The twenty years between Saraband and the next most recent Ingmar Bergman film, After the Rehearsal, do not amount to an unprecedented directorial hiatus. Terrence Malick stayed away for the exact same term between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, and George Lucas, although active as a producer, empire builder, special-effects industrialist, and all-around moneymaker, topped both of them by letting twenty-two years go by between Star Wars and Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. At least two things make Bergman's return the more noteworthy, or three things if we count artistic stature. One would be his age upon his comeback, and the other would be his overall career productivity prior to that. Malick and Lucas were each fifty-five when they resettled themselves in the director's chair, after having made but two films and three films respectively. Bergman, on the other hand, eighty-six years old at the completion of Saraband, had made, up until his disappearance, over forty films in under forty years (one of the ways in which he has been an inspiration to Woody Allen), and it was little wonder that he was unable to restrain himself after his officially announced "retirement" with Fanny and Alexander, a year before After the Rehearsal. Furthermore -- stop the presses! -- the Internet Movie Database discloses that Bergman has, in point of fact, directed several other things in the meantime for Swedish television, none of which ever found its way to U.S. screens. (Saraband and After the Rehearsal, after all, were made for TV, too, so that's no difference.) His hiatus may therefore be only an illusion, but to our eyes his absence looks every bit as long as Malick's, just two bits less than Lucas's.
And Bergman, in any case, could yet lay claim to the record for the longest interval between a sequel and its predecessor, or more particularly a sequel in the hands of the same director and actors: that proviso would rule out, for example, the thirty-four years separating National Velvet fromInternational Velvet, or the fifty-five years separating Gone with the Wind from the TV miniseries, Scarlett. The nice round thirty years since Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, whose central couple resurface now in Saraband, will dwarf the nice round twenty years, let's say, between Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman and his A Man and a Woman: Twenty Years Later, or the measly sixteen years between Parts II and III of Coppola's Godfather saga. (What am I not thinking of?) But this distinction, if indeed it belongs to Bergman, has its drawbacks. It adds, to begin with, the weight of another ten years of anticipation onto a film that turns out to be something of a trifle. Scenes from a Marriage, in my estimation the last top-grade sample of Bergman's art, would have been a tough act to follow under any circumstances: a nearly three-hour feature film cut down from six hour-long episodes for Swedish television, subsequently shown in its entirety on American television as well. Then, too, Saraband emerges as a less than legitimate sequel.
Constructed in ten distinct acts, or chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue (Scenes from a Divorce, if you please), it is no longer about a marriage, nor is it even predominantly about the two former marrieds. Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) have not communicated with one another in the three decades since the conclusion of the earlier film, until Marianne, musing over a jumble of old snapshots, takes it into her head to get back in touch, to pay a visit. She is now sixty-three ("and they've taken away my ovaries and uterus"), and he, like Bergman himself, is eighty-six. But Marianne, as it develops, will function as little more than a witness to the main order of business, a power struggle between the now wealthy and retired Johan and his down-and-out widower son (by another woman) over the schooling of the latter's daughter, a gifted cellist whose instruction has heretofore been left to her incestuously possessive father, not averse, in true Bergmanly fashion, to expressing his feelings through hitting. (Bergman, you might recall, has been titillated by the idea of a female cellist as far back as his unfunny comedy, All These Women, titillated, to be blunt about it, by the idea of a female cellist needing to spread open her legs.) The four characters, total, have been likened by their creator to the concertino in a concerto grosso. I'm not clear where the orchestra would be. I don't see why they're not simply a quartet.
The direct address to the camera in the prologue, to be repeated in the epilogue, makes for an inauspicious start, a bit lazy, a bit lubberly. (Maybe a bit rusty?) And the ensuing ten acts, or chapters, or scenes, look a bit like a soap-operatic TV play, an impression possibly heightened by the shooting in digital video. (Et tu, Ingmar?) It is quite shocking how fast the old fatigue comes back to you, how quickly you again tire of people talking to each other as people talk nowhere but in a Bergman film: "Who the hell said damnation was supposed to be fun?" And: "There's a healthy dose of hatred in your general mushiness." And: "I hate him so much I'd happily watch him die of some horrible disease." And so on. I say "you," but obviously I mean "me." Had I already, to my surprise, heard enough of that sort of thing -- humorless, sadistic, disgusted, self-dramatizing, self-pitying, self-loathing -- to last me the rest of my life? (Will today's college sophomore, unborn when a Bergman film was last released to American theaters, hear it differently? Will he even listen?) If the effect had not taken hold so fast, it might have been merely disappointing instead of shocking. One scene, a very late scene, gives a taste of what we would have expected from a satisfactory sequel: when Johan comes into Marianne's bedroom in the grip of the night sweats (at the Hour of the Wolf, if I know my Bergman), and crawls into her bed to seek comfort from his glimpse of the abyss. That's the one spot at which I did not feel like a total ingrate, a Judas. For the rest, it's hard not to hear a broader implication when Marianne sizes up her visit, "This was a mistake."