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Scarlet Letter's Last Blush | The Nation

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Scarlet Letter's Last Blush

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REBELS WITH A CAUSE

A director, now an old man, alone, sits in his tidy house by the sea, everything in its place, the notebooks piled in their drawer, the letter opener and pen neatly on the desk. He conjures up his dead lover, an attractive actress named Marianne. She settles into the window seat, or sits in a chair opposite him, or, more rarely, strolls briefly around the room as she flashes back through her life with him and without him, by turns caustically, tenderly, revealingly, angrily. Through watery, startled, wounded, even yearning eyes, he stares at her and at himself years earlier. For entr'acte punctuation, he stares out the window toward the rolling sea, and three or four times even walks toward it. That, and a couple of Paris-from-the-rooftops shots, are among the few shifts from this movie's claustrophobic interiors and tight head shots and static camera setups. Welcome to Faithless. Premiered at last fall's New York Film Festival, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, the movie takes 150 minutes, more or less, to relive one extramarital affair and its aftermath.

The setup? Marianne (the beautiful and talented Lena Endre, whose performance is one of the film's best aspects) is married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor who's rich, powerful and handsome. They have a daughter, the saucer-eyed preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Markus's best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a pudgy, morose, egocentric, not-quite-unsuccessful director. One night David shows up when Markus is on tour, and asks Marianne to sleep with him. She is startled, then agrees to sleep--and only that--with him. And so she does, but the seed of adultery is planted. She fantasizes about David, approaches him and kisses him on the lips (his characteristic response: "This is serious") and decides to meet him in Paris while Markus is in Detroit at a recording session. They agree to "discover" they'll be in Paris at the same time during Markus's farewell dinner, and the affair begins.

Throughout its twists and turns, angst prevails, as steady and remorseless as the unwavering camera's medium-to-close-up range, through flickering moments of sex and happiness. For the older though not much wiser David has conjured a Marianne less Eurydice than Emma Bovary. She's ironic, introspective, optimistic, yet armed with an existentialist sensibility, although somehow--it's unclear whether this reflects the general human condition or whether Marianne is yet another woman in movie-love who pays the wages of sin--she never quite manages to understand why these things are happening to her. She stays almost willfully blind to probable chains of events even when she's set them in motion herself.

Watch how she persistently teases Markus on the eve of his departure about her being with David in Paris. She nudges him into suspicion without a clue that that's what she's done--until he shows up, months later, to confront her in David's bed. In one of the film's most human and effective scenes, she and David blur between laughter and tears while Markus rages and guilt-trips and swaggers and simply stares.

From there on, things unravel relentlessly. There are Isabelle's emotional traumas; an aborted death pact between Markus and Isabelle; David's calculated outbreaks of violent jealousy (in one scene, he asks Marianne about previous lovers, then throws her around after she tells of Markus's sexual power over her); Marianne's unconvincing analyses of herself and her world (she insists to David that she likes simplicity, where he insists things must always be more complicated than they seem); her abortion of David's child after she's screwed Markus several times in one night as part of a "deal" to get custody of Isabelle (all-powerful Social Services looks askance at her future with David); and the affair's last spasms and final collapse. Like a revenge tragedy, it ends with nearly everyone dead, and the old man once more walking toward the sea, meditating on drowning.

Even compared with Bergman's 1973 TV series Scenes From a Marriage, there's a remarkable amount of talk here, far outweighing action. Characters ponder the links, articulated and not, between sex and death, happiness and pain, and the guilt of the past unredeemed. What, Bergman seems to ask in Faithless, could be more human than to blunder or float from event to event as if this particular chain of them were wrapping its way around somebody else? Maybe nothing, but it's also a bit of a trick question: Bergman is no moral relativist. Time after time he's filmed his brooding sense that moral codes as rigid and predetermined as his camera angles underlie the apparent games of chance operating the universe. It's no mere conceit that Faithless is made from the voices of the dead in an old man's head.

Ullmann (who, in addition to her many deservedly praised starring roles in Bergman films, played the wife, also named Marianne, in Scenes) has praised Bergman's hard-won willingness to face himself in this script, mentioning its autobiographical genesis. Fair enough: The film doesn't spare middle-aged David, but it also makes him the center of Marianne's story. Here it's worth noting that Bergman is very much this movie's auteur, though he hasn't directed a feature film in eighteen years. Perhaps it's unintentional, perhaps it's a larger Bergmanesque irony, but Ullmann directs in Bergman's cinematic language in much the same way Marianne, his "muse," speaks his own thoughts.

