handwritten text), the film ending with the statement of identity—name, place where you live, age, parents, occupation—its final words the statement of continuance that, for Duras, is that which enables one to keep on living, that becomes like breathing itself: “I write”.

[Further reading--the tracking shot:

Rivette on Kapo--'On Abjection', Cahiers du cinema 120 (June 1961).
Daney on Rivette on Kapo --'The Tracking Shot in Kapo', Trafic (No. 4, Fall 1992).
The tracking shot itself--
from Kapo (1960, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo).

Saturday 7 November 2020

Les Mains Négatives (1979, dir. Marguerite Duras)

The visual component of this short film consists of outtakes from Le Navire Night: shots from a moving car of Paris streets at dawn, their emptiness in some way linked to Duras’ sparse voiceover. The text puts forth a simple supposition about the prehistoric hand prints—‘blue for the sea, black for the night sky’—left in caves in Southern France, 30,000 years ago: a single human whose ‘negative’ mark is accompanied by a plea for human connection, a screamed ‘I love you’, announced to ‘those who have names, those who have identities’—‘to anyone who will hear me screaming’. Duras has him alone—the search for human connection that characterises all her work, but is presented in particularly stripped-back form in these short-to-medium legnth films of the late ’70s and early ’80s (Les Mains, Césareé, Aurelia Steiner,L'Homme Atlantique). She told Godard that she increasingly distrusted the role of actors—first, for their role as performers, as representations of something other than themselves; second, for getting in the way of the solitary and singular relation of individual writer to text that she enjoyed (that was the condition for) her writing, but which cinema by its very form denies. Hence the five films made ‘without actors’, as she put it—the feature-length 'Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert’—the soundtrack to India Song set over images free of those who voice it—and then the shorter Les Mains, Césareé, the two Aurelia Steiner films—in which the voiceover, too, is freed of any voice save hers. Removing these mediations—actors as spokespeople, as it were—these films are concerned with the direct—though not necessarily answered, or even heard—address from an ‘I’ to a ‘you’: lover and beloved, speaker and hearer, director and audience. As well as the mediating role of actors, Duras distrusts the illusion of liveness provided by diegetic sound. In conversation a few years later, Godard suggested that her insistence on film’s connection to text marked a return to the textuality, the necessary experience of reading, that formed a vital part of film’s meaning in the days of silent cinema: image, sound, and text, not as an integrated whole, but as separate tracks, at once more stripped-back than the narrative talkie and, in their endless juxtapositions and recombinations of those tracks, infinitely more complex. In ‘Les Mains’, then, ambient sounds from the footage are removed; instead, Duras’ voice and the solo violin that plays through it all, in one of the loops of short musical material she favours, as if tuning up, finding its way to a melody.

The roving camera finds the Parisian streets themselves as a kind of equivalent to this mark—the traces of human existence with the humans removed. Discussing her work during the period in which this short film was made, Duras—whose literary production had temporarily dried up as her alcoholism increased, yet who was making more films than ever—said she wanted to ‘murder’ cinema. She was in search, she said, of ‘une image passe-partout’—a ‘master image’, one which can be superimposed on any text, meaningless in itself, without aesthetic value (‘neutral […] neither ugly nor beautiful’), brought to life and given meaning only by the text that ‘passes over it’. As well as master image, ‘passe-partout’ suggests the frame between picture and glass, or, alternatively, that which enables the bearer to pass anywhere. And so in ‘Les Mains’, we have the neutral master image, the frame which enables the passage suggested by the car’s movement. Yet, while the image is clearly contrasted or enlivened by he apparently distinct voiceover, image itself is not entirely neutral. The humans we see are, in the main, the street sweepers and garbage collectors whose peripheral existence recalls the figures at the edges of roads in ‘Le Camion’ the previous year. As in ‘Le Camion’, where the freedom to travel, by lorry or by car, reckons with the failure of broader societal organisation and the marginalisation of the peripheries within Europe itself (known in the French left of the time as the ‘Fourth World’).

