Friday, May 14, 2021

Cannes 1984: Bergman, After the Competition

The first of three films reviews by Serge Daney published in Libération on Monday, May 14th, 1984. 

Bergman, After the Competition

After the Rehearsal is a beautiful telefilm talking serenely about the theatre of words and the fatigue of bodies.

In the final scenes of Fanny and Alexander, the women of the Ekdahl family laughingly decide to restage a play by Strindberg, “that old misogynist”. It’s this play – A Dream Play – that Henrik Volger is in the process of staging in After the Rehearsal. Except, this is the fifth time he is staging it. Henrik is an old man who has loved women and theatre a lot. He’s at the centre of this 70-minute film that Bergman has shot for the Swedish television and that Gaumont had the smart idea of distributing. Erland Josephson plays Henrik: white hair, sharp eyes, wrinkled face, clumsy body. He is the one who played the role of the cabalist Isaac in Fanny and Alexander. Here, he’s very obviously Bergman’s alter ego, and we’re grateful to the latter for not pretending that he isn’t the vicarious hero of his film. This honesty allows him to get to the heart of the matter quickly.

One may recall that Bergman had announced – rather jokingly – that Fanny and Alexander would be his last film “for the cinema”. The press still in shock, he was already in Stockholm quietly shooting a play (with three actors on a single set) he had written himself: After the Rehearsal. Check-up, assessment, self-questioning: a man decides to talk about his trade. One day, ”after the rehearsal”, Henrik Volger is woken up from his nap by a young woman, his actress, who, in all senses of the term, is after him. A scene starts between them. And very quickly, the truth comes out: theatre is not a trade, it’s a way of being with the other, to listen to him talk, to love him and to be at his mercy, to take turns playing all the roles (Henrik is therefore a severe master, an ideal father, a possible lover, a playmate, a perverse theoretician etc). To do theatre is to ensure that the other is always responding, whatever we tell him. 

Coming from Bergman – it’s the first thing that comes to mind – this kind of digression-manifesto-trick is not surprising. It’s even thanks to him that we know quite a bit about truth and falsehood, sincerity and subterfuge. Yet, After the Rehearsal is a short, diabolical and surprising film. Why? Because the subject of the film isn’t the stage but the noise of the stage that has always been with us, when we talk, when we confide, when we believe in our own sincerity. And this particular noise (theatricality) never goes away. 

So Anna, the young actress, ill-at-ease, curious about everything and dissatisfied with herself, forces old Henrik to talk, to confide. 

Anna then doubles down on her confessions: she agreed to play the role even though she was pregnant by the director, a certain Johan whom we will never hear about again; she has (already) had an abortion; she is jealous of her mother, an actress as well, who died five years ago and whom Henrik loved; and – of course – she’s in love with Henrik. In the meantime, Rakel, one of Henrik’s former mistresses, an alcoholic and pathetic has-been (Ingrid Thulin), comes to see him and makes a scene that we imagine to be a ritual (laughter, tears, sarcasm, demand for love). Anna, frozen in her armchair, is there without really being there. It resembles Bergman’s earliest high-society comedies (like A Lesson in Love), and it is, of course, unforgiving.

The cruel thing is that it never stops. If theatre is life, it is immortal. It’s only actors that die. But they are never more alive than when they suspect this truth. It’s still true of Rakel and it will be true one day of Anna. How to make her understand this? And what about the audience? Once Rakel leaves, Anna picks up the interrupted dialogue and offers herself to the old man. He panics. It’s the most beautiful part of the film. Let’s imagine, Henrik says, that we let ourselves go through with this, let’s foresee what would happen: the highs and the lows, jealousy and predictable failure. Anna plays along, the image closes in on them, on their faces, on Anna’s ever more childish face (Lena Olin, very beautiful), on the excitement of giving tit for tat, on the madness of “what could be”. The complicity that binds them as they imagine themselves squabbling becomes a squabble. So much so that it is no longer a game between truth and falsehood, but between a present already over and a future already there. For at least twenty minutes, with the sole intensity of faces and words, Bergman almost proves that the wise thing would be to experience everything in the present, if possible, playfully. 

But something – obstinately – says “no” to this tightrope walker’s wisdom, and that’s the body. Rather strangely, at the beginning of the film, we sometimes hear Henrik’s voice over, a voice beyond the grave of the one who sees himself from very far, without complacency. The theatrical babbling then fades away and the voice tells the truth: not that of words (which have little truth in themselves) but that of the body (which knows only one truth: fatigue). This voice over isn’t an easy trick. It’s a formidable proof of courage. As if the filmmaker, knowing himself to be virtuoso, serene and masterful enough, capable of dissecting a face like no other, had – despite everything – no illusions. When Henrik fears a sexual fiasco or when he notices that, having become partially deaf, he no longer hears the church bells, he knows that the only “off-screen” space that remains is the one that announces his own death, in his own voice. 

This beautiful film goes beyond optimism and pessimism. It is both cheerful and sad, calm and light, and very simple. Few filmmakers in 1984 can take the liberty of making a “divertimento” right after a saga. Such freedom was so unwelcome at Cannes that After the Rehearsal went almost unnoticed. Out of competition, really. 

First published in Libération on 14 May 1984. Republished in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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