Savannah Oakes’s review published on Letterboxd:
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.
As usual Bergman gives his audience quite a lot to chew on. The philosophizing in his films are endless, but this one in particular, takes the cake. This is not because there are more Bergman monologues than usual, there’s actually less, but because he uses filmmaking techniques to emphasize these deeper ideas.
The film opens very peculiarly. There’s a montage of a lot of images, some of which makes more sense at the end, but mostly left me confused. This is not a bad thing, at least to me. I’m perpetually frustrated by people who use confusion as a critique. If it’s bad writing, that’s one thing, but this film certainly does not have bad writing. Anyways, this montage happens and then all of a sudden the film “starts”. This is not accurate, obviously the film starts with the montage, but the narrative aspect begins. We meet our main character, Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse.
The film’s world for the first third gives off a sense of danger. The montage left me uneasy but it wasn’t only that. Bergman’s previous films had been more narratively heavy and structured with big casts and big sets. This film was not that. The setting of the hospital was almost minimalist in its starkness: blank walls, mostly empty rooms, unnaturally high walls. It looked dystopian. Bergman can create a fantastical world here and again, but his films tend to have a message that grounds even the silliest of actions. This film does not seek to do that. This film seeks to have you find the reality. It is difficult. Especially when there is an overwhelming sense of dread with each moment that passes. The music plays and it feels dark, but whimsical, like you’re being taken to another place, falling down the rabbithole.
Then they get to the beach house and everything feels a little saner, a little more normal. It’s not. I was identifying with Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), and Alma, and then no one. In a film that has a lot to say about roles, I was struggling to find one. I tried to take the outside approach, simply observe this relationship, whatever it was, and not read into it. It is here I discovered that in this film, even more than most, the audience is the canvas. I am the canvas. It is impossible otherwise when dealing with a film that is so dependent on it’s associationism with its use of montages and steady shots of unemotional faces. It hit me the hardest when Ullmann’s face gazed into the camera and her face very slowly darkened from shadows. How long could that scene have gone on? Maybe a minute? A minute and a half? It felt like hours. My reality had checked in and with that minute or so, which I call my hours, I was forced to search myself. From the montage to those overwhelming looks I thought I was being studied, which is exactly how I’m supposed to feel.
The film, at least narratively, asks the question: who is studying who? I’m unsure. It’s fascinating, those scenes at the beach house, just watching Elisabet with that therapist pose as Alma rambled on and on. There’s so much vulnerability, but it wasn’t in any of the acting from Andersson, it was simply the exchange in and of itself. Bergman made you feel safer in this little secluded house, much like how Alma was feeling, the difference is you are watching not experiencing. It’s not my story, but my empathetic antennas were at red alert during Alma’s confession. It’s eased into but unlike her, as the viewer, I get the luxury of the big picture. I have the opportunity to reflect and see that she’s oversharing. I’m sitting in my living room and she’s saying all these really personal things and the whole time I’m think “dear god how can you admit this right now?” But the truth is it makes sense. She’s safe, at least in her reality, at that moment. She is in a little bubble outside of time, easily manipulated, easily affected by what’s in it. I’ve been in that situation several times and having to sit through someone else going through it is painful, but compelling in how very human it made me feel.
I have no idea what happened in the last third. It’s a power struggle but it’s manic. It’s a psychotic break. She has brought Elisabet so close to her that she is unsure of who she is. It’s as if her entire worldview, her entire subjective truth, is molded with Elisabet’s. They become one person, but separate. It felt along the lines of that whole “loving the idea of someone verses loving them” line. It’s about communication. Elisabet is literally saying nothing, but Alma is inferring a lot based on her physical response. In the end when she’s accusing her, parts of it are only in her head. She decided to open up, but sometimes we blame others for our own destruction.
I’m a film nerd and a psychology nerd so the hours I will spend reading about this film will be endless. I’m pretty excited about it. Bergman does a lot in this film that should be praised. I’m particularly fond of the almost exclusively female cast. I love Bergman’s work with Björnstrand and von Sydow but his work with these women is incredible and very much wanted. The film would have been a particularly different one had, let’s say the Doctor, been a man. The film definitely deals with issues of female roles, given the identity crisis at it’s core, but it’s not only about that. It’s about taking to one’s core all that they are and desire and recognizing that both in yourself and in life. That’s a human issue, but an also an issue women aren’t as prominently featured to have in film . They are at least, up until this point in their lives, asked to sacrifice themselves for those they love. They explore taboo subjects like female pleasure and abortions in the 60s and we’re still afraid to talk about them now. I give you so much praise, Mr. Bergman, there could never be enough.
Beside the taboo topics, there is a lot of sexual stuff. There’s a flash of an erect penis at the beginning which was...ya know...an erect penis. I think there’s a lot of sexual subtext in this film that I cannot grasp, but I’m sure others have. It’s a difficult subject to be sure about because everyone’s desires are different. Plus I worry Bergman may share some views with Freud which I know will get me way too deep into the film. So I digress for now.
I know I didn’t really even talk about the cinematography, but I don’t really need to. Every frame of this film is the jaw-dropping. The black-and-white is used strikingly well with it’s themes. It’s a deeper film than can be actualized here. It’s a difficult thing to take on the human psyche but with Bergman’s dedication, his actresses’ vulnerability and emotion, and the editing he is able to reveal how easily one's mind wonders, how easily it can be affected and how truly it is not yours. Mr. Bergman, you have failed me only in one aspect: it could have been gayer.