Persona (1966), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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By the mid-1960s, Ingmar Bergman had other responsibilities, heading Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater. As he wrote in Images: My Life in Film, the theater was in “an advanced state of disintegration”, without a repertoire or contracts. (1990:44) He was lost. But Bergman found Persona the film that “saved my life”, proving he wasn’t “all washed up”. Shooting over two months in summer 1965 in the Filmstaden studio and Fårö, Persona’s experimentalism might suggest an atypical work, but Persona has the pathos and character that define Bergman, exploring the interior of the soul. As Alma (Bibi Andersson) reads aloud about anxiety, Bergman focuses close attention upon Fårö’s landscape of rocks. Equally, Alma’s admiration of religious belief carries shades of Bergman’s exploration of loss of faith. Through Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), fears of pregnancy and stillbirth equally mirror Marianne and Evald’s nihilistic conflict over her pregnancy in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Persona’s chilling early scenes in hospital reflect Bergman’s state as he wrote the screenplay. Wanting to develop a project entitled The Cannibals with Andersson and Ullmann, Bergman was confined to the Sophiahemmet royal hospital with pneumonia and penicillin poisoning. Over 14 days, Bergman wrote the screenplay for Persona from hospital. Early scenes are largely silent, framing clinical shots of bodies in a morgue in abstract close-ups; immobile vessels of bodies become another part of nature itself. A young boy rises, eyes opening; he puts on glasses, reading a storybook in bed. He moves his hand out to a screen, reaching out to us. In hospital, Alma and Elisabet develop a caring mutual relationship. But the hospital is also a place of routines, meticulously applying make-up and peeling potatoes, in constant search of something to do. The future and marriage stand off in the undetermined.

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The young boy reaches his hand in the morgue out to us

Alma and Elisabet find escape, moving to a house by the sea with company where they have freedom to read books. They become adoptive sisters; Alma has never had the opportunity. Although some might perceive a queer element, Bergman largely frames their relationship as explicitly sisterly. Alma speaks of past relationships, powerfully recounting a sexual encounter: a boy fucked her and her friend on the beach, leading to her impregnation and abortion. Her description is never fetishising nor titillating: she recalls each action with detachment, as he moved against her body and came. Particularly for American audiences, these scenes would have been shocking: in the last days of the Production Code, Hollywood still attempted to cling onto morality around sexuality. Alma speaks of an abortion as no big deal, never maligned because of it. Bergman asked Andersson to rerecord her performance in the mixing studio, allowing for greater intimacy than in the original scene.

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Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) develop a sisterly relationship

Bergman creates a ghostly environment within the house, rain hitting the window; both women walking through the night in white nightdresses amid the sound of foghorns. But their relationship is quickly tested; Elisabet writes personal information about Alma in a letter, details she trusted her to tell no one about. Andersson and Ullmann’s visceral performances carry the weight of the film, truly sensing discomfort as their relationship falls apart. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist pans through trees and the beach in a rush, Elisabet running away from Alma as she attempts a needed apology. The final scene is of loss: Elisabet packs her bags, walking by the ocean in the opposite direction to Alma in the prior scene, waiting for the bus with her luggage. It is a resolution of simplicity, but nonetheless effective.

Persona is equally about our and Bergman’s relationship with cinema. The working titles, Cinematography and A Piece of Cinema, emphasised this connection more explicitly. In the opening, we witness the physical process, self-reflexively looking at filmstrips, white lights, sprockets, scratches and the countdown as the reel begins. Bergman intersperses shock cuts to a wide selection of images: frames from a cartoon, a clip of skeleton costumes framed by a white border, an erect penis (censored from initial US and UK releases), guts spilling out a slaughtered animal, a tarantula walking across the white screen, an impaled hand with a nail akin to Jesus’ crucifixion. In less than a minute, Bergman encompasses almost every genre: animation, farcical silent pantomime, pornography, documentary, monster movies and religious parables. Bergman establishes images of its landscapes: trees covered in snow; a close-up of a gate. Through the boy, offering circularity as he reaches his hand out in both the opening and closing, Elisabet’s face as an actress, moving in and out of focus, Bergman, as Thomas Elsaesser writes, presents cinema as “the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s selfhood and identity”, separating body and image. As Elsaesser writes, Bergman follows Brechtian distance and “modernist self-reflexivity”, approaching film as a mirror alongside the techniques of the French and Italian New Waves.

Persona’s editing is decidedly experimental. In the opening credits, not only are colours inverted, framing black text against a white background, but Bergman follows a rhythm between fractions of a second, prefiguring film with images of a monk on fire, a lake of water, character faces, a policeman’s chase and so on. Midway through, Bergman uses a technique similar to the reveal of editor Yelizaveta Svilova assembling frames in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), before revealing the film fully cut together. In a moment of crisis, the frame splits, unable to process elevated drama, fracturing not only friendship but the physical film, an element lessened by subsequent digital releases and screenings. As editor Ulla Ryghe recalls of the premiere at the Spegeln cinema on 18th October 1966, film cans were marked with red labels as projectionists feared the film was burning up. In their confrontation, Bergman draws a parallel, juxtaposing faces against each other whilst moving across time, takes and performances.

