The great American film critic Manny Farber memorably declared space to be the most dramatic stylistic entity in the visual arts. He posited three primary types of space in fiction cinema: the field of the screen, the psychological space of the actor, and the area of experience and geography that the film covers. This book brings together five French directors who have established themselves as among the most exciting and significant working today: Bruno Dumont, Robert Guediguian, Laurent Cantet, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Claire Denis. It proposes that people think about cinematographic space in its many different forms simultaneously (screenspace, landscape, narrative space, soundscape, spectatorial space). Through a series of close and original readings of selected films, it posits a new 'space of the cinematic subject'. Dumont's attraction to real settings and locality suggests a commitment to realism. New forms and surfaces of spectatorship provoke new sensations and engender new kinds of perception, as well as new ways of understanding and feeling space. The book interrogates Guediguian's obsessive portrayal of one particular city, Marseilles. Entering into the spaces of work and non-work in Cantet's films, it asks what constitutes space and place within the contemporary field of social relations. The book also engages with cultural space as the site of social integration and metissage in the work of Kechiche, his dialogues with diasporic communities and highly contested urban locales. Denis's film work contains continually shifting points of passage between inside and outside, objective and subjective, in the restless flux.
Over the years, Ingmar Bergman has been hailed by journalists as a visionary director, with the capacity to convey to an international audience—via films as diverse as The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1956), Persona (1966) and Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982)—insights into the times when the films were made, as well as into more universal concerns. Myrna Oliver’s headline in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Cinema’s Brooding Auteur of the Psyche: His Work Opened the Door for Foreign Film in the US’, captures the essence of newspaper articles released on Bergman’s death, claiming that this ‘visionary’ auteur redefined cinema by confronting the big questions concerning existence and God.1 Through creative manipulation of images, sounds, and words, Bergman’s films explore faith, human relationships, and communication. That Bergman died on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni (30 July 2007) was also seen as significant. Xan Brooks from the British newspaper The Guardian wrote: ‘It remains to be seen whether this giddy spell signals the onset of some art-house apocalypse.’2 A.O. Scott from The New York Times commented:
[T]he simultaneity was startling. Not only because they were both great filmmakers, but more because, in their prime, Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman were seen as the twin embodiments of the idea that a filmmaker could be, without qualification or compromise, a great artist.3
However, the label ‘artist’, with the expectations that it entails in terms of the ability to communicate meaningfully and to connect with the human condition, could be torturous to bear, especially as Bergman often publicly declared a desire to be perceived simply as one of many craftspeople working on a product. Throughout Bergman’s career, some critics also railed against ‘the visionary Bergman’, often because of his exalted status as a supreme artist, for allegedly regurgitating the same themes, outdated symbols, or self-preoccupied fixations. Scathing criticism did not pass Bergman by unnoticed, and he was often his own worst critic; but feeding his own self-criticism back into his work led to films that scrutinize artists’ relationship with their audience and reflect on the process of creating a product that can itself speak vitally to human concerns.
Bergman’s films often convey the artist as a fusion of visionary and charlatan. Jof in The Seventh Seal has a visionary capacity as the travelling actor who can perceive a world beyond everyday reality. He sees the knight playing chess with Death; the Dance of Death is his vision. But he also fabricates and elaborates on his tales. When his wife Mia reminds him that he made up the story about the Devil painting the wheels red with his tail, he says that he did this so that she would believe in his other visions. While these are clearly ‘light-touch’ fabrications rather than the work of a professional charlatan, the need to make things up—to lend viability to less credible visions—opens up the notion that the visionary and the charlatan are not necessarily mutually exclusive; indeed, they often feed off each other. The Seventh Seal also begins to address the humiliations faced by the actor, stemming from the severe expectations an audience places on an artist, for example when Jof is made to perform like a bear. Visionaries and charlatans are not represented as straightforward opposites in Bergman’s filmmaking. Not only do they merge within a single figure; they also draw on each other’s energies to sustain validity and power.
