Elvira Madigan Review
Even if you’ve never seen Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan before, there’s an air of familiarity to the whole enterprise. The use of Mozart’s instantly recognisable Piano Concerto No. 21 aids this of course, plus there’s the fact that its style has been co-opted by countless hair product commercials over the years; the pastoral setting, the soft focus colour photography, the photogenic leads - all of which are employed to tell the seventeenth century love story of Elvira Madigan and Lieutenant Sixten Sparre.
Such a seemingly facile construct prompts questions as to whether Elvira Madigan is merely a piece of shallow fluff, especially within the context of Swedish cinema as the time. Ingmar Bergman was in-between his stark psychodramas Persona and Hour of the Wolf whilst Alf Sjöberg was causing a stir with I Am Curious - Yellow, and Widerberg himself was best known for contemporary dramas which stylistically fell somewhere between the British and Czech new waves of the decade. Yet the film opens with a disclaimer which affects the mood throughout as we learn that the romance is going to conclude with the pair’s double suicide. As such Elvira Madigan is imbued with a tension which allows it to move beyond the merely pictorial and also to make us delve a little deeper into the idyllic setting in the hope of finding some clues.
Widerberg positively encourages such an approach as he dispels any signs of plotting and instead communicates through hints and allusions. In fact, Elvira Madigan isn’t so far removed from Pram and other examples of the director’s work insofar as he’s more concerned with the minor aspects and details rather than telling a story in the traditional sense. His film is littered with silences and non sequitor conversations, seemingly pointless moments that in fact tell us more than any contrived attempt at exposition would. Indeed, Widerberg’s off the cuff manner brings the period detail to life, capturing the supporting players as genuine human beings (he has an obvious talent with children) and making the various plot developments - knowledge of Sparre’s desertion and later a wife and child - seem utterly unforced. At one point he even explicitly acknowledges his disinterest in such revelations by having Elvira cover her ears during a seemingly key piece of dialogue and thus “switch off” the soundtrack.
Yet whilst Widerberg does much that is admirable throughout Elvira Madigan, he still has to fulfil the promise of the opening title and explain why the suicides took place. In this respect he’s not quite so successful, though in the film’s defence it could be noted that, much like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (though not the most obvious of reference points), it merely invites us into a situation for an hour and 20 minutes or so and then leaves us to draw our own conclusions. And yet, if we do accept this, there is still one more question: do the concluding suicides actually affect us? The answer to this one is less equivocal and undoubtedly no, meaning that for all its pleasures Elvira Madigan can never fully satisfy.
Arrow have always been variable with their DVD presentations, but Elvira Madigan is one of their best despite a complete lack of extras. The original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is preserved and whilst there are occasional scratches and some barely visible tramlining during the final third, the print is pretty much pristine. The colours - arguably the film’s strongest point - are superbly captured and the image remains as crisp as the soft focus photography will allow. The soundtrack fares even better, the only point of contention being that the Mozart sounds a little trebly at times. This may, however, have been a problem with Widerberg’s source and otherwise the soundtrack is faultless.