Monday, April 19, 2021

On the Brink of Life


Ingmar Bergman, in a 1964 Playboy interview excerpted in Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema book: "Women used to interest me as subjects because they were so ridiculously treated and shown in movies." The director never abandoned his project of depicting the lives of women, but his 1958 film (one of two made that year) On the Brink of Life [Nära livet, regularly truncated to "Brink of Life"] zeroes in specifically on the phenomenon of maternity, in all its dimensions; to my mind it may be the greatest film on the subject. It's the story of three women admitted at a hospital sub-ward for problem pregnancies, which constitutes one of Bergman's most austere stagings. I use that word instead of mises-en-scène only because the picture is highly theatrical; with its claustrophobic single-floor setting and loquacious dialogues it could easily be mounted as a play. In fact I had at first assumed that the writing credit to Ulla Isaksson pertained to a theatrical work, but according to Fernanda Solórzano's essay "In the Company of Women" included in the Criterion book the script was in fact an original film scenario, suggested by Bergman, that adapts two of her short stories.

There are Cecilia/"Cissi" (Ingrid Thulin), Stina (Eva Dahlbeck), Hjördis (Bibi Andersson), and Nurse Brita (Barbro Hiort af Ornäs). Each woman takes a different stance towards her pregnancy, or failure thereof, probing the changes, or consequences, that it will bring to her respective life. I'd add that these three patients also take the cast of a particular facet of Bergman's own attitude in regard to having and rearing a child; by 1958, the director had already fathered five children with multiple mothers. That the film begins with the opening of a set of frosted-glass double-doors already suggests the obscurity and incertitude of the child-bearing, and child-rearing, project: a rather clinical word, but one that reinforces the chilliness of the setting and the distance at which a parent might position herself between nursing and non-obligation. The baby-doll dangling from the little girl's hand in the opening scene seems to further the sense of terror visible on Cissi's face as she waits bleeding on a gurney for a doctor to attend to her miscarriage-in-progress. (A few minutes later in the movie, after Cissi emerges from anesthesia, the nurse will relate to her what "a floppy doll" she had been while drugged.) A visit from her husband Anders Ellius (Erland Josephson in his first Bergman film role), with his cloying attempts at providing comfort to her peace of mind (after having already attempted a kind of reverse-psychological spell on her upon admission that everything was going to be fine and that he really wants this baby to live), only cements her decision, made for the time being, that they divorce and she relinquish the desire to assume any role of mother. Stina and Hjördis will, by the end of the film, likewise experience their own epiphanies in contradistinction to the particular mindsets of their babies' prospective fathers (an absent voice over the payphone in the case of Hjördis; with Stina, a doting and fastidious engineer played by Max van Sydow), while Cissi will assume the role of den-mother once adopted by Stina — the former of whom having been previously eyed by the other women upon her arrival as a kind of animal object or specimen. As Cissi later reflects, "Perhaps it's not just the womb that opens up here, but the entire person." By the end, all three have attained the brink of life and thus undergone themselves a new birth: a definite removal from the state of bodies slashed, curtailed (with the exception of Stina in the final moments, wholly enshrouded) by the oblique linear geometries of the frame in the form of bedrails, curtain-rods, and the like...


I'll conclude with Cannes. News broke today from France that the 74th edition of the Festival de Cannes will open with the in-competition-screening of none other than Leos Carax's (and Sparks'!!!) hugely anticipated Annette! Pierre Lescure, president of the festival, says: "Every Leos Carax film is an event. And this one delivers on its promises! Annette is the gift that lovers of cinema, music and culture were hoping for, one that we have been yearning for during the past year." General delegate Thierry Frémaux: "We couldn't have dreamed of a more beautiful reunion with cinema and the silver screen, in the Palais des Festivals where films come to assert their splendor. Carax's cinema is an expression of these powerful gestures, these mysterious alchemies that makes the secret of cinema's modernity and eternity."

What, though, did André Bazin have to say about Bergman's On the Brink of Life in his dispatches from the festival from 1958?

Bazin's first filing relates that Bergman's film (Au seuil de la vie in France) doesn't change the impression of a very mediocre festival (entry 2563 in the Écrits complets). 

The next day he writes (2566): "Yesterday evening I exhibited rather severe and disillusioned feelings with regard to Ingmar Bergman's film, On the Brink of Life. The conditions in which we have to judge the the films in the festival's final days are not, it must be stressed, very propitious to critical lucidity. Fatigue setting in, it happens that a slightly austere work not be seen in the best psychological conditions. This preamble is meant to explain that I've backtracked a bit on my first impressions. The press conference of the three "parturientes" — Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Eva Dahlbeck, held this morning at the Palais du Festival may have something to do with this. In any case, objectivity necessitates asserting that Bergman's film has its defenders, and I even think one of them is on the jury..." 

2572: "The Prize for Best Actress, given to the four lead actresses in the Swedish film On the Brink of Life, is as sympathetic as it is intelligent. Perhaps Bergman is a little too favored in gaining the Prize for Best Director, but there it's a question of dosage, and one would only think to say this recompense is not very deserving in and of itself." 

2573: He cites the movie as one of "Four Estimable Films" at the festival ("even if [he] like[s] them unequally"). On the Brink of Life is the first discussed; it disappointed many people, he reports, himself being one of them, before synopsizing the plot and characterizing it as a "consecutive moral evolution in biological events," likening it to Bresson's gambit in Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, remarking that Bergman stays faithful to his major themes: "the meditation upon life and death, the difficulty of being and loving."

2574: "A rather poorly received film [...] but which probably gains upon reflection and in any case deserves the utmost respect." 

2576: Cited in passing as one of the notable films to play the festival alongside "two masterpieces": Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying [Letyat zhuravli, 1957], and Tati's Mon oncle.



No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.