However, I would like to focus on a very different figure in Bergman’s filmmaking, a figure that was particularly prominent in the late 1950s. This visionary figure is someone who (in contrast to Jof) is plagued by a deep-seated internal fear of being exposed as a charlatan. This condition constitutes the fear of an abrupt loss or lack—of being exposed as wanting, or suddenly bereft of a previously assumed persona, power, or skill. In Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), we witness a figure brimming with an extraordinary visionary capacity who is also plagued by terrors of self-doubt. The film concerns the day-long journey taken by venerated seventy-eight-year-old Professor Isak Borg from Stockholm to Lund where he is to be awarded the rare accolade of ‘jubilee doctor’, a ‘reward for both academic distinction and longevity’.4 Following the nightmare Isak has near the start of the film, which he sees as an omen, he changes his plan to fly and decides to drive the long distance to the ceremony. As Philip and Kersti French stress, ‘[w]hat he has been given is a graphic intimation of imminent mortality that suggests he should revisit the scenes of his earlier life before it is too late.’5 Along the journey he makes a number of stops, his first one at his family’s former summer house beside a lake, where Isak is ‘transported’ back to a summer spent there in his youth with his large family. The film continues with its frequent transformations between the ‘real’ locations of his journey and a series of ‘other worlds’, built out of Isak’s memories, dreams, nightmares, and visions.
When I first started thinking about this theme of charlatans and visionaries, having spent some time away from Bergman’s films, there were two specific moments that kept returning in my mind with increased persistence, both from Wild Strawberries: 1) Isak’s nightmare of the failed medical examination, and 2) the visionary ending when Isak reconjures an image of his parents across the bay where he spent his childhood. The first one, which is part of an extended dream sequence, occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film when Isak dozes off to sleep while his daughter-in-law Marianne has taken over the driving, and he is ‘haunted by vivid and disturbing nightmares’.
It is pertinent that the role of Isak is played by Victor Sjöström, the esteemed actor and illustrious director from Swedish cinema’s Golden Age. Isak, like Sjöström, has reached the pinnacle of his long, hard-earned career, and is at the final stage of his life. As Isak enters his childhood summer house at night-time, and hangs his coat on the peg as he might have done many times before, the sequence’s uncanniness escalates as the familiar space becomes the strange long corridor that leads to the examination room. In the auditorium sit the young hitchhikers he has picked up on his journey—Sara (played by Bibi Andersson) and the sparring young men, Viktor and Anders, who fight for Sara’s affections.
Handing over his examination book, Isak is required to identify the bacterial specimen under the microscope. He sees nothing, only what appears to be his own eye: ‘there seems to be something wrong’, he says, but the examiner replies, ‘Not with the microscope.’ He cannot decipher the words on the board. When he pretends to remember the doctor’s first duty and laughs towards the audience of ‘friends’, their expressions remain grave. Accused of ‘guilt’, which he is told is a serious accusation, he pleads that he is an old man with a weak heart, but his plea is rejected; there is nothing about his heart in the notes. He attempts to follow orders, using the blinding examination light to analyse the patient. But he wrongly diagnoses her as ‘dead’; he is exposed as a fraud when she opens her eyes and laughs at him. The examiner’s notes reveal the final verdict that he is ‘incompetent’. Following this scene, Isak is taken to woods where (in what seems to be a vision constructed from memories) he witnesses his wife with another man, but the infidelity only reflects back further guilt upon himself for spending too much time on his work. However, it is the failing of the medical test that I find most poignant here because it represents the heightened terror of being exposed as a charlatan. This has a nightmarish intensity because it is the area in which he feels most secure—into which he has put so much of his energies—and from which he has so far to fall. Even the fabric of language and understanding has become alien to him, and to us. The skills and knowledge that he has devoted his life to accumulating are simply lacking, lost, or forgotten—in a world that ceases to make sense. Professional expertise is not a given.
It is important to keep this examination sequence in mind while moving on to consider the visionary ending of Wild Strawberries—the few encounters that occur following the evening ceremony at Lund, culminating with Isak’s vision of his parents across the bay. Wild Strawberries helped open up new possibilities in cinema with its movement between external and internal realities, as well as across space and time. Time is a key factor. While Isak’s exterior guise remains that of the frail old man, the visions are conjured via the recollection of seeing through much younger eyes. As Isak settles for bed, faint singing can be heard as though from another room, or the radio, but Isak realizes it is the young hitchhikers serenading him from just below his window. Afterwards Sara leans upwards, calling out, ‘[i]t’s you I really love. Today, tomorrow, always.’ Isak smiles, saying that he will remember. Once they are virtually out of sight, he pronounces: ‘Let me hear from you.’ There is both the sense that Isak knows that this is a transitory moment which the youngsters are likely to forget and the sense that at the same time Sara’s sentiment—uttered in a fleeting moment—lasts a lifetime. The modern-day Sara is a mirror of his cousin and childhood sweetheart Sara, also played by Andersson in the flashbacks earlier in the film, who, we learn, ended up marrying Isak’s brother because of Isak’s cold detachment and naïvety. The pledge of eternal love comes as a sign to him; rather than being deluded by it, the statement itself is enough for him. It is something to hold on to against the wound of his lost childhood love.
