At the Movies

Michael Wood

It’s too late to climb on the bandwagon now, and it wasn’t much of a bandwagon to start with. If cinephilia is dead, as Susan Sontag some time ago suggested it was, who cares about the simultaneous death of two cinéastes? Still, no reader of signs can resist a coincidence, the image of a meaning that can’t be there. Michelangelo Antonioni (born 1912) and Ingmar Bergman (born 1918) both died on 30 July 2007 – as if time, otherwise indifferent to plot and meaning, had something to say about the cinema.

But time, it turns out, seemed to say one thing and meant another. This was the end of an age, apparently, or would have been if the age represented by these directors had not ended quite a while ago. The whole world of slow-moving angst we associate with their best-known films is scarcely a memory. Panic and fanaticism are our modes, or the modes we think we need to deal with. But then the new coincidence reminds us of old coincidences, and invites us to think about what these echoes mean. ‘For some 15 years there were new masterpieces every month,’ was how Sontag described those days, adding: ‘How far away that era seems now.’ The years she had in mind ran from the later 1950s to the early 1970s, but for the purposes of the present argument a shorter spell will do. Some films and dates: The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), Touch of Evil (1958), Vertigo (1958), Les Quatre cents coups (1959), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), North by Northwest (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959), L’Avventura (1960), Breathless (1960), La Dolce Vita (1960), Psycho (1960), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960), Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961), La Notte (1961), Last Year in Marienbad (1961), Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Vivre sa vie (1962), The Leopard (1963), (1963). That’s still not a masterpiece a month, but there must be a lot of good films I’m forgetting, and even this list is enough to suggest there is plenty of continuing life in the age we thought was over.

Fortunately we have DVDs and videocassettes to jog or even replace our memories. I have always liked The Seventh Seal (Tartan, £19.99) but not quite as much as I wanted to, and on this viewing I really had a hard time of it. The film, which depicts the return to Sweden from the Crusades of a knight and his squire, seemed clunky and obvious. I wanted the chess game the Knight plays with Death to be less sloppily symbolic, and I kept running excuses in my head for its various forms of archness and excesses of meaning. It’s meant to be medieval, I would say. Think of those old woodcuts. The Dance of Death. But I wasn’t convincing myself. There are great scenes: the burning of the witch and the dialogue that precedes it, and the final acceptance of Death at the castle as an unwelcome visitor who must nevertheless – noblesse oblige – be graciously welcomed. There is also a remarkable moment when the Knight realises that Death has no secrets. Death is just Death; he doesn’t know anything about God or the Devil or the afterlife, he’s only doing his job. Still, this mainly felt like a movie for the museum; a treasure, no doubt, but pretty musty.

Wild Strawberries (Tartan, £19.99), on the other hand, a film for which I felt admiration but no affection, absolutely bowled me over this time. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), a distinguished doctor aged 76, travels to Lund to receive an honorary degree and relives his life as he does so. The film mixes dreams and memories and the present moment, and the beauty of the thing is that every instance is morally ambiguous, an accusation of lifelong selfishness which is also half an exoneration, since Isak, from his youth, seems to have been kept out of the lives of others just as much as he has carefully kept others out. The dream sequences are driven by surprise and suspense rather than any predetermined meaning. In one dream – he always appears as the old man he now is – Isak fails an examination because he can’t remember what the first duty of a doctor is. I couldn’t remember either, even though I’ve seen the movie and he hasn’t. It is, in the dream world at least, to ask forgiveness. The movie ends with a dream-memory in which Isak finds his parents, dressed in white, sitting by a lake. He can’t go to them – because they are dead, because he is now older than they were, because this is all in his mind – but the film ends with a shot of his faintly smiling face. ‘My cries did not reach their destination,’ he says in the screenplay, ‘yet I wasn’t sorry about that.’

L’Avventura (Criterion, £15.15), on a new viewing, remained for me what it always was: an extraordinary masterpiece whose elegant distress is thoroughly, patiently earned, never merely gestured towards. It ends on a motion of small comfort and large desolation, almost a mirror image of what happens at the end of Wild Strawberries. Claudia and Sandro (Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti), having literally failed to find the missing woman they were looking for, having emotionally found and lost each other, are stranded in a deserted town: piazza, old palace, church, ruin, volcano in the distance. Virtually all we hear on the soundtrack, apart from the noises of the wind and the sea, is the sobbing of the characters, first her, then him. She strokes the back of his head, and then both are still, like icons. The point here, as with Bergman, is that there is no ready-made angst on offer, no angst at all that isn’t complicated by personality and flickers of hope. There are only people who have found their way into a moral desert, as if there was nowhere else to go.