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Bergman’s ‘Saraband’ a devastating film

The 87-year-old director says this will be his final film. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thirty years ago, at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson turned out the lights, said goodnight, rolled over and went to sleep.

Now, Bergman himself is turning out the lights and saying goodbye with “Saraband,” a sequel of sorts to “Scenes From a Marriage,” which the Swedish director, who turns 87 on July 14, says is his last film.

If Bergman is indeed going away, he’s not going gently. He’s created a devastating depiction of the unique cruelties family members can inflict upon each other, especially as they age.

And aging — or, more specifically, mortality — seems foremost in Bergman’s mind here, even more so than usual from the man who supplied the iconic imagery of a chess match with Death in 1957’s “The Seventh Seal.”

Josephson, stepping back into the role of Johan, tells Ullmann’s Marianne that he wonders sometimes whether he’s actually dead, and just doesn’t know it. When Johan asks Marianne — the ex-wife he hasn’t seen in 30 years — how old she is now, Marianne responds, “63. And they’ve taken my ovaries and uterus.” (The 66-year-old Ullmann still looks so beautiful, though, so natural and clear-eyed through Bergman’s digital-video lens, it’s as if she hasn’t aged a day.)

Upon making her impromptu journey to visit Johan, who now spends all his time at his country house, Marianne meets his son from a subsequent marriage, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), and Henrik’s 19-year-old daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who are living with him. All three are still mourning Anna, Henrik’s wife and Karin’s mother, whose absence haunts them two years after her death.

Marianne doesn’t try to return to her role as Johan’s wife — this isn’t “More Scenes From a Marriage” — but rather she serves as a calm, reasonable sounding board for the whole family, something she was incapable of being when we first met her so long ago.

Karin, a promising cellist, wants to break free from Henrik, who smothers her as both her father and her music teacher (though the vibe of an even ickier connection permeates their scenes together). Dufvenius — a willowy blonde with looks reminiscent of Gwyneth Paltrow — is a relative newcomer, but her Karin exhibits a raw vitality and confidence when she bursts into the kitchen and goes off on a tirade to Marianne about her desire for independence.

Henrik, meanwhile, has been dominated his whole life by Johan, whose verbal brutality toward his son goes beyond dysfunctional. Bergman still shows a knack for allowing his characters to tear each other apart calmly and eloquently; it’s breathtaking to watch, especially though the director’s trademark use of extreme close-ups.

“I hate him so much, I’d happily watch him die of some horrible disease,” Johan says of his son.

Yet Marianne remains faithful to this man all these years later — though she can acknowledge now that he was “notoriously and compulsively unfaithful” to her.

It’s the warmest sentiment in a frequently bleak-hearted movie. Though in titling his last film “Saraband” — a dance for two that was popular in royal courts during the 17th and 18th centuries — Bergman offers a fond farewell not just to the audience, but to Ullmann and Josephson, two key performers in his own royal court: his estimable filmography.