The DVD box for the Film Movement release of The Best Intentions carries the title Ingmar Bergman’s The Best Intentions, a somewhat puzzling choice, as there are no other well-known films bearing that name, and hence, no chance of confusing this film with another. It’s true that Bergman wrote the screenplay, but Bille August directed the film, and how often do screenwriters get billing over directors? Even granting that Bergman is the bigger name, particularly in the English-speaking world, August is certainly no unknown: he won the Palme d’Or for Pelle the Conqueror in 1987 before winning again for this film in 1992, and has directed a number of other successful films, including The House of the Spirits (1993) and Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997).
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that The Best Intentions feels like a Bergman film, and it’s tempting to see it as a prequel to Bergman’s own Fanny and Alexander (1984). Both films were created as multi-part television movies that were edited down for theatrical release; both are lengthy and slow-paced but always involving, capturing the intensity of the tiniest moments of everyday life; both bear some relationship to Bergman’s life; and both are beautifully shot period films. However, while Fanny and Alexande is at best loosely autobiographical, The Best Intentions is explicitly so, focusing on the courtship and early years of marriage of Bergman’s parents, Erik Bergman (called “Henrik” in this film) Bergman and Karin Åkerblom (called “Anna” in this film).
The story takes place between 1909 and 1918, a period exquisitely recreated by Ann Mari Anttila (costumes), Khell Gustavsson (hair and makeup), Anna Asp (production design), and Anna-Lena Hansen (set decoration), and beautifully shot in Panavision by cinematographer Jörgen Persson. Henrik (Samuel Fröler) and Anna (Pernilla August) are not an obvious match: he’s a poor theology student with a tendency to take life a bit too seriously, while she’s the beautiful and vivacious daughter of a wealthy and cultured family. When Anna’s brother Ernst (Björn Kjellman) invites Henrik home to dinner, the economic and social gulf between them is obvious, and when Anna takes an interest in Henrik, her parents Johan (Max von Sydow) and Karin (Ghita Nørby) make it clear that he’s not a suitable choice for a husband.
Well, as the saying goes, the heart wants what the heart wants, and there are few forces more determined than young people in love. Even the best-intentioned parents may find that their offspring suddenly become hard of hearing when older and wiser heads advise that youthful lust is one thing while a lifetime partnership is quite another. When the opposition is obviously motivated by snobbery as well as concern about the happiness of one’s children, as is the case with the formidable Karin, the result may be like pouring gasoline, rather than water, on the fires of romance.
After a gap of a few years, Anna and Henrik marry, and she does her best to make the marriage work. When he accepts a job in a rural part of northern Sweden, she tries hard to fit in to a world quite different from the one she grew up in. He, of course, does not recognize her efforts, nor stops to consider that while he holds a prestigious position as pastor in the town, she’s stuck with washing the linens by hand and dealing with pregnancy without the benefit of her family nearby. Their conflict comes to a head when Henrik refuses a post in the south, while Anna is pregnant with their second child — who would grow up to write the screenplay to this very film.
The Best Intentions is not kind to Henrik. The first time we meet him, he refuses to reconcile with his dying grandmother. While courting Anna, he continues to live with a working-class woman, Frida (Lena Endre). Above all, he’s a self-centered prig who believes self-denial is a virtue, rather than an occasional necessity endured in the service of some higher goal, and because he’s a man, he gets to enforce his beliefs upon his family.
If you are so inclined, there are several lessons that could be drawn from The Best Intentions. The first is the truth of that old saw about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure. It’s also easy in retrospect to see the wisdom of an opinion held by Anna’s parents, that you can avoid a lot of problems by marrying within your own class. From a more modern point of view, one obvious conclusion is that nothing good can come from a social system in which the volition of one adult in a relationship is by intention entirely subsumed under the volition of the other. But August and Bergman are not interested in teaching lessons or drawing morals; instead, they allow viewers to take this finely observed and exquisitely acted portrayal of a relationship and do with it what they will.
This release of The Best Intentions is based on a new 2K restoration that does full justice to the film’s splendid technical qualities and period detail. Publicity materials indicate that the Blu-ray release of The Best Intentions includes a Bergman short film, “Karin’s Face”, which has never before been released in the United States. This extra is not included on the DVD (from which I wrote this review), but the DVD does include an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Peter Cowie, and trailers for several other films distributed by Film Movement.