Photographs obscure the entire surface of a desk behind which Marianne (Liv Ullmann) is seated. It's a collection that is the measure of a lifetime. Marianne chooses a picture from the hodgepodge and there's a string of memory. As she speaks, we feel thoroughly planted in the present because of her proximity to the camera, but the spare, brightly lit background bespeaks a dreamscape, a peek at the past, hers and Ingmar Bergman's, for Liv Ullmann has been and remains the Swedish director's alter ego. In Saraband, in what is likely to be the writer-director's final picture, we find him at 87 sifting through his pictures, wondering at the choices he's made, imagining what life might have been had he been able to grasp more than a fleeting experience of love.
The "saraband" was an erotic gypsy dance performed with tambourines and castanets. It was once famously denounced by Cervantes, but later, transformed to a more refined tempo, it became a courtly dance. In the late 17th century, the distinctive rhythm of the saraband began to appear in instrumental music as the third of four movements in a suite, a short composition linked by a common key. These origins wind their way into Saraband, which on the surface is Bergman's return to Scenes from a Marriage, and the reprisal of the roles Ullmann and Erland Josephson played in that movie. This is Marianne and Johan, the troubled couple, 30 years later, still unable to break free of each other.
As a suite, a composition in four parts, Saraband follows two other characters, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), Johan's son from a later marriage, now estranged, and Henrik's daughter Karin Julia Dufvenius), a gifted young cellist. True to the form of a classical suite (now called a divertimento), Bergman's script ends in the symbolic third movement, the saraband, before the resolution of the gigue. That's as it should be: He and the actors who inhabit his "pictures" are still alive.
Just as eroticism characterized the gypsy saraband, it defines the relationships shared by Bergman's characters. Marianne feels compelled to visit her ex-husband for reasons she cannot readily admit to, but the flirtation that follows reveals her unconscious wish for a renewed sexual attraction. Between Henrik and Karin there is an unmistakable undercurrent of incestuous desire, briefly consummated by a parting kiss. Theirs is an explosive passion inspired by music, for both Henrik and Karin play the cello. He is her mentor. Henrik's beloved wife Anna once mitigated his relationship with his daughter, but when the film opens she's been dead for a few years and Henrik has lost interest in everything but Karin. In the vignette-like structure of the film, music is also an entr'acte: For Henrik, playing is a pause in his unremitting grief, and for Johan, who listens to music at a blaring volume, it is an expression of his unarticulated disgust-at aging, at failing to influence his granddaughter, and at the unexpected and somewhat unwelcome arrival of Marianne.
Bergman's movies are intricate, intimate dramas fueled by the imbricated emotions of the characters, by their entanglements; like the transcendentalist films which influenced the writer-director early on, they're labyrinths of repressed desire, with dreams as the only portals of escape. Saraband is all of these things, but above all it's the original saraband, the gypsy dance, an amatory "Merry Andrew," in which the dancers switch partners. While the film starts out as a drama with Marianne and Johan as the main protagonists, Marianne and Karin share a long scene together, as do Marianne and Henrik, Henrik and Johan, Johan and Karin, and, of course, Henrik and Karin. All of these sequences are sexually charged, even the exchange between Johan and his son. Johan's antipathy to Henrik springs from his perception that Henrik lacks the puissance of true masculinity.
In the end, Marianne visits her daughter Martha, who she hasn't seen in months and who appears to be slipping into dementia. Ironically, the force majeure for that visit is the mound of photographs to which Marianne returns. These seem to elicit some tangible memory, a wish for physical contact while it's still possible, while Martha still lives. At the New York Film Festival in 2004, Liv Ullmann said Bergman was on the far end of the studio during production, peering at a monitor, rather than close by, behind the camera, as he had been on all their other collaborations. If form influenced content, then Saraband, Bergman's first experiment with high-definition video cinematography, provided the medium with which to express his relationship to his own "pictures." Perhaps only from that physical distance, and with a backward glance at 60 years of filmmaking, could Bergman finally reveal the secret of his peculiar genius: He's lived, rather precariously all these years, through those "pictures."