All These Women Review
Although Ingmar Bergman isn’t a director one instantly associates with comedy, he’s done rather more work in the genre than might be expected, including films such as Secrets Of Women and Lesson In Love. Most famously, Smiles Of A Summer Night is a richly comic, if also poignant, examination of the sexual mores of all-too flawed human beings and this film forms the culmination of what Bergman has described as his ‘rose’ period. Some of his later work also contains comic elements, notably Wild Strawberries and Fanny and Alexander where the comedy combines seamlessly with the more ‘Bergmanesque’ elements. Indeed, one of Bergman’s ‘blackest’ films, The Seventh Seal has a vital stream of life-enhancing comedy in the form of Gunner Bjornstrand’s warm and humorous performance as the Squire.
Yet All These Women still comes across as, for want of a better word, as an anomaly. It’s understandable that Bergman should have wanted to lighten up after his trilogy of faith, his most negative statements about the state of the world up to that time. It’s also interesting to note that this was his first film in colour and possibly he thought that colour was more suited to the frivolous style than to an intense study of God’s absence. But the comedy in the film is very different to the comic elements in his previous films. Granted, Smiles of a Summer Night is basically a sex comedy but it’s also a reflective and gently sad film which reminds us that time’s winged chariot is always hurrying near. All These Women, on the other hand, is sex farce in which any sense of human reality seems to be deliberately seconded to broad humour and a headlong rush to the finish. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but from Bergman we perhaps have the right to expect a bit more than we’d get from a French boulevardier comedy. Possibly puzzled by this lack of depth, Bergman scholars have made numerous efforts to place the film within his filmography by emphasising elements which, if they are there, exist only parenthetically.
The film concerns the efforts of a pompous music critic named Cornelius (Kulle) to interview Felix, a famous cellist for whom he is to be the official biographer. His attempts to interview the maestro are continually frustrated by the group of women who live in the house; the wife and the various mistresses. It begins as if constrained by a proscenium arch, with the dead maestro in his coffin and the other characters introduced into a static scene narrated by two male servants. The deadening effect of this prelude is such that you begin to dread the film. It’s obvious that it’s supposed to be funny but the performances of the footmen and the biographer are uncomfortably broad right from the start. A burst of ragtime jazz takes us three days into the past and the story begins to unfold. One’s initial doubts are compounded with a lengthy series of misunderstandings in which Cornelius mistakes the valet and chauffeur for Felix. Jarl Kulle’s performance is a classic example of how not to play comedy. Kulle was very effective in Smiles of a Summer Night, where he was under the strict control of a director who knew exactly what he wanted, but he’s a disaster in this ill-advisedly freewheeling film. He has no idea of how to underplay a line and the more he mugs and preens, the more irritating he becomes. Cornelius is meant to be a smug idiot but Kulle’s performance suggests that he’s somehow mentally deficient. Because everything is overstated, the attempts at more subtle comedy – the Eric Morecambe style of talking rubbish in confidence as if it were a great secret, for example – don’t work. Kulle is certainly game and he undergoes his humiliations with energy and a certain physical grace, but the total lack of reality in the character and the broad overplaying keep Cornelius too distant from us for his increasing delirium to be shared with the audience. By the time he’s been reduced to wearing women’s clothing and dodged fireworks, the plot seems to have gone so far out of control that Kulle’s panic looks less like acting and more like the desperation of an actor who knows that the film he’s in seems to be collapsing around his ears.
Ignoring the mindless plot and the dire performance of Kulle, there are things to admire in All These Women. The performances of the women are generally far superior to those of the men and there are memorable moments from two Bergman regulars: Harriet Andersson – so memorable in Through A Glass Darkly - and Bibi Andersson – who would reach her zenith as a performer in Bergman’s next film, Persona. Indeed, on a technical level, the visuals are often beautiful. Although the camera is a little static at times, Bergman’s framing remains a thing of wonder and he can get more out of a one-set scene than some directors can get out of six weeks on location. It’s also stunningly well photographed by Sven Nykvist, working with colour for the first time. The delicate shades of blue and pink are beautifully handled, giving the film a soft, sensual appearance which promises a comic grace that is never delivered.
Yet the film has to be counted as a major failure and one of the few Bergman films which doesn’t work on any level. It’s easy to forgive comedy for not being funny, particularly when it seems to be rooted in a national context that is pretty much alien to us. But it’s hard to forgive a film which is so badly paced and overplayed. Ingmar Bergman seems to hate the film. In “The Magic Lantern”, he describes it as “a complete and well-deserved fiasco” and calls it an “superficial and artificial comedy”. It may well be that the film didn’t receive the full attention he had given his previous work, The Silence, because of Bergman’s personal circumstances at the time. In December 1962, he became Managing Director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre and found himself in charge of a theatre “in an advanced state of disintegration” (p.44, ‘Images’) which required a good deal of his time and effort. His decision not to abandon All These Women was taken out of loyalty to his long time partners at Svensk Filmindustri but it was one that he regretted – especially since the commercial and critical failure of the film came during the same week that his theatrical production of “Three Knives From Wei” was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. The melancholia and reflectiveness that some writers have claimed to find in the film seem to me to be wishful thinking at what might be there if it were a better film, than analysis of what can be found by looking.
I don’t think that Bergman’s style necessarily mitigates against comedy. Smiles of a Summer Night is one of the most beautifully comic films ever made, so evanescent that it can barely be grasped by the mind before it drifts away on the wind. In that film, the material of bedroom farce is transformed into poetic comedy which owes as much to Shakespeare as Feydeau. If only this tone could have been recaptured in All These Women then we could have had an ironic comedy of sexual manners which makes fun of the pretensions of mediocrities who snap at the heels of celebrity without ever finding a knowledge of themselves. Instead, Bergman encourages his cast to scream, shout, giggle and generally behave as if they’re engaged in something irresistibly amusing. The effort is superfluous, sadly, because All These Women never even gets off the ground.
Tartan's DVD release of All These Women is well up to the technical standards of the rest of their Ingmar Bergman collection. As usual, however, the extra features are limited and it's difficult not to think that the RRP is rather too high for what is a fairly barebones package.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Bergman filmed in the Academy ratio right up until Persona. This, as stated above, was his first film in colour and the gorgeous cinematography is given a fine presentation here. The image is suitably sharp and clear and there are no significant problems with artefacting.
Nor does the soundtrack present any problems. It's the original Swedish mono, accompanied by clear English subtitles.
The only extras on the disc are some brief filmographies and theatrical trailers for Persona and Autumn Sonata. The back cover promises a booklet of film notes by Philip Strick but these were not present in my review copy. I assume they will be of a similar standard to the excellent notes which have been included on the disc for previous releases.
All These Women is one of the oddest films I've ever seen and I can't quite see who, other than Bergman fanatics, is going to be find it interesting. However, if you are keen to see the film then this release is obviously the best way to do so since I don't think it's ever looked quite as good as it does here.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:13:21