It's that Bergman again AUTS
A few years ago a possibly apocryphal story was going the rounds about Orson Welles, wan- dering casually into the middle of some film festival screening and emerging briskly ten minutes later with the anguished yelp, 'My God, it's a Robert Bresson film!' Whatever Welles may be assumed to have felt about Bresson's world, I must admit, however reluctantly, to feeling now about Ingmar Bergman's. His films look progressively more hermetic—a hospital without visiting days, where surgeon Bergman and matron Bergman brood over the condition of patient Bergman. More and more, they seem to work as if by an imposition of will; which in turn, I suppose, stiffens the impulse to resist- ance in oneself. And if ever there was an occa- sion for admitting anti-Bergman prejudice, it must be with Persona (Academy Two, 'X'). Enigmatic, tantalising, unsympathetic: what- ever else, it's dead centre to the Bergman canon.
The story—a rash word, perhaps, in this con- text—concerns two women. Elizabeth Vogler, an actress in her thirties, suddenly freezes up one night during a performance of Electra. She later admits (a most unBergmanian subtitle) to 'getting the giggles'; but after this explanation she speaks no more, and we first meet her in hospital under psychiatric treatment. Alma, a young nurse bristling with apparent sense and optimism, is, assigned to the case and packed off with her patient to a lonely seaside cottage. The psychiatrist's initial 'explanation' posits a situation: the actress is tired of playing a part in private as in public, tired of all -the dishonest surfaces of life. Rather than confront the 'vul- garity' of suicide, she has chosen silence. When we first meet her alone, she's reacting with open- mouthed horror to a Tv news shot of a Budd- hist monk burning himself to death: behind her silence is the cruelty she can't face—and Berg- man later suggests that only the threat of physical pain to herself can momentarily breach her defences.
What exactly happens between Elizabeth and Alma at the beach house depends on how one reads the film. At first, something approaching friendship : Alma cajoling her patient, basking in her smiles, treating her as confidante, buoyed up by responsibility for the great actress whom she likes to think she resembles. Then Alma accidentally reads a cruelly revealing letter from Elizabeth to the psychiatrist (less cruel in the quotations we're given, incidentally, than in Alma's reaction). The convalescent mood shatters: Alma hurls herself savagely, hysteri- cally, against the blank, bland wall of silence.
One can see the duel between the two women as a bizarre transference of personality—Alma inheriting Elizabeth's woes. Or suggest that the actress is voraciously battening on her nurse (art, as it were, devouring life); or argue that it's effectively Alma's mind we are concerned with, as she projects her fantasies and guilts on to her patient. In any case, the women enig- matically confront each other like mirror images; and the. whole form of the film is de- vised to leave doors of interpretation ajar. For at the beginning and end—with shots of blazing lights, film running through a projector—and in the middle, when in one shot the celluloid seems physically to burn itself up, Bergman stresses that this is a film we're watching. (Not that it's only a film: that would be something else again.) An opening sequence of images, among them the ubiquitous Bergman spider, includes a shot of a nail being hammered into a hand. It is no less painful to watch—perhaps more painful—than the 'real' shot of the Budd- hist's suicide. But reason argues that the shot with the nail is faked, to make a characteristic- ally elliptical comment on the cinema's powers of assault. (Later, Bergman fits a quite un- related commentary, in English, on to the TV suicide shot.) And so one is led deviously back to Bergman's central battleground : to the problems of truth and the position of the artist as liar. (No acci- dent, of course, that Elizabeth shares her sur- name with the charlatan in The Face.) Berg- man's recognition of the hypnotic power of his own art is a constant factor in Persona: like Antonioni in Blow-Up, though for different ends, he contrives to suggest that a dialogue about the artist's relationship with his work is the film's driving force. The form, including shots of the film unit at work, gives us every chance to assume that the face in the mirror is ultimately Ingmar Bergman's.
One need hardly add that Persona is acted with dazzling perception by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, as silent patient and be- leaguered nurse; that it's immaculately shot by Sven N:'kvist; that the timing is masterly and the pressure unrelenting. If one finds the effect suffocating, it's because Bergman's dramatic material seems to exist to be used up rather than explored, as though air were being drained out by all these excruciating turnings of the screw, and none being let in. Maybe one's quarrel with Bergman has to do with a feeling that even austerity begins to look like a special kind of emotional self-indulgence.
In its own way, The Dirty Dozen (Leicester Square Theatre, 'X') is also fairly enigmatic, as well as being as unappealing a film as one's likely to meet in a month of Sundays. Just be- fore D-Day, a leathery, steel-chewing Ameri- can major (Lee Marvin) is given command of a desperation squad of military prisoners, tem- porarily reprieved from hanging or twenty-year sentences to be bashed and bullied into shape for a secret mission. No one, including the General Staff, seems to have much faith in this unlikely venture. But within weeks the squad
of near-idiots and psychopaths are showing their special soldierly qualities by cheating their %slay to victory in an improbable war game. The eventual target—a château in Brittany used as a German officers' recreation centre—finds them really on their mettle, shovelling hand- grenades and petrol down the air-shafts of the underground shelter where the Germans and their women have taken refuge.
One could, no doubt, if sufficiently deter- mined, see all this as some deep, dark (in fact, practically subterranean) satire on the military mind. But there's precious little evidence of irony in Robert Aldrich's direction or the script, by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller. Rather, the sense of the way the film is shot suggests unpromising human material redeemed by gaining and team spirit for heroic deaths. Victories of dishevelled thuggishness over mili- tary spit-and-polish are throughout gloat- ingly celebrated; the film ends up looking sadistic to all its characters. In America, at this moment in the Vietnam war. The Dirty Dozen's double-edged callousness has been rewarded by a thumping box-office triumph. It's going to be depressingly enlightening, I suspect, to watch the British box-office figures.
Of the two almost real-life crime films, Roger Corman's St Valentine's Day Massacre (Rialto, 'X') has the edge all the way on Robbery (Odeon, Marble Arch, '11'), the somewhat gin- gerly retelling of the Great Train story. The English film is tidily directed by Peter Yates, kicks off with a supercharged car chase, but in dodging (for obvious reasons) too close identi- fication takes shelter in cliché. The total effect is like a replay of a sporting contest, a kind of World Cup for crooks. Corman's film deals in facts, names and dates: a plain man's history of how four of Al Capone's gang came to shoot down seven of Bugs Moran's in the Chicago garage on St Valentine's Day, 1929. But the film never looks plain; there's a relish for detail (cut glass and carnations for mobsters' conferences; gunmen driving down rainwashed streets) which makes for style. It's a cool, violent film, romantic in a disciplined, disenchanted way about its battling gangsters.