‘Bergman: A Year in a Life’ (‘Bergman — Ett Ar, Ett Liv’): Film Review | Cannes 2018

In the new documentary ‘Bergman: A Year in a Life,’ Swedish director Jane Magnusson tackles what might have been the busiest and most prolific year in Ingmar Bergman’s life: 1957.

Ingmar Bergman, arguably the most deserving of all the names sometimes credited as the best director in cinema and/or theater history, was born 100 years ago this year, so it is not surprising that both restorations and a lot of new material about Sweden’s most famous artist will be rolling out in the months to come. This includes not one but two documentaries about him in the Cannes Classics section alone. The first to premiere was Jane Magnusson’s two-hour Bergman: A Year in a Life (Bergman: Ett Ar, Et Liv), followed by Margarethe von Trotta’s Searching for Ingmar Bergman

Made with a Swedish-accented English voiceover by Magnusson — as if Bergman aficionados would be afraid of reading subtitles — A Year in a Life nominally takes a look at the Swedish theater and film giant’s output of 1957, when The Seventh Seal premiered, he shot and released Wild Strawberries and worked on several radio, TV and stage productions besides. However, the English title is a bit of a misnomer as Magnusson can’t stop connecting his output to material from other periods as well, from a 1972 Dick Cavett interview to 1995’s third-stage reincarnation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, which led to a titanic battle of the wills between Bergman and actor (and occasional director) Thorsten Flinck, who played Alceste.  

The Bottom Line

A portrait in the image of its subject.

At times critical, like when it explores his youthful Nazi sympathies or later-in-life dictatorial behavior in earnest, and at other times simply in thrall to the all-overshadowing legend Bergman himself helped cultivate around his, um, persona, this is a complex and conflicted work about a man who could be similarly described. Almost as if to mirror his many contradictions, the film’s structure is a bit messy but that doesn’t take away from its must-see status for Bergmanophiles. Opportunities to catch this on the big screen, however, will be mostly limited to festivals, with small-screen exposure on TV, VOD and SVOD channels the likeliest ways this will reach cinephiles around the world.   

Magnusson is a TV journalist and director who has previously explored Bergman’s legacy in the Trespassing Bergman/Bergman’s Video project, which looked at his influence on filmmakers ranging from Woody Allen to Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, who all visited Bergman’s iconic Faro Island location. She here makes a more clearly biographical work that delves into the life and work of the writer-director and only occasionally gets carried away by the impression he left on other famous people, like when Barbra Streisand recounts her set visit to Bergman’s 1970 English-language debut, The Touch, which starred her then-husband, Elliott Gould. While what’s being said is fun to hear in a trivial kind of way, the film’s few snippets of celebrity talking heads — others include Holly Hunter, John Landis and Lars von Trier — are unnecessary distractions that don’t add all that much (a few at the end especially feel like an unnecessary retread of Trespassing Bergman territory).  

Bergman: A Year in a Life is nominally structured as a look at what Magnusson argues might be Bergman’s most “productive year of his career,” from the premiere of The Seventh Seal, in February 1957, through the premiere of Wild Strawberries, on Boxing Day. But the focus on those specific months, during which Bergman turned 39, is for the most part a structural device that’s kept in the background, while Magnusson free-associates and roams throughout Bergman’s entire life to illuminate and explore his character. (The work’s Swedish title, which literally translates as A Year, A Life, is a more accurate description of what to expect.) 

What’s a bit surprising is the extent to which there’s hardly any curatorial or film-critical insight into the master’s output, with Magnusson suggesting 1957 was a pivotal year of change in terms of the director’s type of work but not backing that assertion up by much proof. Instead, there are a few sentences here and there that are meant to synthesize general scholarly opinion about Bergman’s work, though when Magnussen says, without further context, that Bergman explored “the human soul by making films about himself,” it sounds at once obvious, pompous and somewhat empty. 

Highlights include a newly unearthed interview with Bergman’s older brother, Dag, from the 1980s, in which he recounts that the abuse in the Bergman household was directed mostly at him and not his angelic younger brother. This would mean that Bergman revised his own family history to turn himself into more of a tortured artist from a young age, something given credence by the fact that the interview, under orders of Ingmar, was finally never aired. This leads to the conclusion that in one of his most famous works, the semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander from 1982, Ingmar was more likely to recognize himself in Fanny, the sibling who looked on at the abuse in silence from the sidelines. This sequence is among the film’s strongest in terms of connecting his character and actions to his work, even though all the relevant material discussed here is from about 25 years after the pivotal year the film is supposedly exploring.

Of course no film about Bergman would be complete without discussing his complex love and family life. There’s a telling moment in period footage when the director gets the number of children he has wrong and Magnusson somewhat superfluously points out in her voiceover that Ingmar’s “love life is a mess to say the least”. The film unearths an early draft of his book The Magic Lantern that included a description of an episode involving his girlfriend Karin Lannby in which Ingmar almost killed her, though it was finally edited out of the book before it was published. His stormy behavior with women is legendary and interviewee Liv Ullmann and a few of her colleagues have problems trying to name, in order, the women he slept with. That said, it’s also clear he left an indelible impact on at least some of their lives. As if to set the record straight once and for all, Ullmann softly cries as she admits Ingmar was the best person she’d ever met and he never did her wrong. 

But the film doesn’t skimp over his dictatorial tendencies, whether they are his somewhat absurd demands for complete silence or his almost hostile takeover of the country’s creative industry in his later years. In fact, after going into exile in Germany in the 1970s after he was accused of tax evasion, he returned to Sweden as an untouchable god who ran the entire country’s film, TV and theater industry with an iron fist. To underline the absurdity of the situation, fellow director Roy Andersson recounts a delightful episode during which a bear-trainer on a film demanded that the almighty and never-opposed Bergman apologize to his animal for having slighted it. 

In the end, Bergman: A Year in a Life always fascinates with such anecdotes, even if a few might be familiar. There are too many interviewees — around 40 in all — to make sense of each person’s personal relationship with Ingmar, so some of the very short soundbites lack context. And the film’s structure, nominally streamlined by trying to focus on 1957, is really just a jumble of ideas that keeps jumping back and forth in time from topic to topic. But as suggested earlier, it is a film that’s busy and always forging ahead, teeming with ideas and contradictions. In that sense, it closely mirrors the subject it tries, however incompletely, to portray.

For the record, the film’s head of research was Henrik von Sydow, the son of frequent Bergman collaborator and lead of The Seventh Seal, Max, who is conspicuously absent among the interviewees.

Production companies: B-Reel Films, SVT, SF Studios, Reel Ventures, Motlys
Director: Jane Magnusson
Producers: Mattias Nohrborg, Cecilia Nessen, Fredrik Heinig
Director of photography: Emil Klang
Editors: Hanna Lejonqvist, Kalle Lindberg, Orvar Anklew
Sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics) 

In English, Swedish, German
No rating, 117 minutes