Saraband, probably the last film from the legendary Ingmar Bergman, re-unites us with Johan and Marianne, whose divorce we watched unfold 30 years ago in 1973‘s Scenes from a Marriage. The film plays out in the form of ten extended two-handed dialogues. Bergman is able to wring an amazing amount of drama out of this deceptively simple structure.
For reasons she can’t even explain to herself, Marianne (Liv Ullman) impulsively goes to visit her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). He’s now an 85-year-old retired academic living as a semi-recluse in a mountain cabin, contemplating mortality and how life has not turned out like he planned. She’s the ultimate empty-nester, with one daughter living happily with a husband in Australia while the other lives withdrawn from the world in a mental institution.
Living nearby is Johan’s son from a previous marriage, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and his daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a talented but emotionally fragile cellist. Karin is preparing to audition for a music conservatory and it’s clear that, while on one level Henrik wants his daughter to succeed, he’ll also be emotionally devastated when she leaves. Anna, Henrik’s wife and Karin’s mother, died two years earlier from cancer and Henrik has transferred his possessive, smothering form of love from her to his daughter, even to the point that father and daughter sleep in the same bed. We’re never told that their relationship is incestuous but we’re never exactly reassured that it isn’t, either.
While Saraband is not a ghost story, the specter of Anna seems to haunt every scene. Even Johan idolized his daughter-in-law to the point that he didn’t think his own son was worthy of her. The relationship between father and son is long past strained and is now broken into small desiccated pieces.
This film doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a situation through which its four characters move as we observe their conversations. Every character has at least one scene with every other character and through their various interactions, Bergman paints a vivid emotional landscape. The writer and director has little interest in resolving the problems of these characters but would rather just explore how they react to them. In this simplicity, free from the artifice of a plot, Bergman remains a master storyteller to the very end of his career.