That elegant actor, Max von Sydow, has died at the age of 90. An exponent of Swedish cinema, he lent his grave hauteur and expressivity to at least one excellent film in every decade that he worked, bringing a kind of innate decency and enigma to the work of many international film directors. His rise to global prominence came courtesy of his collaboration with Ingmar Bergman, firstly with The Seventh Seal, a defiantly eccentric work in the oeuvre of an otherwise modern filmmaker, with whom he made several masterpieces including the man haunted by nuclear war in Winter Light and he was part of Bergman’s theatre repertory company too. You could say the spectre of Death haunted von Sydow but his natural abilities were seen in other kinds of work and when he made his English-language debut it was playing Jesus, in The Greatest Story Ever Told. That religiosity, interspersed with more work with Bergman and Jan Troell and some spy thrillers, culminated in his being cast as Father Merrin in The Exorcist, making him a staple exemplar of goodness in the anglophone horror genre. He made a chillingly effective super-rational hitman in paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor opposite Robert Redford. The intellectual aspect of his performance made him ideal in Steppenwolf, a role that probably inspired Woody Allen to cast him as the temperamental artist Frederick in Hannah and Her Sisters, in which he gets a very funny line about the Holocaust. He was good at playing bad Germans – in The Quiller Memorandum and Shutter Island. And he would play a problematic Nazi-sympathising author Hamsun in the eponymous biography. For many of us we first encountered him as children, watching him as pitiless Emperor Ming in the exhilarating sci fi parody Flash Gordon and in the same spirit he gave us his Blofeld in Never Say Never Again. Most recently he appeared as Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones, with his last release Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk disaster film, The Command. But it’s perhaps in Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror that he gave his most endearing performance as the illiterate farmer. With 163 screen credits, there’s plenty to choose from. He was acting royalty. Rest in peace.
And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!
Aka Borg McEnroe. You can’t be serious! You can not be serious! The ball was on the line! The greatest tennis match of all time is played in July 1980 at Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, a gladiatorial destination for the biggest figures in the sport – the cool and enigmatic 24-year old Swede Bjorn Borg who is the ranking World No. 1 and reigns supreme on Centre Court with four titles under his belt; and the angry rude 21-year old New Yorker John McEnroe. Or so the British journalists of the era would have us think. Their rivalry transforms into a friendship – but only after they’ve played the match of their lives. Flashbacks take us back to Borg’s working class upbringing as a child and teen terror (played by Borg’s own son Leo) in which he encounters the snobbery of the Swedish tennis élite and meets the man who changes his life, Lennart Berglin (Stellan Skarsgård), manipulating him into making his volcanic temper work for him rather than against him. This is a Swedish production and the drama is tilted in Borg’s favour. Middle class McEnroe is under pressure from a tricky father-son relationship as well as his own volatility. In contrast to the match itself, which is played from an hour into the running time, this is then a rather one-sided drama. While Gudnason bears an uncanny resemblance to Borg, the psychodrama that constitutes his early years is muted in favour of an adult whose morose expressions amount to sullen indifference rather than the charming mystery presumably intended. His relationship and forthcoming marriage to fellow player Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny) are handled in a financial framework where his sponsors seem to dictate his every move. We are watching the way in which media and advertising encroached on the old gentlemanly sport, making Borg a very isolated and lonely figure, running from autograph hunters in his Monaco tax haven home to get a coffee only to discover he has no cash and the barista has no idea who he is and makes him clean up to pay for the drink. LaBeouf on the other hand is genuinely attractive as a young man who feels unjustly maligned by the British press and finds himself at the centre of a media storm, constantly being asked to justify his existence never mind his magical way with a racquet. So, one conceals, the other reveals, while McEnroe becomes obsessed with Borg. The psychology is fascinating but the flashback structure and the poor cutting of the match (a thrilling ordeal in reality) combine to congeal. There is a marvellous scene between McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms) at a London nightclub on the eve of the encounter where Borg is explained to his opponent (Gerulaits was very close to Borg and lost to him at Wimbledon in 1977). This is a story about two very similar characters who are different only in their public behaviour. If you don’t know the result of the match, well, the rather unfulfilling coda is a meeting between the two men afterwards at the airport in which they have a rudimentary exchange followed by titles helpfully informing us that they became close friends. An opportunity missed and a frustrating experience. Directed by Danish documentary-maker Janus Metz Pedersen from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl. They say he’s an iceberg, but he’s really a volcano keeping it all in, until . . . boom!