The footage—at least in the online print I saw—was too blurred to make out much more than silhouettes, the rhythmic action of brushes, vague figures tipping rubbish sacks into lorries, but Renate Gunther suggests that they’re migrant workers: the film’s progression from night to the first traces of day, as white people start to appear, rendering the ‘negative hands’ those of the labour rendered invisible, carried out before the dawn, while at the same time resisting the binary thinking that would reinforce precisely that racialised division, that classed division that maps onto the spaces of night and day as labouring spaces. In ‘Aurelia Steiner’, the flow of the river suggested to Duras, not an image of continual flow, of nature, of beauty, but of political disappearance—the Algerian protestors thrown into the Seine in 1961, the spaces of war during the period of occupation, with their attendant anti-semitism, collaboration, complicity. These images cannot be neutral in the political sense that would imply. Duras’ voiceover here also serves to displace the mendacious lies by which ‘European’ identity—continental being—is tied to an increasingly exclusionary ideology, one which encourages migration for cheap and disposable labour while closing its borders and blaming those from its peripheries for its ill. So it is that Duras presents the lone prehistoric man in context of what she calls ‘the endless forests of Europe’. Europe itself is here estranged from its mendacious myths of dwelling, belonging (for some, not others). The prehistoric man is not the primordial Aryan ancestor but an outcast: civilisation, the permanence and question for socialisation implied by mark-making, is not the first step towards exclusion, conquest, division, exploitation, but the search for connection that continue in spite of those practices. As such, the film comes down to an expression of Duras’ theory of art—and of civilisation itself: the search for human connection and a sublimated scream for love that inheres in any mark-making, any mode of address. The first-person, that fusion of prehistoric man and Duras herself, addresses ‘you who are named / who have an identity’—that is, those with the ‘passe-partout’ which enables them safe passage, I.D. card, passport, badge of class or gender or skin. And so too the speaker identifies themselves, by implication, with those who wander, those undocumented, those sweeping the streets, those performing their invisible labour at night, those inserted silently behind the principal image in the frame. Duras, for whom writing itself was, as she would later put it, like a ‘silent scream’, announces:

I am someone who calls, I am someone who called, who screamed, thirty thousand years ago: “I love you”. I scream that I want to love you. I love you. I will love anyone who will hear me scream.

Throughout the film, such utterances shift between tenses—the present and future tenses that occupy most of the film’s delcarations of love, and the final past tense with which the film ends (‘I am the one who screamed he loved you’). In these shifts, and in the stitching together of fragments of film, fragments that chart a general crepuscular progression, the movement from night to dawn,but in ways that are hesitant, vague, imprecise, 'Les Mains' suspends time. It plays out across the distance, impossible to imagine, between the moment of mark-making 30,000 years ago; the repeated rituals of dawn in the modern city; the malleable distances of desire and fulfilment, address and reply. It poses a question, puts forth an address, an imposition, a scream, that it dares its audience to answer in ways that are, perhaps, unanswerable.

Thursday 5 November 2020

Vargtimmen / Hour of the Wolf (1968, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

In Summer with Monika (1953), heterosexual love relationship as escape from societal constraint is depicted as a bucolic idyll that can’t last–unable to support the family on a single, meagre salary and burdened by the baby who’s a product of that summer escape, class and gender roles reassert themselves and tear the couple apart. Upon discovering Monika’s infidelity, her now-husband Harry first clumsily paws at her in a last burst of erotic longing, then strikes her after she begs him not to. It all unfolds with a grim inevitability that ultimately goes beyond words. While this moment is depicted through the framings of realism—minimal camera movement, minimal music, a concentration on medium shot lending it ‘objectivity’—the film has previously broken from realism for a brief moment in perhaps its best-known moment, with Monika’s ambiguous, steady gaze directly the camera as she initiates her extra-marital affair, as if daring conservative audiences to judge and progressive audiences to ponder the social arrangements which lead to restriction and misery. It’s a moment that’s non-judgmental and unexpected, an open question that reinforces the film’s gentle tugging at the edges of the social conventions of romance and domestic arrangement.