The positioning of Isak as child (as well as old man) is made clear throughout the scene that leads into his final pre-sleep vision. Firstly, as his elderly housekeeper, Miss Agda, puts him to bed, she gives him his medicine, turns off his light, closes the curtains and asks him if he has brushed his teeth. On her way out, she declares that she will leave the door ajar, saying: ‘You know where I am if you want anything.’ Following this vision, Isak is partially reconciled with his son Evald, and there is an affectionate closeness with Marianne. Isak shows real concern for the well-being of their relationship. These paternal cares are significant, but so is Isak’s continued and simultaneous positioning as a child. As Edward Gallafent brings to light, ‘[t]he final confirmation of this scenario is the appearance of Marianne, unmistakably in the role of glamorous mother figure, who arrives to show off her dancing shoes to this child for a moment, to exchange endearments and to bestow a night-time kiss.’6 I suggest that as Isak settles, and his voice-over leads into the final visions built out of his childhood memories, these scenes that site Isak as simultaneously old and young help to frame the specific focus, and fluidity, of the final visions. The final scenes are probably not to be taken as precise memories, but rather as moments and tableaus made up of fragments of the past. These are pre-sleep illusions that Isak consciously conjures as a powerful means of restoring a sense of inner calm to prevail over the inner tensions evident earlier in the film, when he falls asleep in the car. Sara’s words to Isak—‘There are no wild strawberries left’—have a dreamlike and symbolic quality, providing a sense that time is running out or moving on. Her directive to look for his papa, and her statement that they will sail around the island and meet him on the other side, suggests a sense of moving from one realm to another.
As Sara speaks to Isak, she almost looks the spectator in the eye. We have become placed in Isak’s position. But still there seems to be a barrier between Sara and Isak, or between Sara and us. She says, ‘Come, I’ll help you’ direct to Isak/us; but the edit from this shot to the next transforms her across to Isak’s ‘side’, reinforcing their renewed togetherness (see Figures 15.1 and 15.2).
Isak looks slightly alarmed at first, as if he is wondering if he is really up to engaging directly with her—the human contact is initially surprising. At this point, as Gallafent points out, ‘a shift has taken place in Isak’s relation to the figures of the past’.7 Previously, he was either invisible to the characters of his memories or there was not a positive connection. This significant edit thus helps to accentuate their closeness to each other. As Sara first takes Isak’s hand and they look over to the quay, the scene is full of energy, life, and noise, as some of his family are depicted pushing one of the members into the water, splashing, squealing, and shouting. The cut back shows Isak (while still quite separate from the scene) looking over to it, happily laughing. When Sara takes Isak to see his parents across the bay, she and Isak are bathed in a balmy evening sunlight—so different from the stark midday light of the film’s first nightmare sequence. The quiet is punctuated by a rising harp chord and the sounds of birds tweeting.
The vision of the parents has a tableau, painting-like, quality to it, and the couple are at first absorbed in their separate (traditionally gendered) activities: the father fishing, the mother sewing.8 The parents break momentarily, as the mother waves and the father looks over. The cut to Isak’s face shows him truly amazed. It is a child’s wonder tinged with an adult’s appreciation—of such a fleeting moment of the ordinary, as the parents return to their activities. The close-up on Isak’s face slowly dissolves to him smiling as he turns over in bed. While the realms of dreams/imagination/memory and those of reality are on the whole carefully cued throughout Wild Strawberries, the film’s format of interspersing dreams with the real world was nevertheless perceived as bold at the time of its release.9 Bergman’s recollection that the film’s genesis was founded on the notion of moving between different spatial and temporal spheres suggests that this was something new:
Then it struck me: supposing I make a film of someone coming along, perfectly realistically, and suddenly opening a door and walking into his childhood? And then opening another door and walking out into reality again? And then walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life, and everything still alive and going on as before? That was the real starting point for Wild Strawberries.10
The ending conveys a return visit to Isak’s ‘smultronstället’ (the wild-strawberry place of his childhood wonder) where it does not matter whether moments are fabricated or ‘real’—where there are many layers of time and space each as real as the other. There is a hint of a shift in style at this point of time in Bergman’s filmmaking, a shift that would pave the way towards expressing multiple, more fluid, perspectives.
