Opinion

2021 is the year of Bergman horror

Why a 1973 Swedish TV series is the biggest cultural influence of the year

You can make a horror movie scarier by watching it in the dark, and you can make an Ingmar Bergman film more distressing by watching it with your partner.

At the end of an ordinary horror movie, you feel reassured by the fact that none of it was real, that all the ghosts and monsters can't actually hurt you. But Bergman's films have no such release. Their horror could happen to you, to your relationship, to you and the person you love, sitting next to you in the same perduring unease.

So what does it say about our society that the most influential material of 2021 is Bergman's 1973 miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage, which supposedly increased the Swedish divorce rate after it aired?

After all, Bergman — the late director not only of Scenes but of dozens of other masterpieces like Persona, The Seventh Seal, and Fanny and Alexander — is indisputably having a moment. There's HBO's terrifically acted remake of Scenes from a Marriage, but also Master of None's queer retelling of the same story, and the Bergmanesque Malcolm & Marie and State of the Union, and Mia Hansen-Løve's wonderful hat-tip to the director in the forthcoming Bergman Island.

Perhaps this sudden uptick is just about access. The Criterion Collection released a box set of Bergman's work for his 100th birthday in 2018, and three years is long enough for that influence to show up in cinephiles' new productions. But Bergman's dominance this year also reflects a disquiet and malaise in our culture. The director's brooding work has a timely resonance in this pandemic year.

Bergman Island, especially, serves as a keystone for understanding 2021's Bergmanaissance. Airing at the New York Film Festival next weekend with an Oct. 15 theatrical release date, the movie marks the highly-anticipated return of Phantom Thread actress Vicky Krieps as Chris, a filmmaker who travels with her husband Tony (Tim Roth) to work on their screenplays on Fårö. The small, windswept Baltic Sea island was Bergman's adopted home until his death in 2007. Hansen-Løve (who, like Chris, partners with a beloved director more than 20 years her senior) explores many of the same themes that tormented Bergman, though she breaks with the director by choosing a frame of optimism. 

It is Chris who best sums up the reason we're drawn to Bergman's work still. After watching his 1972 film Cries and Whispers — which wrestles with questions of mortality and God — she describes it as being "like a horror movie without catharsis." The romantic and spiritual isolation Bergman depicts isn't escapable in modern life. That's why the legend of Scenes from a Marriage causing so many divorces has endured: It's believable. Unlike tales of ghosts and monsters, Bergman's work has a funny way of bleeding into real life.

That's especially true now. Why invent fictional horrors when we're basically living in our own horror movie, between the COVID-19 pandemic and our political ennui in the face of environmental catastrophe? Far more compelling for us are the stories that prick at a quieter sort of torment, the kind that plays out entirely within a single household. Though he never lived to see these strange times, Bergman remains the master of this particular tonal atmosphere. While the pandemic isn't prominent in any of this year's Bergman-inspired projects, the claustrophobic premises feel immediately familiar. 

There's a simple, practical element to Bergman's resurgence as well: It's easier and safer to produce small-scale dramas during a pandemic. HBO's Scenes from a Marriage plays into that observation quite literally, showing the cast and crew in masks getting ready before the actors enter the sets. That fusion of our pandemic-era reality with the fictional exploration of the suffocating expectations of a partnership highlights the already-obvious parallels when we're living on top of each other. Fårö, quarantine: Both, it turns out, are perfect isolation chambers for examining people under extreme domestic and spiritual pressure.

At the same time, Bergman's works are distant enough from current events that they don't retraumatize us. They permit self-analysis with a welcome detachment. We can look at ourselves through the lens of another era's problems. Indeed, while the director can still stoke a sense of dread, there's a sense watching things like HBO's Scenes that we've survived the dreadful things that preoccupied Bergman. It's not insignificant that Bergman Island ends in a way that isn't Bergmanesque at all, that there's a peace to it which the legendary filmmaker never quite found.

At one point in Bergman Island, Chris and Tony are told that above all else, Bergman believed in ghosts. It's fitting, then, to see the director make a return now, to find his ectoplasmic fingerprints on our culture once more. For though Bergman's work dealt with physical, spiritual, and romantic isolation during his lifetime, these many years later his projects are reminders of all who've encountered these monsters before us — and endured.

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