Well, this is breaking the streak of “here’s what’s wrong, but I liked it” reviews.
This Ingmar Bergman film is a quiet, simple piece, taking place in only a day or so during a family’s vacation on a small Swedish island. We meet them frolicking in the surf first – Karin (Harriet Andersson), her devoted husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her teenage brother Minus (Lars Passgård) and novelist father David (Gunnar Björnstrand). There’s some playful arguing as they come ashore and negotiate the chores for that evening’s dinner – finally settling on Karin and Minus heading to fetch milk while David and Martin round up fish. Minus seems put out to have to tag along with his big sister, but she playfully changes his mind, and is laughing along with her as they go.
So the conversation Martin and David have alone comes as something of a shock – for we learn that Karin suffers from schizophrenia, and is fresh from the asylum after a recent psychotic break. Martin is determined to stay with his wife until the bitter end, helping her and protecting her as best he can – while David has been avoiding her, save for making notes on her illness’s progression in case he wants to write about it later. In fact, David has only joined the others on vacation at Martin and Minus’ urging as they want to keep things as happy and normal as possible for Karin.
But Karin is simply too far gone. She sneaks out of Martin’s arms in the middle of the night to lurk in an abandoned attic room, because she’s convinced there are people in the walls talking to her. A voice in her head urges her to snoop in her father’s things, and she finds his diary and reads the cold and clinical notes he’s been making on her symptoms. She flees the house during a moment of tension and, when Minus finds her, she hallucinates he’s a stranger and….let’s say she gets a bit more familiar than a sister should.
One thing that struck me is the very ordinariness of the film. There are few clichéd “mad scene” moments for Karin – she mostly just seems a little impulsive. Maybe she says something strange now and then, but soon just waves it off; it was the illness talking, she’s fine now. It lulls you into the same kind of hope the family is clinging to that maybe Karin is actually okay – until a scene towards the very end, when they come upon her having a one-sided conversation with invisible people and then reacts to a horrifying vision. We never see that vision, though; nor do we hear all the voices that Karin hears, save for some soft sounds in the attic that might be whispers and might just be wind.
The film is also sparse – there’s no soundtrack, there’s no other people in the cast. Martin and David have only two brief conversations about “What Do We Do About Karin”, and Passgård manages to somehow establish a subplot for himself as the Overlooked Younger Brother without saying much at all.
The film is instead stripped down to its essence – it’s a quiet, sparse tragedy about the family of someone with a mental illness trying to save her despite the odds.