Gray, ranging from the pearliest shade to the edge of black, is the tonality of Ingmar Bergman's new film Through a Glass Darkly. A bare, ruined choir of an island in the Baltic; a few stone cottages; a few trees; an old hulk of a fishing boat; marsh and naked field. The light and the milieu are cleansed to the point of abstraction, like simplistic modern architecture.
On this small island is the summer home of a novelist, whom we see with his adolescent son, his married daughter, and her doctor-husband. The daughter has recently been released from a mental hospital where she was treated for schizophrenia. In the course of the film's 24 hours, she discovers that her father and husband know her case is hopeless; we see her disintegrate in a series of violent attacks. During one fit, she seizes her brother who, she knows, is in the throes of adolescent libido and commits incest. At the end of the film, accompanied by her husband, she is en route by helicopter-ambulance to a hospital, presumably permanently. The father and son, left together, have their first moment of full communion.
These are the only four people we see. The helicopter pilot is only a knock on the door. Bergman thinks of the film as a "chamber" piece.
The trouble with this quartet is that its themes are undefined and its resolution unconnected with them. The father is an egotist, more interested in his writing than his family, to whom even the daughter's illness holds horrible promise as material for his art. But the results of his egotism are not explicitly dramatized. The son does not seem an especially deprived child; his unhappiness is not much more than that of any sensitive adolescent, adored or otherwise. Although the daughter must be affected by the father's central coldness, we cannot believe it is the cause of her trouble. In daily discourse he is affectionate enough; besides, she is enfolded in the perfect love of her husband. Are we to understand that the father's egocentricity is the dynamic of the situation (as it was in Wild Strawberries)! Then why does the film concentrate on the daughter's anguish and hallucination and make the father's story quite secondary? In fact, the father is going through a hell of his own, deriving from a middle-age crisis in morale, and it would be perfectly just to accuse the others of lack of sympathy on their part.
In the last scene, where the boy is left shattered and baseless, he asks his father whether there is any reality in life. The father's answer is love--either the giving or receiving of it, its loyalty or treachery, but love as the one foundation of reality. This has a faintly Chayefskyan ring until we realize that, as the title indicates, the answer derives from St. Paul's trio of graces. The New English Bible renders the "greatest of these" not as Charity but as Love, and if we read it as more closely connected with caritas than amor, it may indeed be the foundation of reality. But we are still left wondering how the father arrived at that belief through the progress of the film or, if it was always in him, what use it was to him if it had so little application in his life.
Unlike Antonioni, who has turned his back on formal dramatic structure, Bergman gives us the feeling that he seeks a relatively formal structure and in some measure fumbles it. This new film is a Strindbergian study in mental torment and non-communication at close range, but without the unity and cumulation it leads us to expect. The result is a collection of gripping scenes, always carrying an underlying sense of breast-to-breast confrontation with Jacob's angel, but no clear contest, no decision.
It is almost superfluous to note that the film is beautifully made: visually exquisite, ingeniously knit. Harriet Andersson's performance of the deranged girl, is stark, beleaguered, volatile; she seems at the end virtually to exude an odor of unhealth and agony. Gunnar Bjornstrand, her father, adds to the glacial element of the son in Wild Strawberries a malaise that gives the novelist greater richness and makes the cold elements themselves more affecting. Max von Sydow shows further versatility as the patient husband. Even in the way he runs he delineates character--as unlike the Knight in The Seventh Seal as are the two centuries. Lars Passgard, the son, is adequate. After all, however, it is the visual and emotional tonality we remember, not the theme. For the eye and for the spirit, it is a study in varying shades of gray.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann