Watched this twice, since one of Katy’s birthday presents to me was sitting still for four hours while I showed her two of my favorite recently-watched movies: this one (success!) and Certified Copy (failure). Maybe a dumb birthday present, but it was my own idea, so I’m the dummy.
Obviously I loved this, since I watched twice before even getting to a journal entry. With its comic scenes of relationship-swapping and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it reminded me of The Magician, which I also loved.
Okay, lotta characters. Lead guy Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand, the scientist who squares off vs. The Magician) is a serious attorney with a stern beard and a grown son (conflicted theology student Henrik: Bjorn Bjelfvenstam of Wild Strawberries) by his dead wife. Egerman’s young wife of three years, Anna (Ulla Jacobsson of Zulu), is still a virgin, acts like a kid, treats her husband like a father and spends much quality time with Henrik. I think we all see where this is going.
Desiree with a foolish-looking Egerman:
Enter Egerman’s ex-mistress, the perfectly poised blonde actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck of Varda’s Les créatures, Bergman’s Dreams and Secrets of Women), then while Egerman is at her place in his pajamas one night, enter her current lover, the duel-happy Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle of Babette’s Feast, Fanny and Alexander), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist of To Joy) loves/hates/obsesses over him, the pair of them sharing a competitive spirit.
Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm:
All these counts and rich lawyers are balanced by Petra (Harriet Andersson, Monika herself), Egerman’s maid, who flirts shamelessly with Henrik, tormenting him further, and ends up rolling in the hay with Frid (Ake Fridell, even less serious here than as The Magician‘s assistant Tubal), a servant in Desiree’s mother’s house. They’re all such great characters, and Desiree’s mother (Naima Wifstrand, granny in The Magician) might actually be the best, a woman too old and rich to give a damn about what she says or who it offends.
Desiree gets all these characters invited to dinner at her mother’s house, concocts a secret plan with the Countess. I’m not sure if the plan goes off as they intended, but the end results are good. Henrik elopes with his step-mom and Desiree is back with Egerman (shamed and blackened by his wife’s disappearance and his loss at Russian Roulette to the Count with a soot-filled pistol), leaving the Count back with his wife – for now, at least. Despite the romantic-comedy genre, I wasn’t sure Katy would go for it because of the Bergmanness of it all, not to mention the two suicide attempts – if either truly counts as a suicide attempt. Henrik pathetically ties a noose to an ornamental thing on the wall, which immediately breaks, and he falls into a button on the wall, activating a clockwork device that slides young Anna from her bedroom into his own.
Apparently the film that turned Bergman’s career around after years of commercial failures. He says in his intro that he’s always been able to do whatever he wants since this came out, winning the “best poetic humor” award at Cannes, which sounds like something the jury made up just so this wouldn’t go empty-handed after The Silent World took the palm. Remade as a Stephen Sondheim musical in the 70’s with Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree.
In this vanished setting, nothing lasts, there are no winners in the game of love; all victories are ultimately defeats—only the game goes on. When Eva Dahlbeck, as the actress, wins back her old lover, her plot has worked — but she really hasn’t won much. She caught him because he gave up; they both know he’s defeated. Smiles is a tragic comedy; the man who thought he “was great in guilt and in glory” falls — he’s “only a bumpkin.” This is a defeat we can all share — for have we not all been forced to face ourselves as less than we hoped to be? There is no lesson, no moral … The glorious old Mrs. Armfeldt tells us that she can teach her daughter nothing—or, as she puts it: “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That’s what makes one so tremendously weary.”
Music influences … Bergman more deeply when he adopts its rhythms for the structure of his films. More kinetic scenes alternate with more stationary ones, agitation with sedateness. And there are the strategically recurrent themes. Thus the photographs of Anne that Fredrik picks up in the beginning, that he makes more of as he fingers them than he does of his trophy wife near the middle, and that get symbolically pocketed by Desirée near the end. Various clocks strike hortatorily, notably the cuckoo clock for cuckoldry in Desirée’s parlor, and the church tower clock with its circling carved figures corresponding to some of the film’s characters, a roundelay that first ends with a symbolically crowned female figure, next with the grim reaper. The dance of life, climaxing with the dominant female, can as easily become the dance of death.