Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Early in Ingmar Bergman’s 1949 “Thirst,” a serpent is plucked from a sun-dappled wood and placed on a swarming anthill. It’s meant as an image of paradise encumbered, and it sets the tone for what will develop into one of Bergman’s earliest examinations of a masochistic relationship. The principal character, played by Eva Henning, is named Rut. She’s a past-her-prime ballerina who is slowly undermining her marriage to Bertil, a rather limp art history professor (Rut resents him for being so feckless). Her dissatisfaction leads her to daydream about her past as a dancer and a young woman. That serpent vignette occurs during one of these reveries: a summery interlude filled with memories of a former lover, which Bergman situates right at the start of the film in order to demonstrate just how far Rut has fallen. The lover, Raoul, is an older man who met Rut between stints in the Second World War; unlike Bertil, he’s dashing, irreverent, and callously bullish. He’s also married, and when he impregnates Rut he cajoles her into aborting the child. This breaks the seal on Rut’s innocence: not only does it leave her barren, it permanently sours her on the efficacy of relationships. “Nothing takes root in me anymore,” she says at one point, “it’s all mud inside.”
Cynicism, romantic or otherwise, is one of the major themes here. The movie’s present is situated right after the end of the war, and Bergman wants us to see the aftermath of spoiled relationships as being equivalent to the devastation visited on Europe by six long years of military bombardment. Fittingly, he has the major duels between Rut and Bertil take place on a train making its way between Basel and Stockholm. As the two people circle cagily around their problems, the hulks of ruined cities reflect off the glass of the train’s windows. It’s an overcooked bit of symbolism, one which is typical of this most overzealous of movie symbolists. (Later, in “Shame,” he’d stage a breakup during the apocalypse.) The extent to which it works is due to Bergman’s almost supernatural gift for staging as well as the considerable talents of his lead actress. Nearly 30 at the time of “Thirst,” Henning has a hard-to-pin-down face that’s just a nudge off of cute, and her body is lined with a big cat’s musculature. Bergman makes good use of that physicality; some of the movie’s best scenes consist of nothing more than Henning stalking a room while the camera expertly circumscribes her presence.
It’s easy to criticize Bergman now that he’s been knocked off his perch as the cinema’s great suffering artiste; seen today, much of his output comes off as too affected to take seriously. Even so, it’s damned hard to ding him on his work with actresses: few directors in the history of movies have so consistently coaxed rich and complex performances out of women. I wonder: Is it possible that Bergman’s facility with actresses was an outgrowth of his natural pessimism? For it often seems as though his ability to reveal women as super-potent, sometimes maddening creatures is inextricable from his wariness of relationships. For Bergman, every social interaction is a potential act of mutual flagellation, and during his most assured moments it can feel as though he’s scrutinizing people at an almost subcutaneous level. It’s the gaze of a man who is forever attuned to the risk of entanglement.
That scrutiny is somewhat less evident in Bergman’s handling of the movie’s second principal relationship. It involves two women, Viola and Valborg, who have tenuous pre-war connections to Rut and Bertil. Each woman is alone — Valborg because she’s a lesbian, Viola because her husband has died — a state which Bergman suggests is below that of even the most embittered of married couples, who despite their problems at least have each other. The two women drift sullenly about the edges of Stockholm society, unmoored from the security of natural human connection. The only really anchored relationship during this segment is between Viola and her bullying therapist. Anticipating his 1966 “Persona,” Bergman presents it as a vampiric exaggeration of a normal union, the shrink reveling in his power over his supine patient. (There’s even a close-up of two faces merging at a right angle, a preliminary sketch for one of the most memorable images in “Persona.”) The therapist-patient connection seems key for Bergman, possibly because he views relationships as being adjuncts to mental illness.
There’s a palpable sense of restlessness to these Stockholm passages. Many of them take place on Midsummer’s Eve, Bergman’s favored time for self-examination, and the director makes good use of that weird Scandinavian light that would later figure so prominently in his great “Smiles of a Summer Night”; the city seems poised right on the edge of a revelation. Even so, it’s hard to escape the feeling that these scenes have been jimmied into the movie in a somewhat graceless manner. Bergman clearly wants them to serve as a counterweight to the Rut-Bertil material, but it’s a rather forced juxtaposition, and it lends the movie a schematic air that’s only partially relieved by Bergman’s very deft interweaving of the two storylines. (During this phase of his career, Bergman was interested in time-skipping, collage-like structures, as a look at his 1954 “A Lesson In Love” will prove.) Moreover, the dual endings — one tragic, one faux happy — fail to consolidate the movie’s themes in a way that feels either logical or organic. The moral, something along the lines of “something is better than nothing,” is hokey, and the surprise happy ending feels so perfunctory that I wonder if it wasn’t forced on Bergman by the movie’s financiers. All in all, I think Bergman succumbs here to an urge to plaster his work with meanings that don’t necessarily suit what is best in it. You can sense him trying to muscle a stratagem onto the movie, and it makes for an odd and occasionally turgid experience.
By contrast, nothing in Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi’s “Contract” feels muscled or schematic. “Scribbled” might be a more apt descriptor. Released in 1980, the movie is scattershot, cannily disorganized, and it resists pat interpretations. A trained physicist and philosopher, Zanussi makes movies that play out like scientific experiments which have been permitted to burble out of the laboratory and naturally wind down. Though I suspect his films are actually highly controlled affairs, it’s hard to figure out where they’re going as you watch them, and you can always feel Zanussi’s presence behind the scenes; he’s like a movie scholastic, forever noodling away at some furiously thought-out theorem. Like Bergman, Zanussi is a pessimist — his “The Constant Factor” is about the omnipresence of death — but his work is free of Bergman’s almost adolescent need to monumentalize ideas. This lack of declamations — of positions claimed and fervently held — is part of what I admire in Zanussi’s work. The themes in his movies tend to zap you at a level just below consciousness, and they’re capable of clearing out a headspace that stays with you for days.