In her fourth directorial effort (her previous film, Private Confessions, dutifullyshot another Bergman script, that one based on his parents' marriage and infidelities), Ullmann has clearly internalized her erstwhile friend and lover's deliberate, at times ponderous, pacing and pared-back camerawork, his tight shots, even his masterful flair for subtle signposts to mark a mood shift or plot turn, like changing the light or color of a scene. What is more typically Bergman than interrelations between macrocosm and microcosm?

But honesty? Aside from the nagging sense of loss that middle-aged and old David share, what does this self-described malcontent carry with him from all those grave trips down memory lane? The old man touches Marianne's face, and his own younger face too, in benediction, but it reads more like solipsism than real emotional connection.

For all its biting truths, this is a movie about talk whose talk meanders around self-examination without ever really striking self-awareness. Everyone in Faithless is trapped, by their creator's design, in a self-sealed world. Is this honesty about human reality or a kind of smug, bleak paternalism? That and its quaint take on infidelity explain why Faithless ultimately feels like a soap opera for highbrows. (Who else sits through movies with subtitles?) It lacquers an existentialist veneer onto Big Issues like Life and Love and Relationships and Death. But minus the larger framing issues that resonated through Scenes and that series' far more dramatic vicissitudes, in modern America--if not modern Scandinavia--Bergman's truths too often come off as melodramatic, heavy-handed and trite rather than timeless. We're left, in Faithless, with an almost medieval allegory that ultimately flattens human foibles into archetypal moral categories.

It's as if in his old age Bergman has forgotten his lessons from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, where real, if inevitably frail, individuals are dramatically, provocatively shaped and bent by larger forces. Scenes worked best when it followed Ibsen's lead. In Faithless, however, Bergman, like the old David (Erland Josephson, who has played the movie Bergman before), spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. When does merciless self-examination slide imperceptibly into narcissism?

Here's my problem. If there's a line separating the later Bergman's existential dilemmas from daily infusions of TV soapsuds, Scenes From A Marriage helped confuse me about where that line might be. (PBS and BBC costume dramas, movies like The English Patient and My Dinner with André, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Williams and Op-Ed pieces about media violence have the same effect on me.)

Until then, I knew I was supposed to be in awe of Bergman. I saw The Seventh Seal when I was a teenager, and like a good intellectual wannabe, entranced by Death the chess player, I voyaged through Bergman's oeuvre during high school and college. Scenes From A Marriage left me saying goodbye to all that. I guess I decided it was more fun, less patronizing and (in ways I didn't have to defend to myself anymore) more enlightening, even, to tune in to An American Family, the 1973 PBS foray into reality TV that aired at around the same time. Who remembers the Louds, Santa Barbara's favorite upper-middle-class real-life soap opera, who became inured to cameras following them through a year of their lives? One kid coming out of the closet, sex and drug problems for the others, a disintegrating marriage between the apparently sophisticated adults masquerading as parents and, through the bemusement and horror, some key issues of contemporary American life driving a cast of self-consciously avid talkers who grew remarkably sophisticated (if frequently self-contradictory), somehow conscious and unconscious about cameras and soundbites as their Andy Warhol moments of fame spun on and on and on...

A few years later, I was living in Italy when I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, his first overt homage to Bergman. My Italian was pretty good, but as I sat in the huge cold Roman theater with a smattering of chatting Italians watching the frozen, black-and-white anguish spread like molasses across the patched screen, I kept straining for punch lines that never came, making them up for myself when they didn't, finding ironies in the dubbed Italian voices emitted by actors whose accents I knew only too well. I left feeling as though I understood multiple-personality disorder from the inside--not because of the movie, exactly, but from my time in the dark spent in parallel with it.

The unintentional Brechtian effect that Interiors had on me extinguished whatever was left of my need or desire for Bergman's increasingly circumscribed world of angst and sin and guilt, even if filtered through Liv Ullmann's disciplined lens. That, of course, isn't their fault. But despite some fine moments, Faithless didn't convince me I was wrong.

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