Reunions arent all theyre cracked up to be, especially if the reunion in question involves two characters from a 30-year-old Ingmar Bergman movie. Endless talk of death, cancer, regret, betrayal, disability and emotional impotence: Its all just another night at the movies for the famed Swedish master of mortality. Although hes been churning out the occasional script, the 87-year-old vowed long ago never to direct another film. He came out of his self-imposed isolation to craft this swan song, a compact, biting follow-up to 1975s brilliant relationship drama, Scenes from a Marriage. If youre a fan of that film, Saraband will provide some closure to the off-again, on-again affair between Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and her poisonous ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). But be warned: No one ever really gets closure in a Bergman film.
Although it begins as sweetly as one of those golden years movies you might see on network television, it doesnt take long for the characters to revisit old wounds and resentments. A true chamber drama, Saraband takes place in a remote location the elderly Johans summer cottage where he lives with a son from another marriage, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), and his granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Into this insular world walks Marianne, long out of touch with her ex and looking to reunite, at least as friends, before his death. While Johan may be less of a negative influence on her than he once was, she quickly learns that hes caused irreparable damage in the lives of his offspring. Emotionally shunned by his father, Henrik is now a bitter, shattered man who never recovered from losing his wife Anna to cancer. Now, hes transferred his suffocating love for Anna to Karin, a cello prodigy whose future both Henrik and Johan want to control. Marianne bonds with Karin no doubt seeing similarities in their predicaments but the years of familial neglect may be too much for the aging woman to undo.
The four leads are faultless, and through the use of carefully composed close-ups, the director coaxes performances of heartrending intimacy from them. This is a film about reserved people whose voluntary confinement has caused them to lash out in unexpected and sometimes shocking ways: Its emotional but never melodramatic. Life has become a ritual, Johan says, and Bergman goes on to explore how that ritual can be passed on, seemingly genetically, from father to son. This sequel may not have the mood or scope of Scenes from a Marriage its less episodic and far more plot-driven but the directors delicate camera movements and intentionally claustrophobic use of space are as effective as they ever were. Watching Saraband, its like he never stopped making films at all.
In Swedish with English subtitles. 7 and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2-3; 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 4. The Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].