There’s a disclaimer you should bear in mind when reading any of my reviews on this site; however, for this movie I’d like to really spell it out…and that is when it comes to film criticism, I am completely and totally untrained. I have never taken any course in filmmaking, film history, cinema studies, or any kind of media critique. My educational background was in theater as opposed to film, and save for a handful of years working as a jack-of-all-trades office girl in the production office for a sport fishing television show, my entertainment work history has always been in theater. My “film education” has consisted solely of watching films and asking friends in film school some questions, and my “review-writing” experience before this was as a volunteer reviewer for a now-defunct local theater review blog, one in which all the reviewers were members of New York’s indie theater scene.
I say all that because several articles I’ve since read state that this Bergman film is one of the most difficult works for film critics and historians to analyze. So if professionals have a hard go at this, then there is absolutely no hope whatsoever for someone like me.
Not that it’s completely opaque. On the contrary – most of the film is an intriguing psychodrama about Elizabet (Liv Ullman), an actress who’s gone selectively mute, and Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse assigned to care for her. Initially Alma looks after Elizabet in the hospital where she’s been staying for three months now; but then Elizabet’s doctor suspects a change of scene might help, and sends the pair to her own seaside cottage for an extended stay. Alma and Elizabet enjoy a cozy visit for a while – Elizabet comes out of her shell a bit, enjoying beach strolls and cooking with Alma, but still doesn’t talk. And the girlish Alma appreciates that at first; after years of being the listening ear for others, she finally has someone to listen to her, and starts confessing her deepest secrets to Elizabet. In time, though, Elizabet’s continued silence starts to get on her nerves, leading Alma to go to greater and more dangerous lengths to compel Elizabet to just say something already.
That’s all simple enough. But the subtext and symbolism run really bloody deep here, and I haven’t a clue about anything except the most hit-you-over-the-head-obvious stuff.
For instance – the opening sequence. The movie kicks off with rapid-fire shots of a disconnected bunch of stuff – a couple seconds of a projector mechanism, a shot of the slaughter of a sheep, a spider, a clip from a very old silent film about ghosts, and an extremely brief shot of something I thought was a penis. This gives way to a series of shots of an old man, an old woman, and a boy all each lying on gurneys with sheets drawn up to their chests. And just as we’re assuming they’re in a morgue, the boy sits up, fusses with his sheet a while, then gives up and pulls out a picture book and reads a moment before being distracted a huge projection of both Alma and Elizabet’s faces, superimposed on each other. He reaches towards it in fascination – and that’s where the sequence ends, and we’re launched into the film proper. In time, we get hints as to who the boy might be, but as for the sheep, the old couple, and the spider? No clue. Not even when we revisit those clips about midway through the film, where they come back after the moment we know Alma has started to sour on Elizabet.
That double-image, though, is definitely something we’re supposed to think about. Bergman started working on the film shortly after meeting Liv Ullman for the first time; Ullman was hanging out with Andersson when they both ran into Bergman, one of Andersson’s old colleagues. Bergman was struck by how much he thought the pair looked alike, and started working on this script for them both shortly after the encounter. And identity is played up a lot in this film; in one scene, Elizabet’s husband (Gunnar Björnstrand) pays the cottage a surprise visit, and mistakes Alma for Elizabet when he walks in. Alma repeatedly tries to correct him, growing more frantic as he starts speaking more intimately; but he doesn’t seem to notice, not even when Elizabet comes in. And what’s more – Elizabet seems to want Alma to take over for her.
…Unless Elizabet and Alma are the same person already. There are definitely moments that suggest that’s the case; there’s also moments that suggest that the whole thing is a film-within-a-film.
If none of the really surreal stuff were there, I’d have had no problem getting drawn into the psychodrama of Alma trying to crack Elizabet’s armor and slowly breaking down herself with the effort. But I’m left with the idea I’m supposed to Find Meaning in it – and, well, I’m simply not equipped.