3 MARCH 1961, Page 18


And Yet So Far

By ISABEL QUIGLY So Near to Life. (Academy.) INGMAR BERGMAN'S latest BIM to reach us, So Near to Life ('X' certificate), is, to put it very mildly, a surprise, being (unlike his usual oblique, circuitous, subtle and visually exotic view of things) realistic in method, and sentimental in plot. The tricks of style we associate with Berg- man have vanished. His direction is altt►ost dis- concertingly straight: no dreams, no visual duality, no lyricism, no skips in time, no fun with the subconscious, no comment, even; little metaphor, and few dramatic shots or shocks. The cold white light is still there, but it is an indoor light, clinical instead of weird; far removed in spirit from the woods and heaths and all the wild landscapes with figures we generally asso- ciate with Bergman. Almost everything that is said (and that's not a lot, this being a highly non-committal work) is said through faces; and when one of the faces is Ingrid Thulin's—she was the daughter-in-law in Wild Strawberries—it is said with eloquence. All the acting, talking of faces, is superb. Besides Ingrid Thulin there are two other familiar Bergman actresses: Bibi Andersson, who appears in pretty well everything (Sara in Wild Strawberries), and Eva Dahlbeck, who got stuck in the lift in Lesson in Love; and the Cannes jury, with superlative tact, gave them a collective 'best actress' award. For a few minutes there is Max von Sydow, too, the knight of The Seventh Seal and familiar elsewhere in every sort of part. The action takes place in a small ward of a maternity hospital, where one woman has a miscarriage, another is saved from one, and a third has a baby, but it dies. The film has been called Bergman's statement on birth, on the beginning of life, as Wild Strawberries is his statement on death and the end of it. To me it seems like no particular statement on anything.

It is the best example I can think of, in fact, of visual realism pushed to its furthest limits, and of straight, non-slanted, non-committed realism in the director's attitude. There have been more violently realistic scenes in films before now— both the rape and the murder scenes in Rocco arc far 'stronger,' more affecting, more terrifying, more likely to make you faint or fly out scream- ing, than anything here—but none that I can think of so'clinically (if it didn't sound absurd I would say so photographically) realistic as this is. That cold white light again, that icy perfection of detail, the very hospitalish feeling it gives of bodies, as it were, in the mass, not belonging individually to their owners, not in any way private or personal and never tenderly or per- sonally or even sensually observed: this is all at the very opposite end of the pole from the way the same subject, childbirth, was treated in The Case of Dr. Laurent, for instance, which was in fact franker (the birth of a baby was actually shown on the screen), but never lost its feeling for the woman's individuality, for her body as some- thing personal, worthy of respect; for her modesty, if you like. There, the physic-al detail was miraculous; here, it is painful and--I can't avoid the word—sordid.

I think a parallel can be made between the way you treat childbirth and the way you treat love- making in the cinema. A love scene like the one near the railway line in L'Avventura is (whatever the Roman censor may have had to say about it) the very opposite of obscene, because it shows passionate feeling between people we already feel for, whose personalities we know and who we know love each other: the direct opposite of that would be a 'blue film' showing passionate action .between people we have no feeling for at all, . anonymous bodies without feeling for each other, without individuality. And with childbirth in the same sort of way : in outsiders, in the uninvolved and the unloving, the physiological facts on their own (watched cold, that is) tend to arouse little but embarrassment and discomfort (especially. I suppose, among men, some of whose embarrass- ment and discomfort at the press show had to be seen to be believed); in fact, they come between the outsider and the experience, an experience that is far too great to be put across (especially by so chilling an observer as Bergman) in visual terms alone, and can be suggested only obliquely. Direct realism is as inadequate as the prudish old system (only a few years ago, in Hollywood at least) of keeping everyone pencil-slim up till the very last minute. That was nonsense; but this is misleading.

It's happened before. of course, less extremely: , a while ago Jennifer Jones grunted and thrashed about at the end of ,9 Farewell to Arms, and. as I think I said at the time, conveyed no more impression of childbirth than a textbook of physiology conveys about love. In So Near to Life a far more skilful director shows us an agonising labour: no mere grunting and thrash- ing, but the full thing: pain can seldom have been put across with more savage success (if that's what you can call it) on the screen. But what does this mean, what does it tell us, what does it accomplish? /Esthetically it is almost beyond bearing and even realistically it misleads, because it shows us nothing but a woman in torment, and for all the feeling of childbirth it gives, she might be screaming with appendicitis. Bergman is said to have softened, grown more sympathetic and involved, in this film. Certainly, as I said before, he is sentimental. But he still lacks tenderness, or perhaps just plain humariii„,. 'and his untender and rather anti-human eye seems happier in more bizarre situations: turned on to clocks, and Collins. and macabrely illumined images of every sort but the homely. Thc►e, it kills.