Gilberto Perez

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

The close-up is Ingmar Bergman's stock in trade. No other filmmaker has so relentlessly dwelt on the human face in the attempt to lay bare the soul behind it. His new film, Autumn Sonata, is once again pledged to the nuances and intensities of the aggrandized countenance.

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Wasn't the close-up, it may be asked, the invention and the glory of the silent film? In an eloquent passage in his Theory of the Film, Bela Balazs wrote about the "spiritual dimension" into which silent films would probe with their big close-ups of human faces, the "silent soliloquy" or "mute dialogue" that could be enacted through the sustained enlargement of facial expression…. [In] Bergman the close-up is less a matter of a shared language than of his personal utterance…. [The] face is not a substitute for the voice but an intensification, or a qualification, of it; and, when the actor is not speaking, the soliloquy of the countenance is now truly a silent one….

Ingmar Bergman seems to me fundamentally a latter-day expressionist. I have in mind not only his frequent borrowing (in such films as The Naked Night, The Magician, Hour of the Wolf, Face to Face) from the devices of cinematic expressionism that were developed in Weimar Germany, or even the greater spiritual debt he owes to his compatriot Strindberg, the originator of dramatic expressionism. Bergman's close-ups are as much as expressionistic device as the distorted sets in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: they equally push the medium to an extreme in order to have it express extremities of feeling, and they equally portray a landscape of fear, alienation, anguish. Expressionism portrays fear from the point of view of the frightened, alienation from the point of view of the alienated; it disfigures the world by giving absolute primacy to the distraught individual. If Caligari portrays the world as the paranoiac nightmare of a madman, Scenes from a Marriage omits the words as immaterial to the troubled husband and wife. The characteristic Bergman close-up is an externalization of despair and a denial of any perspective that may take us outside that despair….

It's hard to escape the conclusion that in these brooding, pared-down films—of which Autumn Sonata is the most recent—all confined to very few characters in an elementary situation, Bergman feels he's getting down to the essentials of the human condition. (p. 10)

The conversations between mother and daughter deal mainly with the past, as one would expect, and are punctuated with flashbacks. Done in distant long shot so as to emphasize their remoteness from the present, these flashbacks, though visually elegant, carry little weight dramatically: they are like slides illustrating the voice-over narration rather than autonomous re-enactments. The real drama is in the present as the characters talk about the past, a situation reminiscent of Ibsen. Yet, as Strindberg went beyond Ibsen from the drama of the room (naturalism) to the drama of the mind (expressionism), so also does Strindberg's disciple Bergman—except that Bergman can do without the paraphernalia of stage expressionism and create his drama of the mind by concentrating on the isolated face. It doesn't appreciably matter where, in what concrete situation in the present, the encounter between mother and daughter in Autumn Sonata takes place: the real drama is in their heads….

There's a second daughter in Autumn Sonata, a spastic cripple confined to bed and reduced to speaking in grunts intelligible only to her sister, the Liv Ullmann character, who nurses her at home. This other daughter's disease is not presented just as an unfortunate fact but as a symbol of the larger malaise—it caps the list of her sister's accusations against the mother, whose selfish withholding of love allegedly cause this too—in one of Ingmar Bergman's unwarranted and irresponsible equations of physical distress with the afflictions of the soul….

The painful condition of a grunting spastic is a lousy symbol for the pain of the human condition and the general inability to communicate with others. Surely Bergman would have done better to omit this second daughter from Autumn Sonata. Sometimes, however, an artist's worst mistakes can offer the clearest indication of what's wrong with his fundamental approach. If Bergman can identify the sufferings of a spastic with those of the spirit, it's because he's ready to discount wholly the causes of either in reality, and eager to postulate the experience of suffering as itself the ultimate, inescapable reality. Any attempt to verify the first daughter's charges against the mother by going into the actual past—and examining why, for example, the daughter and her father could find nothing better to do when the mother was away than read her letters over and over—would have been, for Bergman, beside the point. The daughter's charges are not just her version of the story, they are the story: not because they are necessarily the truth but because for Bergman the essential truth is in the close-up view of her anguish. What's wrong with this, in my estimation, is that it merely serves to flaunt the anguish: only by gaining some distance from it can one hope to understand it, let alone cure it. (p. 11)

Gilberto Perez, "Ingmar Bergman: Up Close," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1979 by Richard W. Burgin), No. 13, 1979, pp. 10-11.

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