As an actress, Elisabet is a product of cinema. We’re introduced to Elisabet as star, performing a role in a production of Sophocles’ Electra: she smiles, lights behind her and bathed in make-up. Bergman never tells us much about her, rarely elaborating on her background or co-stars, instead communicating her identity through images. Persona explores the economy of images and its relationship with the eyes. Old performances are transmitted on television as Alma watches, immersed, with the indignity of the passage of time, captured as cinematic beauty for eternity; Elisabet judges herself against the standard set by a film years ago.

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Elisabet is a product of the cinema

The insular hospital becomes penetrated by television: Elisabet watches coverage of a burning monk in protest against Vietnam. In an incredible wide shot, she backs away from the television, unable to comprehend what she is witnessing, broadcast across the world. Around the same time, a similar scene plays in Night of the Living Dead (1968): the seclusion of the house anticipates the threat through continual coverage of chaos outside. As theorists like Marshall McLuhan began to question the media we consume, Bergman questioned the world we formulate in images. As Bergman wrote, his films “cannot melt, transform, or forget”, but he “shall never rid myself of those images”. American cinema’s reaction to contemporary events was slow, struggling to find relevancy before New Hollywood began to emerge. But within the elevated production of Swedish cinema – writing screenplays quickly, turning around filming and editing in a few months – Bergman responded to the chaos around Vietnam succinctly and effectively.

Later, Bergman plays a similar scene, cutting as he zooms closer and closer into the small details of a photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland surrounded by SS, his fate predicated within an image itself. The image alone might reveal little, but surrounding context tells us this boy is likely dead. On the beach, Alma shoots her camera out at us, capturing an image of the audience watching the film, as though we are another rock in the landscape. In the reunion with Mr Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) towards the conclusion, Bergman invokes sight, an essential element to the process of watching. Touching his face and removing his tinted glasses, Vogler might be blinded, but is still able to sense the physical world.

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The photograph of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto highlights our relationship with documented conflict

As he wrote in his essay The Snakeskin, Bergman felt creativity as a “sort of hunger”; his cinema “communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies” in a “rage”. Bergman began to question why he made films or staged plays. Laying in hospital, he had “driven all my engines at top speed”, shaking his “old body until it fell apart.” (1990:51) Persona is Bergman’s reckoning with his career, leaving open many masterpieces to come.

Chinese Roulette (1976), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Chinese Roulette is about skeletons in the closet: Ariane and Gerhard are parents to the most uncomfortable family. Underestimated and undervalued, their daughter Angela is constrained to crutches, yet holds power over the entire family, engineering her own game as she asks housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira) to move the table together at dinner. Looked after by mute governess and caretaker Traunitz, Fassbinder communicates immediate creepiness through Angela, reinforced by her large collection of dolls. Angela has no outlet to speak, not even those around her; often, her only outlet is in sign language to Traunitz. Older brother Gabriel (Volker Spengler) spouts pretentious intellectualism, an uncomfortable combination of teenager and adult mothered after as days go by, brewing coffee for guests. Like Angela, Gabriel seeks out the truth, but truth is often elusive. As housekeeper, Kast stands alone, enraptured within routines: mincing meat and preparing food, drinking large gulps of wine. Kast seems suffocated within housework, evoking the same endless role as Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

Where Fassbinder used Fox and His Friends (1975) to explore class difference and vapid human interaction within underground gay subculture, Chinese Roulette becomes an exploration of infidelity within the heterosexual (or bisexual) world. Ariane and Gerhard embody mid-70s attitudes, with increasing economic freedom to travel the world and in relationship formation. Both seek escape: in the opening, they depart at the airport in Munich, flying to Oslo. In the woods, Gerhard finds sexual escape with French mistress Irene (Anna Karina). Shot from above, Fassbinder presents the trees around as though freedom is infinite, fucking and undressing on the soil itself. But Ariane also has another sexual partner in business partner Kolbe. Their arrangement in the grand country house facilitates non-monogamy, switching partners. As he does in Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder beautifully communicates a visceral sexual gaze; each character finds attraction in the other. Fassbinder plays with female embrace and a bond between Ariane and Irene, finding beauty and chemistry; Gerhard and Kolbe cannot accept anything but a cordial game of chess.

As a young girl experiencing early stages of puberty, Angela feels a lack of sexual fulfilment, telling Gabriel no man will ever be sexually interested in her. Just as her existence as a disabled girl is stigmatised, so is sexuality. Angela exhibits underlying guilt and trauma for her existence, feeling responsible for her parents’ collapsing marriage and infidelity. She has a mischievous side, fully comprehending the state of affairs but assumed to be ignorant. She intentionally walks in on each parent with respective partners lying naked and awake as the morning rises, leaving with a wry smile. Acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus makes strong use of the frame, aware of angles and windows within the room itself. As she leaves, sexuality becomes more intense with perhaps the most ferocious hickey in cinema history.

