Fuck the Young Turks and the Sundance Kids: 2005 is officially the year of the Old Masters. My most sublime cinematic experiences this year have come from the autumnal works of old-school auteurs -- Jean-Luc Godard (75) with Notre Musique, Ousmane Sembene (82) with Mooladé, John Boorman (72) with In My Country, Michelangelo Antonioni (92) with the Il Filo Pericoloso delle Cose segment from Eros. Back in the day when criticism was actually worth fighting over, auteurists used to routinely get shit for their geriatric-artistes reverence, and, hardcore auteurist that I am, I herald Ingmar Bergman's Saraband as the best film of the year so far. A slender, made-for-Swedish-TV semi-sequel to his towering 1973 miniseries Scenes From a Marriage -- will art-house dwellers who are at least aware of Bergman's reputation as a demigod of European cinema ooze knee-jerk indulgence simply because the director has announced this as his final work? Truth is, Bergman's been announcing final works since 1982, and now, more than twenty years later (and almost ten filmed, hard-to-find TV plays), this 2003 work, made when the filmmaker was 85, arrives on screens. My non-indulgent verdict: Masterpiece.
When last seen, Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) were "In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World," their marriage in ashes yet savoring an ineffable spiritual bond before the divorce becomes final. Cut to three decades later: Marianne, now 65, with dozens of snapshots scattered across the table before her, and the sudden impulse to visit estranged, 81-year-old Johan at his isolated cottage. While the doors slam shut in ghostly anticipation, she pauses for one long minute before coming to her slumbering ex-husband in the veranda, though no wistful reminiscing awaits the couple; minutes into the reunion and venom gets casually sprinkled over the nostalgia, Johan's pronounced disinterest over their grown daughters (one in Australia, another in a mental institution) and barbed-wires on past unfaithfulness (He: "It wasn't that painful." She: "Yes. It was." He: "Oh, for you it must have been"). Still, it is not long for Marianne to turn benign observer and cede the dramatic center stage to another battling duo, Johan's despised, sixtysomething son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and his teenage daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), struggling cellists living nearby, the two locked in a symbiotic, quasi-incestuous relationship of emotional suffocation ever since the death of Henrik's beloved wife Anna.
Though Bergman has over the years professed admiration for the digi-cam ethos of Dogme '95, Saraband is no Dogme picture. Or, rather, it is the Dogme film the hipsters always nattered about but never achieved, though just how much influence the movement had on the filmmaker is debatable. After all, the groundwork for the so-called manifesto is already in Scenes From a Marriage, where the trademark rigidity of the director's mise-en-scène gave way to a handheld wobbliness mirroring the turbulence of the characters' psyches, their frayed nerves bled via the invasively prying camera. The new film's segmented structure (prologue, ten episodes, epilogue) suggests one of von Trier's fatuously fractured experiments, but, as many critics have noted, it in reality stems from Bergman's own sense of dramatic musicality, with each episode staged as a duet between characters -- indeed, the eponymous erotic dance, performed for loyalty in the 17th and 18th-centuries, provides the template for the characters' confessional outpours. What other director has made screen confrontations as palpable, the soul's blood spilled through hushed, wounding dialogue as much as through grueling physical touch? The shot of a lamp landing on the floor and breaking following a spiky Johan-Henrik duel packs more charge in four seconds than all of the swollen "darkness" of Batman Begins.
"There's a healthy dose of hatred in your general mushiness" is just one of Johan's sardonic lines, yet, for all the cathartic claustrophobia, Saraband is an open, airy work, transcendentally lucid. Despite occasional rhetoric touches (Karin fantasizing playing the cello against a white background, split-second shock-cuts of a bloodied-up Henrik), the video-work maintains the simplicity associated with the twilight stages of an artist's career and life. Has Bergman, older now than Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries, become his own Professor Borg? Relentlessly autobiographical (Henrik's accusation of his father never having been a father at all reportedly comes from one of Bergman's sons, and the photo of Anna actually belongs to Ingrid Von Rosen, the director's late wife), the movie finds his august despair, if not completely dissipating in old age, then at least comforted by the pleasures of life even as it toes close to death. Bergman's nearly five-decade career has been always aimed at stripping away bodily layers to locate emotional truth, and no other scene this year is as moving as its literalization, Marianne and Johan (and Ullmann and Josephson) shorn of illusions and clothes, the physical closeness shielding them from the harshness of the world. If truly his final work, Saraband can stand for the crystalline expression of Bergman's goal, to fuse director and audience in searing expression; hence, Ullman's final aside into the camera is not a monologue, but the ultimate saraband, a dance between screen and viewer. "I feel..." We feel.
Now, for a bit of sacrilege, from Saraband to The Devil's Rejects. Bergman gets inspiration from Liv Ullman and Bach, Rob Zombie from Sheri Moon and Skynyrd -- no better, no worse, just different, and I'll leave it at that. Either way, it's a hollerin', gut-bustin', chicken-fuckin' scum-bucket of a movie, picking up where Zombie's 2003 cult geek-a-thon, House of a 1,000 Corpses, left off, opening with the butchering clan from the first film roused out of their '70s farmhouse-of-horrors by foamingly vengeful sheriff William Forsythe ("Lord, I am your arm of justice" intoned in front of a mirror). Bloodthirsty siblings Otis (Bill Mosely) and Baby (Moon) take to the endless roads before catching up with killer-klown dad Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), while Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, filling in for Karen Black) gets dragged to the police station. Plenty of joyous bloodletting and nutty cameos (Ken Foree, Geoffrey Lewis, Priscilla Barnes, E.G. Daily, Michael Berryman, Ginger Lynn Allen, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles -- hell, even Kane "Jason Vorhees" Hodder is in the credits somewhere), all captured in degraded graininess to evoke a third-generation bootleg. No one is likely to mistake Zombie's slaughterhouse gusto for Bergman's pared-down dourness, yet The Devil's Rejects is certainly no less personal to its creator than Saraband; the beauty of cinema is that there is space to accommodate both within the cinephile's heart.
Reviewed July 28, 2005.