Reviews

'Ingrid Bergman in Sweden': Nordic Glamour and the Feminist Impulse

A June Night

This collection of three films is a fascinating portrait of a bold young artist before she became a Hollywood legend.


June Night

Director: Gustaf Molander, Per Lindberg
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Gosta Ekman, Tore Svennberg, Marianne Lofgren
Distributor: Kino
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2011
Release date: 2011-04-19

Ingrid Bergman in Sweden is a collection of three films: Intermezzo, A Woman’s Face, and June Night, all made in the '30s before Bergman moved to Hollywood. In pre-war Sweden, Bergman was touted as the successor to Greta Garbo, and this collection showcases her formidable star power. Legendary Swedish director Gustaf Molander directs both Intermezzo and A Woman’s Face, while Per Lindberg directs June Night.

The most striking thing about this collection is Bergman‘s choice of roles. All three of her characters are morally ambivalent women who defy social conventions.

In 1936’s Intermezzo, Bergman plays Anita, a young pianist who runs away with a married man, a famous violinist. Bergman’s sensitive portrayal reveals Anita as a vulnerable girl who’s overwhelmed by a charismatic and supremely gifted artist. Intermezzo is a strangely prescient film—a decade later, Bergman would be engulfed by scandal for her affair with the married director Roberto Rosselini.

A Woman's Face

In the 1938 film, A Woman’s Face, Bergman demonstrates her dramatic range in a brilliant performance as Anna, a vicious blackmailer. Anna’s face is permanently scarred from a house fire that killed her two parents. This handicap has distorted her personality—cold and cunning, she revels in gaining power over others.

When Anna blackmails the wife of a plastic surgeon, he catches her inside his home. Instead of calling the police, the surgeon offers his services to erase her terrible scars. Director Gustaf Molander’s sensitive portrayal of these two wounded characters--the cuckolded surgeon and the disfigured Anna--is masterful. Bergman smartly underplays Anna’s slow transformation as she moves away from the criminal underworld, and one can sense her inner conflict.

In June Night, Bergman plays Kerstin, a femme fatale who toys with men for sport, as in this scene with her lover Nils:

Nils: So you leave when the fun is over.

Kerstin: Was it really so much fun?

The game nearly ends when Nils shoots her at point blank range. A sensational trial follows, and Kerstin becomes a lurid icon of the scandal sheets. The press dubs her the “Wounded Swan” and pursues her relentlessly.

In these films, Bergman’s characters defy the social boundaries of the '30s. In simple moral terms, Anita is a home-wrecker, Anna is an extortionist, and Kerstin is a maneater. Yet Bergman reveals something else about these three characters: their flaws are recognizably human, and Bergman provides the emotional depth that reveals the complex moral nature of these women. By defining these characters, Bergman seems to be defining her own persona.

The video transfer of these films to DVD is superb, considering the material is over 70-years-old. The result is a crisp black and white image. Yet what was relevant in the '30s is still relevant today—the conflict between romantic love and familial obligations (Intermezzo), or the idea of moral redemption (A Woman’s Face and June Night).

Bergman, one of the most beautiful women in cinema, is simply ravishing on these three discs. It’s a particular treat to watch her star rise—there’s something natural and effortless in each performance, as she glides across the screen like a Nordic goddess. But even a goddess has to choose among different paths. Bergman’s choice of roles reveals a feminist impulse before it was fashionably or politically safe.

Intermezzo

In each of the three films, Bergman’s character reinvents herself instead of allowing men to define her. In Intermezzo, Anita leaves her married lover to pursue her own musical career in Paris. In A Woman’s Face Anna turns away from a life of crime and moves to the Far East. In June Night, Kerstin testifies on behalf of the man who tried to kill her. By pleading for mercy during her attacker’s sentencing, Kerstin undermines the femme fatale role that the press has cast for her.

Bergman’s choice of these roles reveals a bold European star staking out new territory for women in cinema. Her characters are daring and dangerous, yet possess a moral center that appeals to the audience. Ingrid Bergman in Sweden is an fascinating portrait of a young artist before she became a Hollywood legend.

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