A Lesson In Love Review

A master of delineating the internal tensions that give rise to conflicts in relationships, Ingmar Bergman was not quite so assured when called upon to work in the field of comedy. Pondering this in his book Images: My Life in Film, Bergman recalls his early failures at comedy skits - "I brooded a good deal over how others could so easily make people laugh. Even if my life depended on it, I couldn't figure out how they did it." Unfortunately, commercial considerations meant that his life quite literally did depend on being able to be funny and entertaining. Bergman's first attempt in the genre came about in one segment of Waiting Women, based on a real-life experience of being trapped in a lift with his wife. Bergman expanded on the success of this little farce and brought back Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand to work the same magic over a full-length film, but quickly (and justifiably) got cold feet about his ability to make the material of one scene work. Prepared to abandon the film, he neverthless left it to Dahlbeck and Björnstrand to show him how the scene could work and, putting his trust in the skills of the actors, Bergman went on to make his first comedy.

Björnstrand plays Dr. David Erneman, an eminent gynaecologist who has been married for 16 years to Marianne (Dahlbeck). Although he enjoys the comforts and security of married life and sees scores of women in an intimate manner on a daily basis, he still can’t resist the fire of attraction when he meets a beautiful young girl. He is currently conducting an affair with Mrs Verin, but when he finds out that his wife Marianne also has a lover – Carl-Adam, the man she once left at the altar for him – it’s a blow to his pride and his security.

The whole theme of love, attraction, sex, marriage and divorce is a subject that Bergman has visited many times and once or twice in a similar playful sex-comedy manner, but A Lesson in Love, notwithstanding the success of the double-act pairing of Dahlbeck and Björnstrand in the earlier comedy segment of Waiting Women, is not one of his better forays into the subject. Unlike the lightness of touch the director would employ to bring out the natural pleasures and warmth arising out of the situations in Smiles of a Summer’s Night (1957), Bergman here in his earlier film strives to adopt a clever, witty tone he would also later employ in All These Women (1964), and similarly fail to convince.

In many ways though the film A Lesson in Love (‘En Lektion I Kärlek’) most closely resembles is Bergman’s 1973 TV-series Scenes From A Marriage, which similarly features an apparently idyllic married couple – the wife is also called Marianne – who are also unable to reconcile the comforts of married life with the desire to escape from its suffocating complacency. Like Johan, Dr. Erneman is a pathetic character, struggling to justify his infidelities with clever theories, bemoaning his weakness, while at the same time seeking comprehension from his wife and maternal direction. Both couples also have to consider the effect the break-up of their marriage would have on their children and how they are going to tell their parents about it. A Lesson in Love seeks to expose the hypocrisies of bourgeois marriage and society’s attitudes to affairs, relationships and marriage and to some degree it does hit on some truisms about male/female relationships, albeit in a generalised and much too neatly packaged manner. A Lesson in Love has none of the keener sense of realism, acuity and, probably more importantly, experience that the director would be able to bring to the subject 20 years later.

Even regulars from Bergman’s troupe of actors fail to give the film any weight or even charm here. Gunnar Björnstrand is equally good at serious and comedy roles, but the farcical nature of the material here doesn't really give him a lot to work with. Harriet Andersson, usually so reliable, overplays in trying to convince as the couple’s brattish 15 year-old daughter, Nix. Most of what is good about A Lesson in Love comes from Eva Dahlbeck’s Marianne, displaying a fiery temperament that is unimaginable from the elegance of her external appearance and suave demeanour. Her furious reactions to David’s behaviour give rise to the few explosively funny moments that make the film worth more than all the clever philosophising and moralising.

Tartan’s release of A Lesson in Love, like their other Bergman Collection releases is Region 0.

The picture is a little bit grainy and just the tiniest bit on the soft side. The detail that ought to be there in the blacks – which can be seen in the other Tartan Bergman titles – isn’t there, the image looking a little too bright, flattening tones and making brighter scenes glare slightly. It still looks fabulous – though just not as crisp, as sharp and as detailed as it should. Artefacts are clearly visible in some minor fluctuation of backgrounds and there are one or two dustspots, but very few marks in a print that looks perfectly preserved.

The original mono soundtrack is presented as Dolby Digital 1.0 through the centre speaker only. The audio is also not as clear as it ought to be. There’s a lot of vibration around voices and harshness of tone on the soundtrack.

Optional English subtitles are provided in white font, and are clear and easily readable.

I rather miss the excerpts from Bergman’s book that were hugely informative extras on earlier Tartan Bergman releases and included on the discs themselves. The Philip Strick Notes are advertised though, which are usually very informative and insightful, though they were not on my review disc. I'm reliably informed that they are now included in a separate booklet. Otherwise we have little that is relevant to the film – an Autumn Sonata Trailer (2:22) is presented in 1.66:1 letterbox, a Persona Trailer (2:30), presented in 1.85:1 letterbox with a voice-over of critics notices. Both trailers are stunning advertisements for the films. There is an extensive Ingmar Bergman Filmography which includes his TV, production, writing and acting work, an Eva Dahlbeck Filmography and a Gunnar Björnstrand Filmography.

A Lesson in Love is an interesting early example of Bergman trying to find a comfortable style to present his thoughts and philosophies about relationships and make commercially appealing films - but the two just aren't compatible as far as Bergman is concerned. The film has some good moments and observations and looks terrific, but it is all too neatly packaged and is neither as clever nor as witty as it thinks it is. The DVD, barring a few minor niggles, looks as fabulous as most of Tartan’s Bergman Collection releases, particularly for a film this old, though apart from informative film notes, there is little in the extras that is relevant to the film.

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