In our series “Black Sheep,” Double Exposure aims to give renewed appreciation (or at least a sympathetic post-mortem) to films from notable film artists that have been generally dismissed as forgettable, inferior, or unwatchable. In this entry, Adam Hadar examines Ingmar Bergman’s largely dismissed foray into comedy.
Nestled snugly in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, between his famous Trilogy of Faith (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) and the inimitable Persona, sits a little film called För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor–normally translated as All These Women or Now About These Women. The first Bergman film shot in color, All These Women is nonetheless more often referred to, in the words of Roger Ebert, as “the worst film he ever made.” In point of fact, the few words Bergman dedicated to the film in his autobiography include such choice phrases as “dismal failure,” “well-deserved fiasco,” and “I was desperately ashamed.” However, while one may find certain integral elements lacking in this comedy film–like jokes that are actually funny, or a coherent story structure in those jokes’ absence–a diligent and sympathetic eye will notice the technical mastery of its cast and crew, as well as latent details which betray Bergman’s constant experimentation with his chosen medium.
Shot in 1964, the film concerns itself with a self-aggrandizing music critic named Cornelius who arrives at the estate of a man named Felix, widely considered the best cellist of all time. Self-tasked with writing a biography of this master cellist, Cornelius has come to uncover the “inmost and utterly personal” details of his life, but instead finds himself lusting after the cellist’s veritable harem of women. Hijinks of the broadest and most Looney Tunes-esque ensue, as the crowd of women and Felix’s hangers-on put this critic in his place through a series of almost entirely unconnected vignettes.
This is plainly not a style with which one associates the usually severe and reflective Bergman. Yet a few attractions immediately spring to mind, most prominently the presence of Bergman’s acting regulars: Jarl Kulle stars as the critic; included in the cast of Felix’s devotees are Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, and Gertrud Fridh among many others; Allan Edwall plays Felix’s manager. Perhaps more importantly, behind the camera sits Sven Nykvist, and his and Bergman’s talent ensures that even the skeptical viewer will often find themselves wowed by the wonderful color palette, sophisticated mise-en-scene, and daringly protracted shots. (The critic Peter Cowie formulates the backhanded compliment that the entire purpose of the film was “to allow Bergman and…Nykvist to experiment with colour.”)
To assert that Bergman is simply not suited for comedy would be a gross exaggeration–he gained worldwide prominence with 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night–but his forays into this genre were few and far between. If one wishes to contextualize what at first appears as a tonal divergence for Bergman, it’s helpful to turn to his other major creative outlet–the theater. Beyond his cinematic work Bergman was well-regarded as a director of the stage, and his uneven attempts at humor in Women register as manifestations of his highly theatrical approach to dramaturgy. Monologues abound, and characters crack wise enough that even the dirty-minded Shakespeare would blush (Bergman’s best-in-show here is perhaps the discussion between two of the women on the master’s cello lessons: “he’s already taught you the basics of cello playing – the parting of the legs”). When characters face the camera to speak directly to the audience, it feels less like a reflexive, postmodern tool to unseat the audience’s relationship to the dramatic material, and more like a distinctly theatrical means through which to establish tension and release.
In the interest of context, one might assert that Smiles of a Summer Night also seems distinctly thespian, but the difference between that movie and All These Women lies in its structural integrity. Where Smiles relies on the theatrically tight structural integrity of interconnected dichotomies (four men and four women, each struggling with gender roles, and where each interaction between characters ripples throughout the story), Women remains unfocused. One stray plotline, in which Cornelius believes one of the women is plotting to assassinate Felix, stops so abruptly you would think it was Tommy Wiseau dealing with cancer. Another subplot finds Felix’s manager gathering evidence on Cornelius’s lechery in order to blackmail him, but it too fizzles out.
Such developments might form the basis of a wonderful comedy of manners similar to Smiles of a Summer Night, but they are too regularly interrupted by the “amusing” catfights between the women, or overlong musical breaks where the entire cast and plot stops to hear the master play (in performances that leave much to be desired, I might add). Structurally one can readily notice that Bergman was trying to participate in the touch-and-go slapstick style of comedy he had watched as a child–yet this homage all too often registers as an attempt to gratify the director himself, and not its audience.
Unlike the oddball comedic vanity projects of directors before and after him, Bergman’s dalliance here does not a signal a loss in vitality. Bergman’s post-All These Women filmography hardly disappoints: Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes From A Marriage, and Fanny and Alexander are just the tip of the iceberg of the mature Bergman. All These Women is no great harbinger of the profounder things to come, but if you stay with it, the uneasy mixture of technical skill with silly jokes makes for an oddly congenial afternoon. The pleasure is of a unique sort in a rich filmography: finally, one can see the faces of the Bergman troupe regulars without the wrinkles and furrowed brows that come with existential crises and the horrors of living.