At the age of 86, decades after he'd announced he was done making movies, Ingmar Bergman--the brilliant, angst-ridden Swede who virtually defined and ruled the art film in the 1950s and '60s--has given us one more. It's likely that "Saraband," which stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as Marianne and Johan, the long-divorced couple from 1973's "Scenes From a Marriage," is Bergman's swan song. But it is anything but mellow or nostalgic. It's as urgent, personal and emotionally savage as anything he's done: a fierce and moving examination of familial and conjugal love--its limits, its frailty, its destructiveness, its necessity.
The 63-year-old Marianne has not seen her ex-husband in 30 years when she impulsively seeks out the reclusive, caustic Johan, now 86, at his country home. But "Saraband" isn't really a sequel to the earlier film. Marianne becomes a witness to the family crisis that erupts after her arrival. This involves Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), Johan's 61-year-old son from his first marriage, a chubby, unstable widower and failed musician whom Johan holds in utter contempt, and who loathes his father with an equal ferocity. Henrik's 19-year-old daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), is a promising cello player smothered by her father's love--which comes dangerously close to incest. Hovering like a ghost is the idealized specter of Karin's late mother, Anna, a woman beloved by all. Rarely has so poisonous a father-son relationship been depicted on screen; rarely has so unsettling a father-daughter bond been explored.
"Saraband," shot on digital video, unfolds in a series of 10 numbered scenes, each a confrontation between two characters. (A saraband is an erotic dance for two dancers, and the name of a movement in Bach's cello suites.) Each is a demonstration of Bergman's unflinching psychological insight and his ability to extract performances of scalding honesty from his actors. Ullmann and Josephson have proved their depths many times over, in many of Bergman's greatest films; the revelation here is Ahlstedt. His stooped, soft-faced Henrik, humiliated by his father when he comes to borrow money to buy his daughter a vintage cello, initially seems a pitiable figure. Then, in a startling scene in church with Marianne, he suddenly turns on her, and we see how deformed he is by his own venom. It's a harrowing performance. The cruelty Bergman sees in his male characters is, he leaves no doubt, a form of confession; the compassion and understanding he sees in Marianne, Karin and the unseen Anna is a form of hope. With "Saraband," the great writer-director has stepped back into the ring for one last epic wrestle with his demons. There is, as always, no easy outcome. But no one ever fought for higher emotional and spiritual stakes.