Watching Saraband, occasionally amazed by its power and beauty, I also grew frustrated because it's his same long, slow walk towards personal annihilation, this time simply reprising the characters of contemplative Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and crotchety Johan (Erland Josephson), an ex-married couple that may still have feelings for each other. Predictably, Ullmann and Josephson are brilliant, and suggest tremendous intimacy and depth, humor and hurt. Marianne shows up at Johan's cottage, not quite knowing why. He's still the same mouthy, sensitive, soul-constricted (and often funny) curmudgeon he was 30 years ago. She's still Liv Ullmann, Bergman's luminous object within the frame.
After establishing the couple, Saraband moves in a slightly different direction than On Golden Pond. Marianne befriends Johan's granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who is estranged from her father Johan (Börje Ahlstedt). Conflicted over the death of her mother and certain arrangements her father has made about her living arrangements and her future as a solo cellist, Karin is a Bergman heroine on the verge of a breakdown and has frequent tumultuous scenes bemoaning her pain as Marianne listens and listens. Not surprisingly, Ullmann commands these scenes even when her character has very little to offer in the way of help or advice.
There are moments in Saraband that are bracing: a father and daughter confrontation played out in an unwavering long take in which the performers don't raise their voices (often), but the effect is no less shattering. It ends with a close-up on the father as heartbreaking and horrific as any of Bergman's great faces. There's also a fleeting moment of running through the woods, ending in an off-camera shriek, that's appropriately stark and unnerving.
Bergman hasn't lost his touch. But he has lost his vigor, keeping much of the action shot indoors (seemingly more out of an 86-year-old filmmaker's desire not to wear himself out in production than as an aesthetic choice), and his use of hi-def video cannot touch his film work (take your pick from his impressive resume). Still, it's a testament to the old master that even a lesser work by him is worth consideration. And, yeah, he's saying once again that this will be his last movie, and his goodbye to filmmaking. He's said that before. No doubt, after his next feature film, he'll say it again. Hopefully, we won't have to wait five years.
Reviewed as part of the 2004 New York Film Festival.
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Monday 1st December 2003
Box Office USA: $0.5M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Sveriges Television (SVT)
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Fresh: 76 Rotten: 7
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Producer: Pia Ehrnvall
Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman