Over the course of one night in an Irish country estate in the 1880s, a man and a woman engage in an illicit romantic relationship. The problem is, that Julie (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of an Irish Count, and Jean (Colin Farrell) is the valet of her father. Despite his well-read and well-travelled nature, Jean is still a servant, and cannot indulge in the love with his boss' daughter. Julie, however, knows that Jean must do as he commands, and begins a game of forcing him more and more into the romantic confrontation they are both denied.
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The mood here is a mix of solemnity and sensuality -- the sisters' relationships are by turns abusive, loving, and tormented -- but Bergman's emphasis on deep reds and blacks throughout emphasizes the split between Marie and Karin much too formally. Moreover, the hushed, interior tone fails to generate much drama, and the tension never explodes as it does in a much better Bergman '70s drama, Autumn Sonata. But it has the benefit of some tremendous performances, particularly from Ullmann and Kari Sylwan, who plays the family's indomitable caretaker, Anna. And Sven Nykvist's cinematography, particularly in the exterior shots, have a pastoral, painterly grace.
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Never before seen in the US, this Swiss production concerns a championship chess match between Soviet master Liebskind (Michel Piccoli) and his former student, a defector named Fromm (Alexandre Arbatt). The underlying political intrigue -- which we expect -- is quite understated as the film focuses on the mind games between the two players. Sure, there's a political agenda, but the insight into how these players try to outfox each other between matches is priceless. They plan strategies, only to watch them come undone during the actual game. When we learn that Liebskind is dying, the game becomes a metaphor for not just east vs. west, but life vs. life.
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Though Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman aren't related, their pairing on a movie set was a long-anticipated event -- each of their careers were marked by a certain Scandinavian iciness -- and it turned out to be a wholly successful one. Ingrid has a stubborn, indomitable attitude in the opening of the film that turns out to be only selfish shallowness - she resents being in the presence of Helena, and seems anxious to get away from Eva, who she always felt fell short of expectations. As each reveal the losses they've suffered and the slights they've felt, it slowly becomes clear that resentment has built up between them for years. But the brutality of Eva and Charlotte's final fight doesn't come from the noise they make - it's in the way their words cut. "You should be hidden away and kept from doing others harm," Eva tells her mother towards the end, and it seems to annihilate her.
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Played by Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, the couple quickly -- inside an hour and a half -- comes completely apart as von Sydow's visions become indistinguishable from reality. Hour of the Wolf has been described as Bergman's only horror film and that's not far from the mark, with creepy characters and imagery pervading the entire second half of the movie.
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Hardly known for her directorial abilities (though Faithless was passable), Ullmann's work here is pretty much rock bottom. Sigrid Undset's novel is a historical epic, following one Kristin Lavransdatter across a life in medieval Norway. Her dad is a wealthy landowner and wants to marry her off to the son of another local wealthy man. But Kristin has eyes on a lower-class man. These two tussle, Kristin ends up in a convent, then falls in love with a knight. The original fiancee tussles again with the new guy, and it all ends in hopeful despair. With elements of Moll Flanders and Romeo and Juliet (and not the good elements, mind you), Kristin tries to muddle a story together where one barely exists. How Undset got 1000 pages out of this is a mystery to me.
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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.
Continue reading: Saraband Review