The gaze direct at camera that, in Summer with Monika, breaks free of narrative framing, both creates and refuses implication and judgment, finds a very different sort of echo in Liv Ullmann’s direct to camera visual address in Hour of the Wolf. Bergman often shoots her face in extreme close up, going so far as to fill the screen with just the eye itself: an attempt to see into the heart of things which attains, if anything, more confusion than before. In the opening sequence, Ullmann’s Alma tells the unseen filmmaker of her artist husband, Johan (Max von Sydow), his descent into madness and his last days before his attempt to murder her and his apparent suicide. Ullmann’s opening direct to camera address, with its suggestions of the documentary interview following on a credits sequence that plays over the sounds of a film set, sets up a soon to be destroyed illusion of realism. Opening on-screen text suggests the entire scenario as a kind of found, collaborative document between Alma, who tells her story to the filmmaker, and the filmmaker, who 'brings that story to life'. This framing both exacerbates this sense of potential realism and gives scope for the ‘subjective’ rendering of extreme mental states through surrealistic techniques that increasingly dominate the film’s second half. Bleached-out scenes of violence and anguish cut between diegetic and non-diegetic sound and disorientating edits which render the experience ‘dream-like’; horror is exacerbated through shock effects such the old woman whose removal of her hat necessitates removal of her entire face (an eye—the gaze again!—placed in a fancy tumbler), the man who walks on the ceiling out of ‘jealousy’, the predatory human who turns into a predatory bird (or vice versa), the naked, and sexualised corpse that comes to life. In the film’s climax, Von Sydow’s breakdown is rendered as a literal tearing about by manifestations of the inner demons he knows by the names of ‘ghosts’, ‘cannibals’. To what extent is this an inevitable by-product of the process of artistic creation (one popular myth), to what extent is art the product of enhanced / vulnerable mental states (another popular myth), and what, in any case, should the artist and their loved ones do outside the realm of the artwork? The film throws these questions up but doesn’t answer them, concerning itself not only with the boundary between inner torment and outer action--climaxing in the tormented artist shooting his pregnant wife--but the limits of loving empathy in the couple’s marriage, Ullmann concluding the film by wondering whether she loved her husband too much--an over-identification which led to her also seeing some of these ghost personages as real people--or too little, unable to save him from those forces he felt assailed him.

The film’s stripped-back setting--an island, a bare landscape, a small cast--might suggest Robin Wood’s critique--that, as ‘poet of the incomplete’, Bergman ‘increasingly deni[ed] his characters their existence as social beings, reducing each to his or her individual psychology’--though the demons who beset him, living as they do in a decrepit castle and treating him as a kind of glorified performing puppet (as in the puppet show based on Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’, whose narrative of transformations, the horrors of night, and the redemptive powers of art, finds a kind of negative echo here), would seem to be a parasitic societal upper tier, somewhere between inherited aristocracy and new money. Von Sydow’s character emphatically rejects psychology, slapping the psychiatrist who accosts him on the cliff-path, but he also rejects art, drunkenly telling the crowd of aristocratic ‘cannibals’ (to applause and their ever-present laughter) that his work comes from a compulsion, has no social value in itself, but that he’s forced to perform the role of the ‘artist’ in order to satisfy their own craving. Though his character is a painter, and though we see him set off on plein air painting trips, we never see the paintings themselves in any detail. Art seems a mirror, not for societal diagnosis, nor for eternal truths, but for whatever the characters, the artist themselves, and us, the audience, read into it: in a scene where a painting becomes central, as one of the ‘cannibals’ describes the emotions he’s poured into a panting of his former (married) lover (the discovery of their affair prompting a breakdown which saw him institutionalised), we see the characters looking off-screen, and thus directly at, but beyond, us, their glazed focus lacking the questioning insistence of Ullmann’s opening and closing monologues and instead transporting them into closed worlds of introspective contemplation. Rather than bringing together, then, art seems to divide, exacerbating and damagingly clawing at the wounds of psychological torment that seem to preclude any long-lasting connection. Though Ullmann’s character hopes that love might breach these gaps that art cannot, she and von Sydow remain stuck in a world of insomniac vigils, failures to communicate and the ultimate switch into violence both against her and himself. If her unswerving faith and loyalty seems to reproduce a fairly standard patriarchal narrative of male artistic suffering and the consistent, self-sacrificing support of the female (non-artist) companion, it’s she who survives as, in his reported words, a ‘whole person’, with ‘whole thoughts’: the integration which he is disastrously denied.