If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films. Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows: This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil). Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did, a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising: the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening: instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues. Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists
It is early Monday morning and I am in pain. At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity: here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.
I understand why you don’t speak, why you don’t move, why you’ve created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you’ve left your other parts one by one. Renowned stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) suffers a moment of blankness during a performance of Electra and the next day lapses into total silence. Advised by her doctor to take time off to recover from what appears to be an emotional breakdown, Elisabet leaves the psychiatric hospital where she has been recovering and goes to a beach house on the Baltic Sea with only Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, as company. Over the next several weeks, as Alma struggles to reach her mute patient, the two women find themselves experiencing a strange emotional convergence as the talking cure makes the nurse talk rather than the patient and images from the outside world catalyse friction… An astonishing study of identity that blurs so many lines there are none left with questions of mental health, sexual grooming, power, communication, silence and betrayal, how much of life is performance. It is a work that transports the viewer into the realm of the metaphysical. It is an astonishing example of personal filmmaking that has had enormous influence in cinema. The shot in which Ullmann’s face merges with that of Andersson is unforgettable. This is perfect cinema in terms of conception, execution and performance, strange and erotic, mysterious and scary. Bergman stated of it: I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.
Aka The Communicants. The passion of Christ, his suffering… Wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) a pastor in a Swedish village handles his own existential crisis as he fails a fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) who is suicidal about the possibility of nuclear annihilation; and his former mistress, local schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) whom he doesn’t think is as good as his late wife … Some years ago at a dinner party I was asked what I thought of Bergman. Being a smartass, I responded, Ingmar – or Andrew? That was my way of sidestepping a tough question about an auteur who can simultaneously leave me cold and move me unbearably. This is one of a loosely connected spiritual trilogy (known as Silence of God) which Bergman himself said tackled certainty. Here, it’s the pastor’s inability to understand the message of The Passion and the need for physical trials and to question the existence of God. It’s a thoughtful narrative with an unlikable protagonist and reflects on Bergman’s own relationship with his father, a Church of Sweden minister, and the position of the Church itself regarding the liturgy and its uses when a priest is unable to vocalise its virtues in a way that is meaningful to people desperate for reassurance. A serious film about major issues which are tackled and somewhat resolved in an astonishing 81 minutes by Bergman’s regular ensemble, with cinematography by the peerless Sven Nykvist whose camera traces the movement of sunlight through the church’s problematic spaces. Masterful.
The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations. Christian (Claes Bang) the curator of a Swedish museum hires a PR team to create hype for a challenging new exhibition with explosive results after he responds with a poorly thought-out social media post when his smartphone is stolen … Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, this part-satire, part-horror utilises its international cast well in what is an overlong and episodic narrative: Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, the journalist who winds up having a complicated one-night stand with Christian; while Dominic West essays a PJ-clad parody of Julian Schnabel; and Terry Notary is Oleg, after Oleg Kulik, a performance artist who reputedly acted like a dog and attacked people at an exhibition in Stockholm (Notary does an ape impression here). Bang is terrific in quite a complex and contradictory role in which all his pretensions are challenged. There is a dinner party from hell which is a film in and of itself. This is a largely successful tract using issues of class, race, sex and society in a witty treatise on what could be summed up in two words: culture shock. Like most modern art, better seen and experienced than read about. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes.
She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively. She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines. Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini, the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.
Roy Anderson has a bit of a rep as an absurdist realist filmmaker – which is perfectly reasonable, given that that’s most of our experience of life, until something shocks us out of our comfortably surreal zone. A pair of novelty item salesmen try to sell their laugh a minute stuff – that’s the very loose thread that brings a lot of disaparate seemingly random incidents together, commencing with three unconnected deaths. The dull palette, the weirdly uninventive and depressing production design and the straightforward shot compositions combine to form a conjoined tableau of death. Just what you want really.