Robert Boyers

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355

[What] Bergman does in this very special and provoking film [Cries and Whispers] is to subject to ruthless scrutiny his own extravagant identification with various feminine characters. By coldly exposing them, by forcing them to have at one another and to acquiesce in the process of their own relentless humiliation, Bergman calls into question his own boundless attraction to them. (p. 136)

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It is obvious to most of us that a film is more than a series of verbal structures or pictorial images, that it is as well a relation it establishes with viewers; similarly, a body of work, a whole collection of films by a single artist, is more than specific attitudes or ideas taken up in one or more of them. When we think of Bergman we must think necessarily of intonation, the timbre and range of the voice which persists through the changing focus and altogether unstable manipulation of ideas. In Bergman, after all, as with many great artists, vision is not a matter of firm positions or standing or falling on particular ideas. There is a vision, of course, and it has to do with the putting of various questions in a way that suggests they are literally matters of life and death. Not the answers to those questions but the voice that articulates and insists upon their pre-eminence is what constitutes the signature. Just as it is foolish to draw permanent conclusions about Bergman's convictions on the basis of a single film when there are dozens to consider, it is a mistake to probe the complex structure of an ambitious film like Cries And Whispers with a simple question: "How does Bergman feel about his women?" There are, believe it or not, more important questions, more important insofar as they more regularly inform the corpus as a whole and more consistently command our attention. With Bergman we are more likely to worry over the problematic relation between feeling and intellect, an issue made fresh and interesting because in the way it's projected it is obviously more than a matter of idle curiosity or a mechanism for thematizing otherwise inchoate materials. We shall be interested as well in the human status of animal need, not as a means of assigning value-points to particular characters or entire sexes, but as a means of understanding the images by which people come to know themselves and imagine their transactions with others. (pp. 136-37)

[In the fifties,] Bergman had found at least some of his standard subjects and was working with a confidence previously unknown to him. Amoung the films to be considered are Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries, surely two enduring favorites. Both contain a variety of male and female types, and both may be said to elaborate a sustained critique of egoism, a malady in which the personality is arrested at the level of excessive pre-occupation with an exclusive aspect of its own development…. Each film lovingly develops an alternative to the egoism and the attendant dislocations of function which afflict the egoists. Though one would never guess as much from the writings of Bergman's feminist critics, the corrective to the vision is in each film supplied by the presence of a remarkable, highly intelligent, and highly visible woman character: Desiree in Smiles, Marianne in Wild Strawberries. (p. 137)

Neither Desiree nor Marianne is soiled by animal needs. If anything, Desiree has an immoderate though never unbecoming sexual appetite which she does nothing to conceal, and Marianne's determination to have a child, to be a mother, is proudly maintained though it compromises her marriage and raises painful questions about her future in general. In fact, no one who sees these films with a discerning eye will imagine that for either woman animal need and its satisfaction is an end in itself, any more than Bergman's need in a film like Cries And Whispers is a definitive put-down of women. Always in Bergman the vision of the film as a whole signals the continuing difficulty of large-scale and enduring integration, the difficulty we have in maintaining proportion, in expressing at once what we need, what we think we need, and think we ought to need. Though Desiree is without the paralyzing self-consciousness of Ester in The Silence, she knows that some things are more important than others, that confident decisions are likely to be rescinded at any moment for good or bad reasons, and that if there are needs, there is also a reasonably appealing world and intractable others with whom to deal, decently if at all possible. Bergman adores Desiree not because she has especially good ideas or because she is an especially kind or noble person, but because she has some clear notion of what she wants, how to get it, and how far one may legitimately go in pursuit of one's desires; also because she is a beautiful woman whose carriage and demeanor bespeak a clarity of intention and relative harmony of impulse….

I do not think that Bergman has ever created a more admirable character than Marianne in Wild Strawberries. With her we move from the limited consideration of animal need to the potential stature of women as autonomous human beings. (p. 138)

In Wild Strawberries … Bergman develops an attractive character who manages to steer a middle course between, on one hand, the outright narcissism and escapist self-assertion too frequently urged upon women by feminist militants, and a more traditional accommodation to an ongoing 'male' reality…. [Though] Bergman has developed as an artist in the course of more than thirty years, he is no less taken with autonomous women than he ever was, and no less likely to note psychological and emotional dangers implicit in too great an insistence upon liberation. Always his films ask not only, 'liberation from what?' but 'liberation to what?' (p. 139)

Bergman's autonomous women do not always succeed in making satisfactory lives for themselves, and there are times when insistence upon one's own truth, or the truth, or justice, goes against the grain of one's real interests. In Through A Glass Darkly Karin is a defeated and psychotic young woman whose recovery is inhibited by her inability to live with the partial truths that others in her family require. Though her husband loves and cares for her, and puts up with her 'episodes' and delusions, she regularly accuses him of insensitivity, as though if he only tried harder he'd be able to divine the needs which she herself can hardly identify. Bergman admires Karin for her fanatical determination to get at the truth of her feelings and to resist the easy pretenses of others who love her, but he knows that she's not likely to find satisfaction in her refusal to 'let up.' If ultimately the character is "soiled" by her sexual needs the reason has much to do with her failure to integrate sexual need and mundane attachment….

Bergman also admires the psychotic determination of Elisabeth Vogler in Persona,… but he sees as well the suffering and coldness of spirit required to purchase extreme autonomy. Does Bergman wilfully punish women who resist families, husbands, children, who turn their backs on the biological calling? No more so than he punishes men who are cold and all but indifferent to their functions as integrated human being. (p. 140)

Ms. Mellen [see excerpt above] and others have for long contended that "the personalities of Bergman's women are fixed and pre-conceived; they exist beyond change and development." Surely Scenes From A Marriage should put to rest such contentions, though they might as well have been served by the portrait of Sister Alma in Persona.

To conclude all this, may we say simply, that Bergman is not guilty as charged with respect to his treatment of women;… his films ask to be treated with a grave caution which respects the plurality of his intentions and the scruple with which he examines states of feeling. No literate film-goer can afford to shut himself, or herself, to the rigorous probings of Bergman's camera eye. (p. 141)

Robert Boyers, "Bergman and Women," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1978 by Skidmore College), No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 131-41.

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