The result, in part, of childhood trauma--locked in a closet, subjected to what amounts to physical and mental torture and forced to beg for forgiveness--the relation of Johan’s breakdown to authority, in terms of gender, the family and class would be ripe for further investigation, but, in contrast to the overlays with contemporaneous politics, particularly the Vietnam war, in other of Bergman’s films from the era, the nightmare feels too bounded in its one case study to move further in that direction. ‘Case study’ is perhaps the wrong word—the film’s intention is not really diagnostic, though it could easily be read for its exposure of the damaging myths of masculinity. Johan’s anguish manifests in a horror of the feminised and a relation to women that alternates between love, redemption and violence. His nightmares in the film’s climax centre around a horror of queerness (the eroticised and violent encounter with a boy, the scene in which he’s made-up and dressed in a chintzy robe by a predator older man), or, perhaps, of sexuality per se, in which inner torment turns into external violence against women (or uses the former as excuse for the latter, whether or not any of this is filtered through the heroizing, decontextualising frames of a certain conception of art).

Johan’s torment, then, expresses itself in almost exclusively gendered ways—the scene in which he shoots his wife might make us think of the climactic scene in which Harry slaps Monika, or for that matter, the brutal murder of a sex worker in his ‘Marionettes’ film, whose title recalls the Magic Flute puppet theatre we see here. But if, as Bergman suggests in that later film, ‘we’ are puppets of impulses, urges, drives, the scatterings of fate, that are beyond our control, screaming into a world of silence, what role does society play here? To what extent is Johan’s anguish a manifestation of classed, gendered and sexualised double-binds into which he’s been forced to define his inner and outer being? How does a universal discourse of drives, anguish and the like map onto those other relationships—how much might the social shape perception of the drives, rather than the other way around? In a sense, the film’s experimental aspects, the surreal horror which makes it so memorable and troubling, are both that which enables Bergman to escape following through on such implications and those aspects which most strikingly raise the questions he won’t attempt to answer (or answer with an anguished existential throwing up of hands).

And so we’re left with Ullmann’s gaze, once more refusing interpellation and judgment, yet abdicating her own strength of character—that which his enabled her to physically and mentally survive as what is in effect carework is rewarded with attempted murder—in favour of an endless rumination on the partner of whom she is finally free. Monika packs up and leaves the flat; Ullmann has stayed on, though she’s soon to move back to the mainland. It’s there the film leaves us, uneasily transitioning between departure and return, confrontation and escape, the soul (alma!) and the body, bleeding and torn apart. The film’s stare may be unblinking, but it doesn’t always seem to know what it’s seen.

Monday 2 November 2020

“Toothache in the Soul”: Summer Interlude (1951, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Described by Godard in the late 1950s as one of the most beautiful of all films and by Bergman himself as his first mature film, ‘Summer Interlude’ tends to be overshadowed by Bergman’s other summer film, ‘Summer with Monika’, and by the heavier meditations on love relationships, existential torment, loss and despair that are now firm entries in the canon of world cinema. Ballet dancer Marie, coming to her late twenties, at once at the peak of her career and anticipating its end, receives a worn-out notebook in the mail—the journal of her former lover Henrik, documenting the summer they spent together thirteen years before, a summer ended by his death in a tragic accident while swimming on the coast. When her rehearsal is delayed by a powercut, she takes the ferry out to the archipelagic island on which the romance took place, and Marie’s remembrances of that summer form the bulk of the film. In the final third, she returns to the dance studio, resolves to confront and move on from the past, to attempt to allow the emotional openness she associates with an ‘interlude’ of lost happiness back in, past the self-protective walls she’s constructed around herself as strategic melancholia against the experience of grief. 