The visionary-charlatan duality is further explored in The Face (The Magician, Ansiktet, 1958), this time with a focus on the figure of the artist-scientist-medic. When Doctor Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre arrives in town, the members of the troupe are questioned by sceptical officials. Taken to task by the rationalist medical councillor, Dr Vergerus, Vogler is interrogated as a charlatan, not for his magical tricks per se but for the way they are advertised—mixed with claims to induce visions and to possess spiritual healing powers, practising Mesmer’s methods. But this is not a straightforward de-masking of the artist-illusionist. The officials in turn are exposed as fraudulent, the Police Commissioner as corrupt and abusive. While Vogler is to some degree demasked and emasculated, and the spiritual powers are mostly shown to be illusions, a number of inexplicable happenings occur through the film. Fake potions are sold; but the old woman who makes them, Granny Vogler, has considerable clairvoyant powers. Once Dr Vogler’s costume is removed, so is his allure; but the issue also lies in the blind faith that others have in Vogler’s life-force—in a visionary power that he never professes to possess. Vogler’s young, seemingly male, assistant ‘Aman’ turns out to be his wife, Manda. However, it is also the case that her off-stage appearance as ‘wife’—sporting the long blond hair—is as much a performance as her on-stage one, as Daniel Humphrey suggests: ‘Manda’s newly seen femininity appears to be as much, or even more, a costumed, culturally conditioned performance as her previous androgynous appearance.’11 When asked by Vergerus if her husband’s muteness is real, Manda replies, ‘Nothing is true.’ We might take this simply as a reference to the lie that they live, or—reading on another level—interpret these aspects as early indicators of the breaking of an essentialist core at the heart of Bergman’s films, one that is capable of shattering the dichotomous relationship between truth and falsity, or ‘visionary’ and ‘charlatan’. Near the start of the film, the dying actor Spegel criticizes the book Aman is reading, saying that ‘the author presumes a large general truth somewhere in the backdrop – it’s an illusory theory’. Aman (or Manda)—rather like an uncanny forerunner of the androgynous character Ismael in Fanny and Alexander (twenty-four years later)—manages to incite the inexplicable when she binds the coachman with invisible chains, a force he is unable to resist.
Figures whose visions transgress borders, time-frames, and different stages of life reappear frequently in Bergman’s filmmaking and remain strong in his later work. Most prominent in this respect is Fanny and Alexander, which was reportedly inspired by Bergman’s childhood memories of his grandmother’s apartment—vivid within the imagination to the minutest detail, and brought alive as ghosts and visions encountered by the children enshroud the everyday. I suggest that Fanny and Alexander centres upon the vision, shared by the character Isak Jacobi, of multiple realities ‘one outside the other’, inspired by the thematic concerns of Bergman’s 1960s and ’70s films such as Persona, Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968), and Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop, 1972). Fanny and Alexander acknowledges the fluidity, and fragility, of identity, conveying visions, ghosts, and dreams coinciding with the everyday, breaking free to some extent from the flashback mechanisms and dream cues evident in Wild Strawberries. I suggest that the grand christening scene near the film’s end casts a cynical eye over the comfortable, old, chauvinistic ways of the Ekdahl household, and should thus be read in a very different light from Wild Strawberries’ final dream vision of Isak’s parents, a vision denoting his harmony and inner peace. The final scene, which acts like a vital postscript or antidote to the grand Epilogue, conveys Fanny and Alexander’s mother, Emilie, with their grandmother, Helena, pointing towards a new way, whereupon the women have some control (Emilie: ‘It’s up to us now isn’t it’).
Nevertheless, a particular series of events in Fanny and Alexander comes to mind that links back, in a single moment, to the visionary ending of Wild Strawberries. Helena, herself something of a visionary, is alone at home, one long rainy summer day, while the rest of the family are out on their annual excursion to Black Rock, and she senses that something is wrong with the children. Through cross-cutting (in the longer, television, version) we know that Alexander is about to be cruelly punished by his new stepfather, the Bishop, for his fantasies and the stories he tells.12 At one point in the day, the camera sweeps over the lush, thriving plants as rain falls outside Helena’s house; it tilts to observe a rusty, upturned pram, before the cut to inside—to Helena in her chair, and a close-up on her sleeping face. Her dead son, Oscar (Fanny and Alexander’s father), suddenly appears by her side and pulls a chair closer to touch her cheek. As she wakes up, her first words, as though mid-conversation, are ‘Yes, Oscar, that’s how it is. One is old and a child at the same time.’ As Maaret Koskinen writes about this moment, Helena is ‘obviously talking just as much about herself as her son’s apparition’.13 Helena questions what happened to all the years in between. She touches Oscar’s grown-man’s hands, remembering them as small, and talks about her many roles in life (none perceived as fake, but nevertheless all a performance). Suddenly, Oscar’s facial expression and voice become like that of an anxious boy as he confirms that he, too, is worried about the children, affirming—and perpetuating—Helena’s prophetic vision. Visionary insights are represented as powerful forces in Fanny and Alexander.
