By Dan Schneider of Cosmoetica:
Ingmar Bergman’s 1969 drama En Passion / A Passion (in the U.S., mistitled as The Passion of Anna) is a great film — in fact, it may be the best of Bergman’s mid-to-late-1960s efforts dealing with human relationships and the Self — e.g., Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame.
A Passion stars many of Bergman’s retinue of actors: Max von Sydow as Andreas Winkelman, Liv Ullmann as Anna Fromm, Bibi Andersson as Eva Vergerus, and Erland Josephson as Elis Vergerus. The plot revolves around Andreas, an ex-convict recovering from his wife’s abandonment on a small farm on a Swedish island — ostensibly Bergman’s own Farö, where A Passion was filmed.
One day, Anna, a crippled widow, comes to his home and Andreas listens in on the phone call she needs to make. She then accidentally (or not?) leaves her purse at his house, and he reads a letter describing her rocky marriage. Thus, he learns of her dead husband’s fears for her sanity. When he returns the purse, he meets Elis and Eva Vergerus, the couple with whom Anna lives. He is later invited over to dinner, and the foursome discuss life and philosophy.
Eventually, Elis, a famed and rich architect, hires Andreas to do some work for him and to pose for photographs. He is someone who gets off on photographing human vanity and cruelty. His marriage to Eva is a sham, as he freely admits to Eva’s affair with Anna’s dead husband, also named Andreas.
Later, when he is abroad building a gallery, Eva seduces the living Andreas. He gives her the puppy he saved from a sadistic animal-torturing fiend. After a jarring cut and Bergman’s overt narrative storytelling, she all but disappears from his life. Months later, he has taken up with Anna, who continues her lies about her happy marriage. Her husband and small son were killed in a car crash that left her a cripple. She terms it an accident, but several things seem out of place with what Andreas knows about her from the letter he read. Is she lying only about her bad marriage?
Throughout the film, a number of other subtexts emerge, such as Bergman again breaking the narrative spell of the film by having his four main actors discuss the characters they are playing. Another side story involves the abuse, torture, and killing of local animals. A local hermit with a history of mental instability is suspected. Andreas knows the man, Johan Andersson (Erik Hell), and it’s clear he is not the culprit, because he is an old lumbering man, and early in the film the audience glimpsed a young man speedily running away from a scene where he is hanging the puppy that Andreas saves. Nonetheless, as sheep and other animals are killed, a band of young vigilante islanders have apparently beaten and tortured the old man to confess. This act of cruelty drives him to suicide, and he leaves a note of thanks for Andreas.
Throughout the film, many such episodes are seen to be eroding the psyches of the four major characters. Johan’s suicide seems to be the final straw for Andreas who, sick of Anna’s lies of her past, violently confronts her. Eventually, she apologizes for her lies. Andrea, however, cannot deal with her craziness, as she almost replays her ‘accident’ with him. He now knows, however, that the ‘accident’ was no accident and that Anna is insane. She killed her husband and child, for reasons we never learn. After he gets out of the car, we see him alone in a wet landscape, pacing frantically. His image is blown up and dissolves to graininess.
This ending is famous, though it has been misinterpreted in many ways. First, Bergman has admitted in print that he did not zoom in to get the graininess of the final images, but merely blew up the shot. As for what it means? Many take it simply as the psychological dissolution of Andreas Winkelman, which is the final in a series of character dissolutions in Bergman’s later 1960s films.
As the director himself states, ‘This time they called him Andreas Winkelman.’ But that’s too melodramatic a claim. It is the static and confusion over the revelation of Anna as a killer that leads to the symbolism of the visual technique; not only of Andreas’ inner turmoil, but Anna’s, as well. Bergman’s mention of the final scene can be seen as a description of von Sydow as the character or Andreas Winkelman as another Andreas victimized by Anna — and that this has become known at a later date — to distinguish him from Andreas Fromm, Anna’s dead husband.
The breaks in narrative, with the actors as themselves commenting on the film, works remarkably well, though Bergman regretted this technique in a 1971 interview: ‘I’m sorry to say that those [interviews with the actors] are very unsuccessful. I just wanted to have a break in the film and to let the actors express themselves. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann improvised their interviews, but Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson had no idea what to say, so they said what I told them to. This led to two different films, and I no longer understand why I left the whole batch in, because I always realized that they wouldn’t work. But I like coups de théâtre, things that make people wake up and rejoin the film. This time, however, it wasn’t successful.’
Unlike Persona, however, the narrative break is not too intrusive — and not nearly as showoffy. Additionally, since the interviews lack an improvisational feel, they actually heighten the blurring between the actors as actors and as the characters they are playing. They also serve a symbolic purpose, for the actors pass from their real selves to their film celebrity identities and on to those of their characters.
Of the three films that show von Sydow and Ullmann as lovers — Hour of the Wolf and Shame are the other two — the portrayal found in A Passion is the most realistic and multi-faceted. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist makes a smooth transition from black-and-white to color, and some of the symbolism early in the film, such as a sundog that fades to clouds, is superb. Such a shot would be impossible to distill so powerfully in black and white. Von Sydow also looks better in color, as his features smooth out, making him look younger.
As discussed, the ending leaves a visceral impact both for its visuals and for its often overlooked critical revelation of Anna as a murderess. The four main characters are generally unlikable. Elis is a distant voyeur and emotional sadist; Eva is a manipulative temptress whose despair drives her to insomnia; Anna — in addition to getting away with murder — is a skilled liar; and Andreas is a petty convict who hides from his past. In a sense, they are all parts and parcels of the unknown sadist who goes around killing animals. It is almost as if he is a psychological construct of the worst aspects of the four main characters.
Anna, however, is the worst, as she has a black-and-white dream that seems almost a continuation of Ullmann’s role from the prior film, Shame, in which her own internal guilt over killing her husband and son in an ‘accident’ comes back at her with a vengeance.
Yet, of the four characters, the most intriguing is the architect Elis, who seems to know full well of his wife’s affair with Andreas while they still act innocent. His entry into a scene, unblinking and strutting, where Eva and Andreas have been talking, reeks of emotional vampirism, and Josephson suggests this brilliantly with just a glimmer in his eye and a blank expression on his face.
As for the MGM DVD edition of A Passion, it does a disservice to call the film The Passion of Anna, since clearly Andreas is the lead character. In fact, Anna has less screen time than Eva. A Passion is more accurate, as the passion referred to is not emotional passion, but the Christ-like suffering of Andreas and the lesser sufferings of the other characters. Andreas also passes from his earlier degraded state as a criminal to a state of grace, as a substitute for a dead man whose murderer has fixated on him as a substitute.
The DVD comes with some interesting extras, such as a reading by Elliott Gould (who starred for Bergman in The Touch in 1970) of a short story of A Passion. There is also a short documentary about the film, called “Disintegration of Passion,” which tends to overemphasize the disintegration aspect of the film as a negative, when the truth is that by the film’s end all lies have disintegrated and Andreas is left with a truth he cannot deal with. Such Subtleties are lost on Marc Gervais, a Bergman scholar who provides another inane commentary for A Passion, much like his others for the previous efforts in Bergman’s five Farö-film DVD set. (Apparently, Gervais has never watched a Bergman film or seen a Bergman symbol he could not misconstrue.) There are also brief interviews — filmed in 2002 — with Ullmann, Andersson, and Josephson.
All in all, A Passion succeeds magnificently in an understated way that many of Bergman’s more famous films do not. It’s that good.