For much of its running time, ‘Summer Interlude’ depicts a teenage idyll which latter-day critics, in the wake of Bergman’s reputation for existential gloom, have interpreted as ‘surprisingly sweet’. This is a situational reading that, ironically enough, given the film’s own concern with memory and the re-reading of the past, depends on retrospection. Such critical response tends to receive the flashback ‘interlude’ as characterising the mood of the film itself—sweetly observed romance with occasional premonitions of dread—and it takes up much of the running time, but it’s important to note that the film is structured as a critical reflection on, as well as an echo of, that romance. If the filmic flashback tends to suggest that we can simply replay the past in the present, Bergman’s framing of these flashbacks also suggests the vicissitudes of memory, the palimpsestic alterations that are both re-readings and re-writings, not so much to decry them as fictions or to lament memory’s instability, but to explore ways in which past and present might be integrated in a way that neither melancholically disavows the past in a false ‘moving on’, nor remains immured in it, unable to face the present except with a diffident and distanced mask.

As the central structuring element of the film, then, flashback is self-consciously deployed. There are in effect two framings to the ‘interlude’ of teenage love which makes up the film’s emotional heart and takes up the majority of the running time: following the musical designation, one might call them ‘preludes’ (with a ‘coda’ to conclude). First, we have Marie in the dressing room, where she waits as the ballet rehearsal is suspended due to a power-cut—what happens when art’s sublimatory power is put on hold, the make-up is removed, and inner depths must be confronted direct? Triggered by the receipt of Henrik’s diary, and brushed off by her current lover David, a handsome but superficial tabloid hack (self-described), she takes the ferry out to the island where she spent her summer holidays and where she and Henrik conducted their affair, and it’s the further memories triggered by presence on the island itself that take us into the world of flashback per se. On Henrik’s death, the return by ferry and an encounter in the dressing room provide the final resolution. The film’s structure is insistently retrospective, a chain of remembrances, whether contained in physical objects (Henrik’s journal, the abandoned summerhouse or the bucolic coastline where the young lovers spent their time) or in a more amorphous tendency of the mind to wander. Even the remembered moment—the ‘interlude’—is itself framed by the unhealthy dwelling on the past and on youth exhibited by Marie’s alcoholic and predatory ‘uncle’ Erland, obsessed with the memory of a moment Marie’s mother danced ‘for him’ (in reality a forbidden, unreciprocated longing played out in the presence of her husband and his wife) and seeking to recreate it in his attraction to Marie: after Henrik’s death, he promises he will teach her how to wall herself off from the world.

The film at once revels in and critiques the dead-end of nostalgia—and, as Marie reckons with balancing personal memory and artistic present, so Bergman bases on his own experience of youthful love, with a lover who also died tragically young, in a gender-reversed version of that scenario that takes as (one of its) explicit theme/s the relation between artistic sublimation and personal memory and desire. As such, the integration of the interlude—the past, first love, carefree teenage years, metropolitan pastoral, Stockholm archipelago, ‘tempered countryside and wilderness’, as Bergman put it, playground of the comfortable –with the present—the city, the newspaper, the urban—is more complicated than it might appear, given that much of what we see of that present, urban world is in fact the backstage and rehearsal space of the ballet—a mode of artifice, of fantasy and of alternative world-building if ever there was one. All the ore so when we consider that, in Bergman’s notebook draft of the story the decade previous, based on his own experience of teenage love, the original ballet to be performed was Stravinsky’s Petrushka—the ironic jibes of the puppet master and the puppet performing for the callous crowd. As it stands, the ballet is the more kitschy-grandiloquent tragedy—and crowd favourite—Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: comparisons might be drawn, somewhat unexpectedy perhaps, to Gena Rowlands getting the children to enact the dance of the dying swan in her ‘Woman Under the Influence’ breakdown, or to the more surreal ballet sequences of Cassavetes’ underrated late career ‘Love Streams’, where ballet indices nostalgia, the passing of youth, the responsibilities and demands of love and family as a form that becomes inherently uncanny, associated as it with the time-bound physicality of gendered youth and a dream-world that’s a bizarre fusion of the ‘child-like’ and the cruelly adult, the physically punishing, fate, doom, imbricated sex and death.

