'Searching for Ingmar Bergman': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
A valentine from one director to another.

German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta examines the Swedish master's legacy and interviews directors who count him among their influences.

Ingmar Bergman is receiving the posthumous 100th birthday gift this year of two documentaries about his extraordinary life, career and legacy, both of which were shown in the Cannes Classics sidebar. But there can be little doubt that the august Swede would have been much happier with this one, made by unabashed admirer and fellow director Margarethe von Trotta, than with the other, Jane Magnusson’s Bergman: A Year in a Life, which pulls back the curtain in an unprecedented way on his personal foibles, including a rampant sex life, neglect of his children, a sometimes violent temper and revisionist fashioning of his own life story; in other words, all the stuff people want and expect to hear about these days.

Reasonably engaging as far as it goes, Searching for Ingmar Bergman evinces great appreciation for the writer-director's legacy and offers the testimonies of numerous eminent enthusiasts, but it leaves a good deal to be desired because it neither goes deep nor addresses the question of why Bergman, once considered the consummate artist of the second half of the 20th century, is so seldom mentioned or considered as an influence by the contemporary generation.

Von Trotta begins her search at ground zero, so to speak, by visiting the very beach in Sweden where Bergman staged the immortal chess match between Max von Sydow’s knight and Death in The Seventh Seal (1957) and recalling how she immersed herself in Bergman upon moving to Paris in 1960.

What follow are amiable, knowledgeable and sometimes revealing exchanges with Bergman colleagues and intellectual fans. They all have illuminating and intelligent things to say, up to a point. We learn about how the man religiously watched Victor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Carriage (1921) once a year for his entire life; the influence of his stern parson father; the houses where he once lived; his workaholic lifestyle; and the charges of tax evasion that caused him such distress and provoked his moves, first to Hollywood (where he never made a film), then to Germany (where he did) — although the merits of the charges are never weighed.

Fellow artists join von Trotta in praising Bergman, including Jean-Claude Carriere, Carlos Saura, Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Love (unfortunately, there’s nary a word from his most famous admirer, Woody Allen). Modern Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is just momentarily permitted to acknowledge a divide within the Swedish film industry between Bergman and younger artists, beginning with Bo Widerberg, with whose camp Ostlund identified himself.

There are occasional amusing tidbits, such as that Bergman would watch big Hollywood films at home, among them Pearl Harbor, for which he simply fast-forwarded to the big action scenes, and the fact that his control-freak tendencies extended even to the guest list for his funeral; only those he personally invited were allowed to attend (we get a brief filmed glimpse of the event, which took place on a brilliant summer's day).

All of this will be of interest to the Bergman faithful, but von Trotta carries on at a relaxed pace that slows even further toward the end, and the point glancingly raised by Ostlund is not followed up: What, exactly, does Bergman mean, if anything, to younger audiences today? Some of the late grandmasters continue to be talked about and emulated, while others do not. The fact is that, with the possible exceptions of Seventh Seal and — more so because of its slashing modernism — Persona (1966), Bergman’s films, enshrouded as many of them are in gloom, psychoanalytical penetration and hour-of-the-wolf-style angst, are not in fashion today and are little discussed in academic or buff circles. Why is this, and what does it mean for the future of his reputation? A weighing of this issue could have been interesting amid the prevailing hosannas.

Production companies: C-Films, Mondex & Cie
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Daniel Bergman, Ingmar Bergman Jr., Olivier Assayas, Ruben Ostlund, Stig Bjorkman, Mia Hansen-Love, Katinka Farago, Carlos Saura, Jean-Claude Carriere, Gaby Dohm, Rita Russek, Gunnel Lindblom, Julia Dufvenius
Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Writer: Felix Moeller
Director of photography: Martin Farkas
Editor: Bettina Bohler
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

109 minutes