Tests of Faith


The mother/whore dichotomy is hard to shake. In Christian cultures, the story of Jesus and his two Marys is mainlined into the unconscious from birth. One variant on this triangle is what Freud dubbed “the family romance,” wherein the young boy fantasizes that his
mother is a whore (or more politely, an adulteress) and that the identity of his real father is therefore up for grabs. This fantasy confers several benefits. It diminishes the authority of the father, who in the child’s imagination becomes a mere cuckold, and it allows the child to libidinize his mother, to obsess over her imagined sexual transgressions and the punishments they deserve. (Freud wrote about this syndrome only from the male point of view, but there’s obviously a female version as well.)

Among the filmmakers inspired by the family romance are Hitchcock (Psycho is the most blatant, but hardly the only, example) and Ingmar Bergman, whose scripts have become more specifically autobiographical since he allowed others to direct them. In 1992, Bille August directed The Best Intentions from a script that Bergman wrote about his parents. Private Confessions, written by Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann, is something of a sequel to that film, with Pernilla August and Samuel Froler again playing the roles of Bergman’s parents, the long-suffering Anna and the obnoxious Henrik.

The directorial credit notwithstanding, this is very much a Bergman film. The light has that Bergmanesque blue cast that’s at once cold and soft, as if the film were shot through the mist rising from a glacier (and, indeed, the cinematographer is Bergman favorite Sven Nykvist). The drama is narrowly focused on marriage and religion, to the exclusion of everything else in the world. The atmosphere is heavy with guilt and suffering. Ullmann scrutinizes her actors’ tears in interminable close-ups, much as, years ago, Bergman scrutinized her own.

The film is structured as a series of five conversations between Anna and all the important people in her adult life— with the significant exception of her children. (Such is Bergman’s repression vis-à-vis the family romance that little Ingmar and his sibling, while frequently mentioned, never appear onscreen.) These conversations are focused exclusively on an affair that Anna had when she was in her midthirties with a man much younger than herself. For Anna, the affair, though too laden with guilt to afford any pleasure except of the most masochistic variety, is the defining event of her life.

What’s strange is that everyone else is as obsessed with it as she is. Poor
Anna, the doubts that have colored her religious practice from adolescence have had the effect of throwing her into the arms of zealots. Her husband is a church official, her lover is a divinity student, her closest female friend is a missionary, her uncle (Max von Sydow) is a minister who’s still worrying about Anna’s sex life on his deathbed. The Republican right could take lessons from this crew, although unlike Bill and Monica’s adolescent hanky-panky, Anna’s affair is depicted as more a matter of disrobing than groping.

I doubt that Bergman’s script would have made much of a film even if he had directed it himself, but it might have been less confused. According to an interview in a Swedish paper, Ullmann believes the script is “a religious drama” and that Bergman would have had difficulty making it himself because of his lifelong struggle with faith and doubt. But the problem is that the script has nothing to say about religion that we haven’t heard a thousand times over. On the other hand, Bergman does have a secular insight into the deployment of power within a marriage, and the ways that Christianity both exacerbates and masks sadomasochistic sexuality. The marriage depicted in Private Confessions is a dreadful relationship that brings out the worst in both husband and wife. I can’t imagine any viewer not wanting Anna to do a Nora and just leave, but that doesn’t seem to be the film’s position, if indeed the film has a position. Perhaps Ullmann hoped that by nailing nothing down (someone please tell me what all those tiny smiles at the end are about), she’d provoke discussion. It didn’t work for me. I just wanted to put every morose minute out of my mind as soon as possible.

Takeshi Kitano also makes blue movies— blue water, blue sky, blue cars, blue music— but religion doesn’t enter the picture (although only a Zen master could balance formal rigor with spontaneity the way Kitano does in both his direction and his acting). His films are governed by the existential laws dictating the relations between cops and killers (often one and the same) and by his own playful desire to take apart film language and put it back together with more poetry and more bite. Sonatine, his most fully realized film, is a ’90s version of Breathless— not as surprising perhaps, since it’s already been done, but more implacable (to borrow an adjective from J. Hoberman). Fireworks (Hana-bi) is less perfect but more ambitious— a move in a new direction, away from genre and
into the representation of unabashed, unironicized tenderness and love. (The score by Kitano’s regular composer, Joe Hisaishi, is like Bernard Herrmann orchestrated by Nelson Riddle.)

A profoundly dialectical filmmaker, Kitano combines low comedy with high melodrama as effectively as Shakespeare; and he functions as director, writer, editor, and star of his films, all the better to assert the value of social relations. Indeed, Fireworks can be read as an ode to the empathetic, creative human connections basic to both good marriages and filmmaking.

Although they ran but briefly last year, Fireworks and Sonatine turned up on many top-10 lists, and not just in The Village Voice. The Anthology is showing both along with Takashi Ishii’s lurid Gonin, in which Kitano turns up at a crucial moment in his typical professional hit-man role. Ishii does his own spin on Kitano’s fetishized eyewear. Instead of impenetrable shades, the killer wears a white patch covering one eye. Like a camera, he operates with monocular vision.