“Farewell maestro, I consign you to oblivion”

Now About These Women (Ingmar Bergman, 1964)

Perhaps it’s just evidence of a misspent youth, but I think it can sometimes be as interesting to watch a genius produce an outright failure as it is to watch them triumph. To see them step miles outside their comfort zone, try something quite foreign and fall flat on their arse. I’d heard of this one before and though what I heard wasn’t altogether good, it intrigued me. Bergman’s first colour film, his first film after the famous ‘silence of god’ trilogy, and an attempt at a brittle comic farce. He had already turned out a sexy, funny and enchanting tour de force with Smiles of a Summer Night; what was the worst that could happen?

Well, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The film begins with a theatre stage made up like a funeral parlour. Two candelabra-wielding valets stand before the camera, uttering sardonic asides as a procession of “widows” visit the body of Felix, a world-famous cellist.

Flash back four days. Cornelius, a preening and pretentious critic, is arriving at the summer villa of the reclusive Felix, basking in his recent success as the man who “exposed Stravinsky”. He hopes to interview the cellist and gain an “inmost and utterly personal” perspective for his forthcoming biography. If all goes well, perhaps Felix might deign to include one of Cornelius’ own compositions in his forthcoming live radio concert? From his very first appearance (where he mistakes the butler taking his suitcase for Felix and lauds his genius) Cornelius looks, sounds and acts like a clown. With lipstick, pencil moustache, black cigarettes, spotty tie and a carnation in his buttonhole, he’s a Wodehouse caricature.

As he installs himself in the household, Cornelius is introduced to a succession of women and gradually realises that these are Felix’s harem- first the distinguished Eva Dahlbeck, his wife, then Bibi Andersson, doing a bit of a Marilyn Monroe turn as his “primary mistress”. A young Harriet Andersson Felix calls his “viol de gamba”, the newest girl is actually his niece; you get the idea. Felix has given them all relevant handles; Isolde, Bumblebee, Traviata. So far, so 8 1/2 dream sequence.

There’s also Felix’s manager, usually with a phone in one hand and a tumbler of whisky in the other. He sits calculating tax returns whilst his master plays Bach. Cornelius and the girls get into a few inconsequential scrapes, and neither we nor the critic get any closer to a glimpse of Felix. Eventually, Cornelius bursts in on Felix and confronts him- like a Bond villian, Felix sits in a throne with his back to us, feeling up the young lady on his lap. Cornelius spins a few lines about the power that critics wield (“an instrumentalist without a biographer will be forgotten”), then uses reverse psychology. He’ll be glad to stop writing his book, stop pestering for an audience, leave town and “consign you to oblivion”.

Finally, Cornelius elicits a response; his ludicrous ‘Dream of the Fish: or Illusion No. 14’ is drafted into Felix’s concert program. Everyone gathers to hear the live recital. Far more put out by infidelity to his art than by infidelity to herself, Eva Dahlbeck sits waiting with a revolver in the folds of her dress. No need; Felix drops dead before he can play a note.

The trouble with all of this? It’s not funny. I don’t think I laughed, or even smiled, more than once in the entire duration. For the lead in a Bergman, Cornelius is a remarkably 2D man of cardboard. He indulges in lengthy slapstick set pieces a la Chaplin, food fights and Benny Hill chases, always with a ragtime accompaniment. He peeps through peepholes and sees the women squabbling over the harem rota. When his cigar sets off a box of fireworks, he’s left with a black face and his arm in a sling- like a Tintin character. His monocole even pops out when something surprises him.  

The film clunks and creaks, it’s suffused with artifice. Beautiful though Sven Nykvist’s photography always is, every stage set looks far more like a theatre stage than a real room, or garden. Stone statues bleed when shot. The cast wink at the camera when they’re about to play another prank on Cornelius. One clue might be the plates of text Bergman occasionally inserts, as in a silent movie. These are terse and gnomic statements, warning us that the aforementioned firework display is “not to be taken symbolically”. We sense that Bergman may not be partaking of the theoretical mirth.

Indeed, the stilted feel to this film reminded me of Joseph Losey’s awful spy spoof Modesty Blaise; a bitter film made by a man who hated banal little action comedies, and made an empty, sterile action comedy to show how empty and sterile he found all such films. It’s rather cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face -as you come away with a poor, unlikeable film- but if all jokes are drearily unfunny to Bergman, it might account for him choosing to serve up such dire fare in his own stab at a comedy. 

The annals tell us that at the time of this film, Bergman was smarting from the critical hostility towards films like Winter Light (as well he might, since it’s as perfect a film as one could wish to see). As the critic turns nasty and the composer turns ever further inward, it becomes apparent that the great Felix is most likely Bergman’s attempt to send up his own self-mythologising/self-pity/self-hatred. He really is in 8 1/2 mode. But however much the directors disguise it with send up or grotesquerie, I always find that films about how hard those poor directors have it give themselves away in the end.

Whilst Felix’s corpse is still warm, a handsome young man carrying a cello turns up out of nowhere and asks if he might stay in the house. All the women are enraptured on sight- they sit around to hear him play, lovelight in their eyes. Cornelius pulls out his notebook and red feather quill, stands in front of the camera and pulls his best Addison De Witt impression. The cynical heart to this failed film is revealed.


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July 2009
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