Part 3

The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

17 February 2009

The title of this section is pretty much self-explanatory. Attention! Film nerds! If you haven’t seen all of these, you will be made fun of in Film Studies classes.

The title of this section is pretty much self-explanatory. Attention! Film nerds! If you haven’t seen all of these, you will be made fun of in Film Studies classes. If you don’t love them, there might also be a problem.

Bibi Andersson Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Troubled with an inability to sleep due to the images in her mind when she allows herself to settle into rest, Alma decides to take a long assignment of caring for an eccentric stage actress who has randomly gone mute. Andersson seduces us into assuming she’s a shy, gentle woman with not a lot to say—but when pressed against a wall of silence—strange things happen. The role calls for a surge of erotic, emotional power that the actress basically has to draw out of nowhere other than her emotional depth, which only adds to the epic study of personality by Bergman. Andersson’s character slowly, but surely, dissolves into madness that in retrospect seemed inevitable. TD

Persona is the impenetrable behemoth of the art house—a provocatively ambiguous examination of everything and nothing that’s the most stylistically audacious effort of Bergman’s career. One doesn’t ordinarily expect a great acting feat in a film that so visibly flirts with the avant-garde. But Andersson didn’t receive that memo. Her emotionally translucent personification of Nurse Alma is an undeniable wonder in the world of performance art, a sensitive and courageous odyssey into the ontological wilderness. Bergman’s clinically delirious narrative asks her to enliven 99% of Persona‘s dialogue and she rises to the occasion: in one mesmerizing scene, she describes a sexual encounter with a potency that veers the film into the realm of cine-literary porn. Admirably withstanding her director’s visual onslaught, Andersson crafts a fluid characterization of unnerving complexity that strips away at a woman’s defenses to expose her raw, fragile and damaged psyche. Existential crises have never been so captivating. SB

Anne Bancroft The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

That leg so invitingly outstretched may not have been hers (in fact it almost wasn’t Bancroft’s at all: Doris Day and Jeanne Moreau were Nichols’ first choices), but there is no doubting that the cause of all of the friction in that classic scene with Dustin Hoffman was Ms. Bancroft. She commanded the scenes with Benjamin with such ease and power. With only six years different in their age, Bancroft skillfully made Hoffman squirm within an inch of his life, making his sexual initiation terrifyingly awkward and exciting all at the same time. Even though The Graduate may not have represented the 1960s as some had hoped, Bancroft certainly delivers as the wife who embraces liberating changes and goes after what she desires. An essential precursor and reference point to countless performances to come. KL

Ingrid Bergman Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Sonata is such a heavy film psychologically that you may find yourself needing to talk to an analyst after it’s over. Bergman makes the mother so profound in such a simple way that it puts you through the motions as if you were affected by her life. It’s a curious thing. You want to hate this woman for all of her selfish mannerisms, but you also can’t help but be seduced and impressed by her presence. You almost feel the sting yourself when she corrects the mistakes made on a sonata, yet you are still enchanted by the way she plays it. She makes this difficult contrast believable and real just as a real daughter or son may feel about their mother. The effect is that you are touched by these lives on screen which is just about the greatest compliment you could ever give a performer or a film. This is an example of greatness from all angles - the writing, directing, and the acting between Bergman and her co-star the incomparable Liv Ullmann. TD

Perhaps the most luminous of all Hollywood stars, Bergman was at her curious best when removed from the spotlight of Tinseltown. Her professional and personal relationship with Roberto Rossellini defined her artistic legacy, but it was her inevitable union with fellow Swede Ingmar that birthed her greatest success. Essaying the role of Sonata‘s vain celebrity mother, Bergman the actress jettisons her trademark warmth in favor of a glacial self-consciousness. With formidably elegant poise, she gradually unveils her ice queen’s emotional void, further eschewing her familial responsibilities in the process. Bergman doesn’t inhabit this cold-blooded being so much as she humanizes her. When locating the slightest of cracks in her character’s superficial veneer, she offers the briefest of glimpses into a soul capsizing under the weight of neurosis and dysfunction. In Ingrid’s hands, Sonata isn’t just a tragedy of what is—it becomes a profoundly moving rumination on what could have been. SB

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

Both Davis and Sarandon achieved a sort of mythic feminine abandon in the parts of Thelma & Louise, which begin almost as caricatures of womanly archetypes, in the eponymous, landmark film. Though stereotypically burdened by minimum wage lifestyles, and a reliance on male companionship, together they forge a sort of sisterhood of kindred spirits, a Bonnie & Clyde-style relationship, for years, just getting by, until the events of one night alter their lives forever. Though not a woman, I do consider myself a feminist (and think everyone ought to), so I can only imagine what catharsis real women must have found in this sort of release when it first theatrically bowed. The women realized a believable, symbiotic chemistry which allowed them to function independent of the other, while still being intrinsically joined by their destiny. Since the film is basically a two-woman show, Davis and Sarandon are able to continually orchestrate a give and take with the audience as their characters go from naïfs to ne’er do wells to outright felons in an outrageous dramatic arc that never rings false. This game of chess with the audience, keeping the characters just likable enough without being too sappy, helps to enforce the realistic power of their union that is necessary. This maverick spirit of artistic creation, reliance and collaboration might have been born on the pages of the screenplay, but it was ultimately realized in the two captivating lead performances that defined a decade. TD

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