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Through A Glass Darkly

Through A Glass Darkly

By Danny Byrne • August 22nd, 2015
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Janus Films

Original release: October 16th, 1961
Running time: 89 minutes

Country of origin: Sweden
Original language: Swedish

Writer and director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Lars Passgård

Through A Glass Darkly

Through A Glass Darkly contains all of the classic elements of early Bergman: Aristotelian unities of character, time and location, long and dialogue-heavy black-and-white takes, wearyingly intense performances, excellent glasses, and a winning combination of earnest religious doubt and chic continental angst. Nobody makes despair look as cool as Bergman.

Like most of his works of the same period, it’s a deceptively simple story. The film focuses on 24 fairly melodramatic hours in the lives of four characters. David, a morbidly self-obsessed author suffering from writer’s block, returns from a period of artistic retreat in Switzerland to visit his much-neglected family in a remote cottage in the fjords: Karin, his energetically schizophrenic daughter who has just been released from hospital; Martin, her decent, upstanding and rigorously boring husband; and her younger brother Minus, a precocious and conflicted 17 year-old with a massive paternal inferiority complex and an uncontrollable crush on his flirtatiously batshit sister. Let battle commence.

The initial harmoniousness of the father’s return is broken by Martin’s revelation to David that Karin’s recent schizophrenic breakdown may in fact be an incurable illness. Karin later discovers David’s diary, in which he admits to his intention of using her impending mental decline as the artistic subject-matter that his intensely bourgeois life has so far failed to provide. This precipitates a mental unravelling in which the codified meanings of domestic life break down and taboos are temporarily suspended. While David and Martin are on a daytrip to the mainland, Karin and Minus find themselves careering towards a consummation of their irrational mutual fixation.

Through A Glass Darkly

Like John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under The Influence, the film on one level portrays a female consciousness ground down by the patriarchal tedium of domestic life. Martin does a great line in irreproachably unfanciable Nordic steadfastness: tall and reassuringly boring, like an Ikea wardrobe. The earnest man-chat between him and Karin’s father that opens the film is so hilariously leaden that in five minutes it creates a ready-made empathy for Karin’s mental unravelling. We instantly side with the weird and sexy dionysian over the unsexy domestic males. What’s more, so does young Minus.

Whereas Martin personifies groundedness and certainty, the three blood relatives stand on differing points along an imaginative scale passing through religious uncertainty and ending in total annihilation (the mother died following a mental illness). David – who writes commercially successful novels but wishes he was a great artist – is a quietly despairing narcissist who perversely envies his daughter’s more extroverted suffering, as well as his son’s naïvely uninhibited creativity.

Minus oscillates between creative and destructive impulses and struggles to control or comprehend his nascent libido; he and Karin, who perennially teeters on the precipice of self-Through A Glass Darklydestruction, are irresistibly drawn to one another. In a farcically charged scene, Karin catches Minus taking time out from his Latin conjugation homework to surreptitiously flick through a porno mag. When she grabs the magazine from his hands and teases him, Minus spits in her face before collapsing in shame and self-reproach. Bergman ends the scene with a close-up of the scrunched-up magazine sandwiched between the leather-bound respectability of two Latin textbooks.

Like Erica Kohut in The Piano Teacher, Karin and Minus embody in varying ways the conflict between the irrational destructive spirit, and the structural staves of consensus reality. Picking up the Kierkegaardian theme that runs through Bergman’s early work, the film is a study of the potential unravelling of meaning and morality in a world bereft of a God-shaped lynchpin. Bergman frequently drives dangerously close to self-parody, yet here as elsewhere there’s a certain stripped-down intensity and focus that gives improbable depth to a plot that could easily have been merely melodramatic. With just four symbolically tessellated characters Bergman creates a switchboard of conflicting energies, correspondences and false oppositions.

For those unfamiliar with Bergman, Sweden may not seem the instinctive first-port-of-call for such an explosive cocktail of sex, art, taboo and philosophy. But then once you are familiar with Bergman there are a great many things about the world that never really seem the same again.

Through A Glass Darkly

Danny Byrne

Danny Byrne

Danny Byrne is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Having enjoyed watching films from an early age, he developed a more serious interest while studying literature at Oxford University and UCL. His cinematic interests range from Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky to contemporary directors such as Bela Tarr, the Dardenne Brothers and Abbas Kiarostami.

He writes on literature and film at his blog dannysbyrne.wordpress.com and is a regular contributor to literary websites including 3:AM Magazine and ReadySteadyBook.com. You can follow him on Twitter @dannysbyrne.

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