14 MARCH 1958, Page 14


Cardboard Pastoral

By ISABEL QUIGLY The Seventh Seal. (Academy.) 'COLD, spacious, severe, pale, and remote . . . a vision of huge clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer': this might have been written about Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. But it wasn't: it is C. S. Lewis's way of describing, in his autobio- graphy, a powerful feeling that exercised his imagination as a child, one he called 'Northern- ness.' We all of us have these private mental countries we have never visited; and a film can conjure them, can give us a sympathy, a general diffused nostalgia for something or somewhere, some legend or place we have never seen, that perhaps never existed; and for the moment make it hypnotically solid. Being a selector and pruner, it is necessarily a concentrator of life; and so of atmosphere. Present-day Scandinavia's rather obtrusive modernity tends to overlay its 'Northernness'; but its films distil it, and present it to us net and unmistakable.

Ingmar Bergman is a director whose visual sense (as anyone who saw his Smiles of a Summer Night in 1956 will remember) is exquisite and calculated, and with a kind of visionary shimmer to it that reminds one of an extremely precise and tidy dream. While he sticks to tidy dreams, and human fantasies involving puppets, not people, things are all very well, for the formal beauty of his groups and landscapes is breathtaking; but when he tries to get to grips with the real world, however allegorically, and to ask questions about the human condition, he seems bankrupt. The Seventh Seal is an immensely ambitious film, its theme being God, Man, and the Universe, no less; it asks the timeless questions about the reasons for our living and the outcome of our dying, using a medixval pattern of society with clear modern applications, and a number of recognisable and valid symbols to do so. It has haunting faces in it, magnificent set-pieces, great sweeps of sea or land- scape, horrors given the agitated poetry of a medimval hell-scene. And the result, I find, is merely tawdry and glum. One does not expect clear answers, or even answers at all, to all the sad knight's questions; but Ingmar Bergman has used his symbols spuriously, and for all his firm technical grasp of his material there is such inadequacy, such moral poverty beside visual richness, that one comes out with a feeling of blank disappointment and gloom, having expected bread and being given a mouthful of diamonds—priceless things in their place, but not to satisfy hunger. The characters in this shiny morality play are a knight coming home from the Crusades, a man with a splendid ruined face that seems to have seen through hell and out at the other side, and his Sancho Panza of a bawdy squire; a pair of strolling players, he a simple visionary, she a simple non-visionary, and their baby; a witch on her way to the stake, with cropped head and a face that, as the knight's seems to show all mental torment, seems to have suffered physically beyond imagination; three fat ground- lings, a blacksmith, his wife, and her lover; and a chorus of flagellant penitents fleeing the plague that to them means the end of the world. And there is Death, a hooded but not too sinister figure who plays a game of chess for the knight's life.

All these figures, and the full background of life—both mediaeval and modern—they represent, add up to very little beyond a picturesque ballet. The lessons they are made to point are facile and sensational, and one has the feeling of listening to an adult fairy-story whose teller, and whose audience, no longer believes in fairies. When I saw Smiles of a Summer Night I called it 'pedantically sophisticated'; and, even allowing for its greater sweep and power, I think the words apply to The Seventh Seal as well. Happiness, as nobody will deny, and perhaps the meaning of life, can be found in simplicity—a family group, a plate of strawberries, a bowl of milk, as the knight finds— but the simplicity of this film has a forced air about it, like the court at Versailles playing at milk- maids. To pit a piece of cardboard pastoral against all the ills of the world and the complexity of man seems inadequate, not because it is pastoral but because the whole thing—the framework of the entire film—is cardboard.