Consuming Bergman: The Passion of Anna

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“Why does Bergman get away with that?” Steven asked. It was a simple question in reference to the four scenes in The Passion of Anna in which the principal actors deliver direct address monologues musing on the characters they play.

Steven has a way of cutting through the artsy academic clutter that swirls around inside my head and doesn’t always serve me well. I’m reminded of Occam’s razor. You see, while I’m pondering the use of repetitive narrative arcs and how that device may have instigated the use of direct address monologues, Steven is asking the real question: Why does Bergman get away with that?

The question may be blasphemous to cinephiles, but it is perfectly apt. If I were watching New Moon and a shot of a shirtless Jacob faded to black followed by the jolting bang of a clapperboard and the musings of the longsuffering Kristen Stewart on the perils of Bella falling for monsters, I would rant and rave about self-indulgent directing and intrusive choices that interrupt narrative momentum. And I’d be right.

Steven knows that’s what my reaction would be. We watch a lot of movies together. His question, while certainly prompted by a healthy cinematic curiosity, was also in small part prompted by my reaction (or lack thereof) to Bergman’s choice. I was too busy picking my way through the cobwebs of my intellect, referencing other of the ubiquitous self-referential moments in Bergman films, and trying to relate the narrative disruptions to the director’s larger aims. Steven was having much more fun than I was.

Still, for me watching a Bergman film without over-thinking it is like eating a Dick’s hamburger while I’m sober. I know it tastes the same, but it’s a much less fulfilling experience. Thus I am left with the original elegantly simple question: Why does Bergman get away with that?

Bergman doesn’t just break the fourth wall in The Passion of Anna because it isn’t the characters that address the audience. Bergman interrupts the already difficult elliptical narrative with the actual actors talking about their characters. He even labels the clapperboard with the actor’s names lest we fail to immediately engage the device on his terms.

Forgive me monsieur Barthes, but I read those reflexive moments of cinematic caprice as a sort of comforting message from Bergman himself. I imagine him coming to me, leaning down to whisper in my ear, smelling like tobacco and gravad lax and saying, “This isn’t that kind of film. Don’t be frustrated with my deliberate repetition, non-linear narrative, the slow peel of character development, and pervasive reminders this is cinema and nothing else.”

I think that’s enough of my woefully inadequate attempts to channel Bergman.  Let me answer the original question.

Bergman gets away with it, all of it, because he is a cinematic master and one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th Century. He is a purposeful artist who understood the technology of cinema as well as he understood the more ethereal aspects of cinematic artistry. His mastery is manifest in the carefully selected camera angles, the deft composition, the expert use of the deep focus lens, and the intuitive employment of color. Bergman toys with provocative and inventive narrative structures that push back and forth between the formalist, the traditional, the experimental, and the anarchic. And Bergman gets away with it because he never lets us forget that his films are purely cinematic experiences, tricks of light and celluloid, that look forward while reaching back to solemnly acknowledge the dramatic and literary forms from which they spring.

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