Thus, while Fanny and Alexander is ideologically a very different film from Wild Strawberries, a testament to the different times in which they were made, it is possible to witness a striking parallel between these two moments of Isak Borg and Helena Ekdahl—at once old and seeing as though through much younger eyes—as if time between the films momentarily stands still. I suggest there is a further visionary capacity to the performances of Gunn Wållgren (who played Helena) and Sjöström (who played Isak), especially in the knowledge that neither was to live that long after the filming of these evocative moments. I find a particular resonance in the brief moment in Wild Strawberries when Sara walks Isak across the field to find his parents. For a split second, Isak (or Sjöström) stumbles and Sara (or Andersson) holds him up a little, as they continue walking.
This split second of fragility recalls a story recounted by Bergman that Sjöström did not want to carry on with the filming of this scene because the perfect sunlit evening required him to work too late in the day. Apparently, Sjöström had taken a lot of persuading by Bergman to take on Wild Strawberries in the first place, and one of the agreed conditions was that Sjöström would be home every day in time for his usual whisky at 4.30pm.14 The final evening scene would entail breaking this agreement. Of course, after crossly walking off set, Sjöström did return, and when the camera ran, his face relaxed perfectly on cue to produce this time-shattering moment of elegance. It only occurred to Bergman years later that Sjöström’s rage was ‘nothing but an ungovernable fear of finding himself inadequate—of not being good enough’.15 Insisting he never wanted to take it on, or that he was too old and frail, was a safety net against this exposure.
This can be related to portraits of Bergman himself. In 1998, twenty years before the Centenary Jubilee, Jörn Donner in an interview asks Bergman (who was eighty years old at this point) what he likes to imagine people would say about the figure ‘Bergman’ in twenty years’ time. Bergman replies that future heritage is not what motivates him, and that the ‘Bergman’ that has become part of everyday language across multiple nations feels like someone else. The important thing, he says, is that he has a rehearsal on Tuesday, which still fills him with great fear as insomnia engulfs him: no matter that he has done it before, or that he is world famous; he thinks only, ‘[l]et this rehearsal go well. Let it be meaningful.’16 Until the rehearsal gets going, he is terrified that suddenly the ability to make something living and moving will be taken away:
The only thing that means anything when I am working is that the work should be meaningful for those who do it, and then also be alive, so that it will live its own life. That is the only thing I’m afraid of, and God knows that I’m terribly afraid of it, and that is that suddenly the ability to make something living and moving – that that will be taken away from me or I will lose it.17
He fears that he will no longer know how to do it, or that time will run out on him. The gaining of a lifetime’s experience does not ease these anxieties. Bergman presents filmmaking as an activity built out of the striving, as a craftsman, to create a product that lives and is meaningful.
Running through Bergman’s filmmaking is the drive to communicate insightful visions and scenarios that will touch lives, dissolving boundaries of space and time and between old age and childhood. The preoccupation with strict (true/false) binaries of understanding seems to break down in Bergman’s work, particularly from the mid-1960s onwards, as notions of stable identities and worlds begin to fracture. Fanny and Alexander can to some extent be seen as a celebration of multiple realms and identities, or possibilities, and in this sense as a film providing a vision that entails a liberation from some of the strict labels and masks that have traditionally governed people’s lives, sometimes at the expense of happiness and well-being. In the representations of Bergman’s off-screen persona, however, we also see a fear that has become engrained in his work ethic—and one that most of us might share—of not being capable. This engrained fear saw Bergman’s continuing endurance—wrapped up in an unrelenting attendance to duty—that fuelled a lifelong compulsion to produce. The artist charlatan and the medical charlatan speak to the vision of the self as fraud that we see in our nightmares—of not being able, in our professions, to create or to perform—to make the deadline, to achieve the right level, to deliver what we have advertised. An empty product. This is a malady that haunts Bergman’s films of the late 1950s specifically, but it also appears to have played an entrenched role as a creative force in Bergman’s day-to-day working life.