But whereas Cassavetes’ use of ballet here is framed through class—ballet stands as a mode of escape from the world of family, the constructions of gender roles, the inability to express care, tenderness or an aspiration beyond the worlds of gender-segregated social formations (the boy’s gang, the girl’s get-together) or the gendered labour of the family—Bergman’s world is one where the solidity of class comfort—albeit one not untouched by grief, loss, orphanhood, and the gendered performance of beauty—is, in contrast to the class conflicts of ‘Summer with Monika’, a given. The young lovers here don’t so much define sexual or classed prohibition as inhabit a blissful space of permission, while ballet is stressed as quotidian performance—the dance studio filmed with attention to lights, technicians, consumers (the worker who disparages the performance because the dancers don’t show their legs enough), the gatekeeper at reception, perpetually keeping out the press in a bit of comic relief. To that extent undercut, presented as simply another mode of labour—note the prominent shots of chain-smoking dancers, the scenes of applying and removing make-up, of people entering and leaving the space, the stairs perpetually crowded with comings and goings, the unpredictable rhythms of the working day—ballet also serves as a useful index for the film’s consideration of the relation of art to desire, passion to sublimation, aesthetic temporality to that of personal memory. In ‘Swan Lake’, the figure of the lover turned into a swan serves as ready metaphor for the ballet dancer training their body in the service of aesthetic beauty: a metamorphosis—whether as sublimation or transmutation, or both—into the not-quite human that is ballet’s own uncanny fascination, from Swan Lake itself to Coppelia to Petrushka. Bergman’s film is more concerned with the back-stage movement that surrounds ballet as with ballet as self-contained artistic world: the world of theatre wings as much as the choreographed wings of Tchiakovsky’s swan-maidens. The film was a self-interrogation, a cathartic working-through of an experience of personal loss: if more realist than a 19th century ballet, still an artistic translation—metamorphosis? sublimation? transmutation?—of personal experience. But then, what in daily life’s the border of experience, feeling, performance, self/representation?

Dying swans, the contortion of the body to a position of gravity-defying airiness in fact predicated on the disciplined torture of the gendered body: there are multiple mirrors, feints and screens here. These are all the more emphasized in the climactic dressing room dialogue with the ballet master is made up as a sinister clown, complete with hat and prosthetic nose—Delibe’s Doctor Coppelia, another variant on the obsession with craft, the mechanical, the imitative that likewise characterises Petroushka, a doll maker expert at art’s mimetic processes but unable to participate in life itself. Much of the scene is shot in a complicated arrangement of mirror reflections, the doublings and pairings of mirrors, cameras, windows.

Here we anticipate the world of ‘Persona’, of doublings and projections and withdrawal from the world. But the film’s emotional tenor is predominantly that of lyrically-invoked bliss—clouds, sun, water, teenage love—presented without judgment, consequence or moral prohibition (what a breath of fresh air in 1953), framed by the ambiguous melancholy of the dressing room, and the turn to tragedy upon Henrik’s death seems as abrupt as the turn to ‘comedic’ resolution at the end—Marie making faces at herself in the mirror on the realisation that she is, in fact, ‘happy’. If these shifts feel jarring—however much they’re elegantly smoothed over with the technical accomplishments of cross-fades, carefully composed rooms, attentiveness to the dynamics of people’s relations to interior space—so too our perceptual experience of time, and the sudden eruptions and disappearances of memory itself, at once willed and unwilled, can be jerky as much as smooth, close-ups as much as long shots, non-sequiturs as much as rehearsed and integrated narration.

