Cries and Whispers (1972)

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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.

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Persona (1966)

Person 1966

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.

Winter Light (1963)

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Aka The CommunicantsThe 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 (2017)

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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.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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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.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)

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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.

We Are the Best! (2013)

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Lukas Moodysson makes interesting films and prior to this one approached his stories about children with apprehension as to how they would wind up – victimised by the adults supposedly responsible for their care, growing up too soon, exposed to sex and drugs and hedonism and fecklessness. His wife wrote the graphic novel on which this is based. Two girls, Klara (cute), Bobo (not) in a Stockholm school in the 1980s who are more or less outcasts with short hairdos,  are fans of punk years after it’s dead. They start a band but can’t play. They get together with a good girl (Hedvig) who happens to be a talented guitarist and whose contribution makes them think they might get somewhere. Well … what’s most striking about the world of the story is the misery of their home lives, all to a greater or lesser degree dysfunctional, in cramped apartments where a treat is crisp crackers and water. (It’s a cultural thing, I know.) Their song (they only have one) is hopeless and they can’t play and then – yup, you guessed it – a boy comes between them. When they get the opportunity to play at a Christmas concert they elicit the predictable jeers and are booted offstage. And the youth counsellors accompanying them tell them they are the worst. Our girls disagree. Perhaps the best thing about this is the naturalistic writing and performing, the exploration of the lives of children who have horrible homes (Bobo’s mother is as trampy as you like), Hedvig’s is a single-parent home and Klara’s messy home life is a bit too cool for school – but it’s apartment living, public, intimate, awful and one feels Bobo’s secret despair about her mother’s sexual escapades. Not a film to inspire architectural envy but good on childhood friendship, awkwardness and the punk credo of self-belief despite clear evidence to the contrary – that they are singularly lacking in any musicianship whatsoever.