On an impulse she cannot diagnose, Marianne (Ullman) travels to see her ex-husband. She finds him slumped in a chair, a blanket over his knee, his right hand dithering. So begins the first of ten dialogues that form Saraband's immaculate structure. Taking its title from an 17th and 18th century erotic dance for two, for which Bach composed, Saraband could equally be titled Ten Solos That Climax In Weeping.
The Ingmar Bergman of the popular imagination is a gloomy, death-obsessed miserablist, a byword for portentous, absurdly depressing films. It was the trilogy of Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence that fixed the Swedish director's popular reputation as a cinematic sourpuss.
Yet this stereotype denies the richness of Bergman's work. One of cinema's undisputed geniuses, he is an artist whose imagination - like that of Shakespeare - ranges across all human life; he is as adept at exploring the inner lives of women as the delusions of men; his young children are as convincing as his alienated adolescents. In his epic Fanny And Alexander, all of life is affirmed. Against critics of his existential angst, one wants to show them Bergman the bawd with a good eye for slatterns in My Summer With Monika, the straw-chewing, throw-a-maiden-on-a-haystack lasciviousness of Smiles Of A Summer Night.
Unfortunately Saraband is unleavened by the comedy of sex. It is existential gruel, ten portions of misery handed down from the master. Compelling and intense, it is also pitiless.
What Marianne discovers in the household of her ex-husband is a family lopsided by the death of Johan's daughter-in-law, Anna. His son Henrik (Ahlstedt) is holed up in a nearby cottage with daughter Karin (Dufvenius). She is a talented cellist whose education he has taken upon himself. She is all he has left. They share a bed. It is a terrible, suffocating love.
As for hate, we turn to the relationship between Johan and Henrik. The mutual loathing between father and son is electrifying. The old man is rich and Henrik is not, yet there is no question of an early inheritance for the middle-aged son. The father loathes his child's emotional muddle, his soft chubby features, his weakness - physiologically inscribed. Their scenes play out emotions rarely permitted in cinema; the only antecedent seems to come from literature; as in Saul Bellow's 'Seize The Day', the old man is reluctant to take on the troubles of his fat, failed son.
Their hatred stems from two sources. One is an old slight, inspired by something once said to Bergman. "In a quarrel with one of my sons, I said: 'I know I've been a lousy father.' He said: 'A father? You haven't been a father at all!'" The other well of hate is the son's relationship with the lost, beloved Anna. They both grieve her. Johan can't believe his son inspired the love of such a saint. A black-and-white photograph of Anna recurs like a traumatic memory; Bergman's beloved fifth wife died in 1995, also from cancer.
With its formal structure of dialogues, Saraband is more theatrical rather than cinematic. The director has described the characters as soloists; certainly, they hold nothing back when exposing their fears and hatred. They are as candid as interior monologues; terrible confrontations with the merciless facts of our existence. There are no comfort blankets here, with only the odd glimmer of Bach shining through the cold black void of meaningless nothing.
At times, the dialogue tips over into existential kitsch. Johan self -pities about already being in hell. "My life has been shit," he spits, "A thoroughly, meaningless idiotic existence." By the close of the film, the old people are naked and weeping, which is never a good sign.
Writing at the time of the last major Bergman retrospective, critic Mark Cousins spoke about his generation's rediscovery of the great director. In their youth, they had idolized the snap and crack of 1970s American cinema, of Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola and saw the likes of Bergman as being the darling of a previous age of critics, all black polo necks, Gitanes and earnest arguments about world cinema. Rediscovering Bergman, Cousins declared that here was a body of work more suited to viewing in middle age, with its wry observation of human feelings and the insistent pull of death, like a black fish on a line.
With Saraband, we are getting Bergman's dispatch on old age, and it's bad news that comes crackling down the wires. The skull no longer laughs. Not only does death await, but life too is shit. You wonder if this is too selfish a diagnosis of the human condition.