When does a husband stop being the person you wed and become someone different? That old conjugal angst is given new life in A Song for Martin (First Look, opens June 28), veteran Danish director Bille August’s probing exploration of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease upon those closest to the sufferer. Based upon Ulla Isaksson’s novel A Book About E, the film chronicles the relationship between Martin (Sven Wollter), a famous conductor-composer, and Barbara (Viveka Seldahl), the first violinist in an orchestra. Married to other people and well advanced in years, they fall madly in love.
Is it partly because Wollter and the late Seldahl were a couple in real life that their on-screen scenes of newlywed bliss appear forced and fussy? But the depth of their connection soon becomes apparent when Martin and Barbara settle down to married life (and a working musical partnership) in a romantic retreat on the Swedish coast. Slowly, both his artistic absentmindedness and his ordinary masculine failings—confusing her name, for example, with that of his ex-wife—begin to take on a disturbing cast. One night, at the premiere of his latest work, he stops his baton in midair, and loses his place for good.
Like his mentor, Ingmar Bergman, August is obsessed (though less spectacularly) with female psychology, and in particular, the strange self-sufficiency that sometimes accompanies women’s acts of devotion. Seldahl’s Barbara is a precise and moving portrait of someone whose world is turned upside down, first by passion and then by illness. Her tug-of-war with her husband as he tests her patience (gradually losing both memory and individuality) is remarkably revealing of the complex dynamics between partners—scenes from a marriage unfolding at the limits of love and personality.