In some ways “Contract” has much in common with “Thirst.” Both films deal with problematic marriages and the way age can rejigger our perceptions. Also, they both use the highly formalized world of ballet to offset the messiness of everyday human interaction. “Contract” begins with the civil marriage of two young people, Piotr and Lilka, who hail from different sides of the tracks. Piotr’s father Adam is a successful doctor who has remarried late in life, to a woman who is substantially younger than he is. Lilka’s is a working class widower; his showing up after the couple have taken their vows is his way of expressing contempt for Adam’s money and connections. Other friends and relatives arrive in Warsaw to attend the Catholic ceremony taking place the following day. They include Adam’s widowed sister-in-law, a former ballerina played by Leslie Caron, who brings the full weight of her fading stardom to the performance (she sticks out, and she’s meant to). The big conflict arrives when Lilka runs out of the church prior to saying “I do.” Though her reasons are murky, we’ve seen her arguing with Piotr, and we sense she’s dismayed by his willingness to depend on his very bourgeois family.
As usual with Zanussi, the movie’s title is a key to understanding his concerns. Here it obviously refers to the contract of marriage being negotiated by Piotr and Lilka, though Zanussi immediately complicates things by splitting the ceremony into religious and civil components, one being carried through, the other aborted. This invites us to consider the social conventions underlying the rite as well as to ponder the ways in which they butt up against each other. There’s a lot to mull over here. However, Zanussi doesn’t tell us how he feels about any of it. Rather, he allows each of the movie’s elements to recede into the background, to become part of the movie’s overall texture. This gives his effects a cumulative, constantly roiling quality that has some of the unresolved complexity of lived experience.
There are other types of contracts here as well. This becomes clear when Zanussi moves his attention away from Piotr and Lilka (they disappear from the movie for a while) and trains it on the wedding’s guests, who, only mildly disturbed by the bride’s exit, quickly retire to Adam’s home in order to hold a party. The resulting atmosphere recalls Altman, whose “A Wedding” had been released two years prior, but the screwball social commentary that Zanussi gets up to has much more in common with “The Rules of the Game.” The party is a nutty medley of classes, types, and age groups, all of them intermingling and occasionally colliding in ways that hint at the workings of Polish society. Caron’s character brings along a second-rate ballet company she’s managed to pick up (they fawn), some rebellious young people decide to strip out of their clothes and romp around in the snow, a Party commissar shows up (he’s immediately besieged by bribe offers), and multiple characters sneak off for covert trysts. Meanwhile, someone’s dog surreptitiously shits on the carpet, and Piotr’s and Lilka’s fathers come to an understanding that preserves rather than undermines their social inequality.
Although it’s risky to be too definitive about what’s going on here, I think it’s reasonable to say that Zanussi uses the party to highlight the complex and sometimes confusing network of social agreements — expressed along vectors social, political, and economic — which inform the way in which we relate to one another. But he’s also subtly undermining that network: he’s trying to show that, in spite of our overarching codes and rules and ideologies, at the individual level we’re an unpredictable mess. (Is he thinking of quantum mechanics?) When Caron’s character is caught in blatant violation of one such code, the shame is almost more than she can bear, but the rift which is opened up by that violation is quickly closed over; it’s like watching an organism heal a wound. By the time the revelers leave the home in order to engage in a sleigh ride through the surrounding countryside, Caron has been re-assimilated. All seems forgotten (or at least suppressed).
With the possible exception of Piotr, who eventually returns home and attempts suicide, the characters who seem least capable of bridging the divide between life’s forms and its actual content are Lilka (she did run away from her wedding, after all) and Adam’s wife Dorota. Not coincidentally, these are the characters whom Zanussi treats most sensitively, and the actresses who portray the women are responsible for the movie’s most emotionally open performances. (Maja Komorowska, who plays Dorota, would later star in Zanussi’s “The Year of the Quiet Sun.” She has a marvelous presence, somehow heavy and light at the same time, with a sadness always lurking about the corners of her eyes. She’s marvelous.)
In the movie’s final scene, Zanussi has the two women walk through the forest on a gray, snow-heavy day. “Everything is a mess,” says Dorota, “in us, around us.” Meanwhile, the mournful, subtly dissonant score builds on the soundtrack. Zanussi then brings the movie to a close with its most straightforward image: a close-up of a stag’s head. (Oddly, the main point of reference seems to be “Bambi.”) Though the animal is meant to be just yards away from the women, the shot is spatially removed from the rest of the scene (it’s notable that the angles don’t match up), and the regal calmness of the creature lends it an alien quality that’s unsettling. You leave the movie trying to account for it, to integrate it into the rest of the picture. But I suspect that its unaccountability is its very point. It’s a sacred image, one of idealized clarity, thrown against a background of chaos and disorder, and it subtly recasts all that has come before it. Ultimately, I think “Contract” is about the disconnect between our ideals and our actual experience. It’s a sort of tragedy.
“Thirst” is available on Criterion’s Eclipse label in a package that includes several of Bergman’s early films as well as Alf Sjoberg’s “Torment,” which Bergman scripted. It can also be streamed via Hulu+.
“Contract,” sadly, is not readily available on home video, which is something that can be said of Zanussi’s work in general. (He seems to be almost totally ignored by movie buffs.) If you’re tech savvy, you may be able to find it online along with fan-made subtitles. But then you’d be breaking the law, and you’d probably have to do an extra year in purgatory or something.