But how much does this itself fall prey to the idealised stasis the film attempts to work through? In his Bergman book, Robin Wood argues for the ‘immaturity’ of the film’s ‘romantic fatalism’. It is, after all, at precisely the moment when practical difficulties are mentioned (Henrik is to go back to university, Marie to ballet school in the next three days) that the fatal accident occurs: the shift to the easier and grander mode of mortal tragedy, which gives a ‘hook’ to the narrative of memory, regret and loss that doesn’t have to entangle itself with the practical business of living, of the integration of passion with routine, career, labour, of the extension beyond the arcadian ‘interlude’ into the next act. (‘Summer with Monika’, would address these more closely.) That’s mapped onto the too-easy pathetic fallacy—picking wild strawberries in summer! walking past leafless trees in autumn!—the reading into and onto ‘nature’ in a film that’s otherwise highly conscious of artifice, performance and the uneasy balance between social construction and constriction and ‘natural’ feeling. Such moments are characterised by openings to, or onto landscape—raising the blinds in the summerhouse, cranes up towards sun and clouds or across to se and coast—in a spacious and languorously mobile visual field. After Henrik’s death, however, the framing becomes increasingly crowded and interior in the final act, with faces and bodies in rooms and interior spaces, cut off and contained by the sharp angles of walls, tables and mirrors, rather than the gentler shapes and spacious mobility of the outdoors. In particular, the extreme close-ups of the older Marie’s face—an eye, a face—present us with the unnerving experience of direct confrontation, interpellating audience as both voyeur and as suddenly themselves watched. 


Such moments chop up the face, dividing parts from whole, contrasting sharply with the integration of person and landscape, lover with lover that characterises the medium- and long-shot framings that dominate the interlude itself. In a parallel move, after Henrik’s death, Bergman uses crossfades of Marie walking down the hospital corridor, leaving the building, and so on, which don’t so much divide and separate part from whole but entangle different spatio-temporal wholes, different levels, so that a picture of a single whole becomes virtually impossible to determine.

These crossfades serve to index time at once passing and freezing in a kind of arrested development. While the structure of the filmic flashback tends to move from the ‘objective’—the narratalogical field which presents the narrator in context—to the subjective—signalled by the presence of the narrator’s voiceover on the soundtrack, these cross-fades seem caught between the two modes, at once suggesting the collapse of time in the immediate wake of loss and the longer process of acknowledgment, disavowal, sublimation and the like that is loss’s long afterlife. In the following scenes, Marie’s narration of memory seeks to reckon with her experience of time as a void to be filled, as something whose unavoidable passing—personal loss, awareness of mortality—is as full of anguish as the anticipation of its continuance. Thus, her conscious creation of self-protective walls, spaces that become prisons, whether in her brief romance with ‘uncle Erland’ (alluded to but not seen) or in her devotion to the ballet: art as sublimation, face as mask, total investment in skill and performance at the expense of the loss of identity, of sense of self. That this is frequently mapped out in pathetic fallacy—the ‘summer interlude’ of first love followed by the ‘autumn’ of its passing (crashingly emblematised, not only in the end of the affair, but in the tragic death of the beloved) that veers close to truism or cliché, notably in the sudden ‘happy ending’. In ‘Swan Lake’, Siegfried stays faithful to his original, true love by throwing himself in the lake, thence ascending to heaven with Odette. The lover must sacrifice themselves for the memory of a past love in order to enter into the metaphysical eternity that at once symbolises futurity and abolishes time.

In ‘Summer Interlude’, the integration of past, present and future doesn’t have to rely on the magical transformations of a ballet scenario. As the film ends, Marie, it seems, has succeeded in getting the burden of the past off her chest by giving her current lover Henrik’s notebook and resolving to—what? ‘move on?’ inhabit a new emotional openness? Just like that?—as a flash of the free-spirited teenager returns and she pulls faces at herself in the mirror. This ending as resolution is too quick to feel achieved—the present-day boyfriend’s feet planted solely on the ground, Marie, dashing backstage in a quick changeover, going up on point to kiss him, the body parts reflecting gender division, severed from the bodies they support (the feet are the proletarians of the body, Etienne Decroux once said), the balance of groundedness and aesthetic flight again subject to the ravages of time—as Marie is reminded several times, she does not have many years left in her career, and one might presume that David—who resents the erratic schedule and her pursuit of art, whilst also being admiringly attracted to it—would hardly be the most liberated of partners.

But that would be another story.