June 05, 2008

The Challenge of filming the past

Filming history is something that directors increasingly do- it is something that they increasingly do badly. There are two equally bad mistakes to make when placing a person into the past: you can either put the person into the past as though they were an artefact of the 20th Century- the kind of creation of Jane Austen heroines as though they were Carrie Bradshaw is something that I perpetually have contempt for. But there is an equal mistake to make- which is to imagine the past so differently as to begin to condescend to those that lived in it. Great directors, as well as lesser ones, are guilty of this kind of thing- for instance its worth taking an instance of this attitude and working out why a director made the decisions he made, and also why the choices he made created an imperfection in a very great film. The instance that I want to discuss here is Ingmar Bergman's film The Magician and Bibi Andersson's character Sara, pictured above.

The Magician is set in 1846, it is about the visit of a Magician to the house of a leading townsman's house and it explores the role of magic and fantasy, art and science, God and death in a kind of philosophical horror film. The Magician himself is surrounded by cynics- upper class scientists and lower class sceptics- who challenge and confront him. But Bergman also wanted to create another group of people those who believed- we have the wife of the townsman's house- but we also have a chorus of servant girls (two of them including Sara) who give us the access to the crowd that believe the magician. Sara thus fulfils a role within the film, Bergman presents us with an uneducated, sexual, naive young maid. An end of the pier girl, sexy, sweet and fundementally stupid. There is a kind of comedy here- but its a coarse comedy and to modern ears fairly sexist.

The reason I call this sexist is because Sara's character is not really a character- it is a caricature. The actress in the role Bibi Andersson would do great work later on for Bergman- performing in Persona exquisitely six years later. But this part is not really a character- there is no depth here- nothing to get a handle on- rather this is an idea. The problem is that Bergman has tried to imagine a nineteenth century maid- and yes he has not tried to create a twentieth century woman and put her in a dress- but what he has done is just as problematic, because he has used the caricature of a 19th Century maid from bawdy comedy and placed that caricature inside the film. The thing is that you cannot imagine that just because someone existed in the past- and so for example might be naive (I wouldn't expect Swedish maids to be well educated) doesn't mean that they might not have characters. This caricature is all squeeling over love potions- I'm sure that there were people who did but they had more content to them than that. This is an unsubtle portrait- and so its a postcard of a past that never existed, and a sexist portrait that appeals to various male stereotypes as well.

Bergman was a great director- and created great roles for women- there is one in the Magician itself (the Magician's wife) but there are others scattered liberally through his films where his great actresses from Ingrid Thulin to Liv Ullman created women who will endure down the ages. But this single character is a failure: and I think it is a failure because Bergman allowed a caricature into his work. He basically forgot that a young uneducated girl was still a person- and not just a caricature: to an extent Sara is a sexist fantasy maid, to that extent Bergman fails to convey what he wants to in this film and it collapses. The irony is that Sara is created in order that the audience takes the magician's illusions more seriously: but of course Sara herself is an illusion and it is precisely because that character is a caricature, that we see the illusion and like a magic trick, when you realise its a magic trick, ceases to have an impact- so a film when you realise it is being directed- loses some of its dramatic power. Ingmar Bergman was one of the great illusionists (to borrow Scorsese's image), with Sara though the illusion is incomplete and therefore unbelievable.