Each partner must reconcile feelings towards non-monogamy, aware both men have slept with both women, and vice versa. The morning after, discussing sexual experiences and partners becomes an easy route towards jealousy. Over their quiet game of chess, Gerhard and Kolbe discuss the elephant in the room. Fassbinder frequently used techniques of melodrama; Chinese Roulette is no exception. Fassbinder follows a conceit that makes for easy melodrama, but approaches a pureness of character and identity. In the confounding closing text, Fassbinder underlines the film as an indictment of the institution of marriage and heteronormativity itself. A bisexual director with many partners over the years, often his own collaborators, Fassbinder never played by the societal rules placed on relationships. But Fassbinder’s approach to marriage cannot be taken as broad brush; each relationship and partner has their own set-ups, attitudes and values. No marriage or relationship is the same. Some fall apart; some stay together; some embrace non-monogamy. Chinese Roulette does not reflect every marital relationship.

Fassbinder extends beyond sexuality to explore norms around gender. Gabriel’s gaze has a sexual component; in the petrol station, Gabriel lies eyes upon male attendants. In their book, Gabriel plagiarises their work as writer, creating pieces making little linear sense. Gabriel sees their work within a literary tradition of philosophy of Nietzsche and Goethe; Angela also names Wilde, adding a queer element. In an extract read aloud, they speak of the son of God walking the earth, and His connection to the sun god; Gabriel embodies man and woman, crossing lines of gender. Fassbinder played with gender throughout his films; Volker Spengler plays trans woman Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). Gabriel sees themselves as an angel walking upon Earth, made obvious by their surname and crosses appearing throughout the film.

Chinese Roulette has no end of games from a deck of cards to chess atop a glass board; sexuality is itself a game. A parlour game played after dinner, Chinese Roulette offers a medium for truth to emerge. The climax to an 80-minute film, the game is the only part that ever drags, but is essential to resolution. Fassbinder presents a Germany struggling to reconcile its recent fascist past, even as the country was split in two. Fassbinder communicates the same discomfort to the war as in Basil’s disastrous mocking of tourists in The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers (1975-79). Angele decries Kast’s role in the war, a silent outsider. Would she have been in the Gestapo, or working at Bergen-Belsen? Fassbinder moves between shocked reactions on each face, struggling to understand the power of what has just been spoken, creating perfect tension. Through the viewfinder on her gun, Ariane becomes a newfound threat, both to Angele and towards Traunitz, one of the few people to ever understand her. But fascism is itself slipping into everyday lexicon: in the car, she decries a bad driver as a “fascist”.

Fassbinder builds the film’s power through both location and music, creating confinement. Each room is a separate realm, embodying different people and identities. Through divisions, hearsay and speculation run rampant; we hear only half the conversation. Gerhard and Kolbe play chess in one room; Ariane and Irene discuss matters in the other, crossing between realms and panning out, creating visual representation of their conflicted relationship. Rooms stretch out as spaces of emptiness. In the opening, Angela and Traunitz sit together, playing a record of a classical piece, Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Erdenrest, Traunitz sitting upon the window ledge. Aware of pace, Fassbinder stretches shots out, immersed within a world of women. Moving into the hallway, the music stops, interrupted by the presence of men. Fassbinder uses a similar technique later on: Gabriel walks between corridors, unsure what he will find as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity seeps out, its delightful, sinister synths penetrating the soundtrack. Traunitz is reduced to a child, hobbling along with Angela’s crutches as the transistor radio plays.

Michael Ballhaus utilises the house’s tacky furniture and décor to create a strong visual aesthetic: clear acrylic cabinets are everywhere, enshrining bottles of wine and a hi-fi in cages; a birdcage is equally a part of the house. Ballhaus uses these elements to reflected and fracture faces across surfaces, lens flares moving across candles at the dinner table. But other scenes suffer, lighting and audio recording not perfectly thought out. The opening titles are an embarrassment, red text scrolling across the screen through a car window. Where Chinese Roulette suffers most is staging. Fassbinder’s output seems largely unmatched; although offering a massive canon of characters and scenarios, it leads to scenes played without enough dramatic gravitas. Through dropped plates and mugs of coffee and visceral arguments, although performances are commendable, we never feel the true, melodramatic power, without proper staging to emphasise these situations to their core. But this is a reasonable price to pay.

Wild Strawberries (1957), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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Ingmar Bergman owes a debt to The Phantom Carriage (1921), most notably in The Seventh Seal (1957). As Bergman reflects in Images: My Life in Film, he first saw The Phantom Carriage aged fifteen, still watching it “at least once every summer” (1990:24). The casting of director Victor Sjöström as Isak Borg came at the suggestion of producer Carl Anders Dymling, something Bergman “thought long and hard” about. In a sense, Bergman used Wild Strawberries to repay the debt of his influence. As Peter Cowie writes, Sjöström was 78, a widower and in poor health, often forgetting his lines and needing a strong supply of whiskey; Sjöström passed away three years after the film’s release.

Old age has many representations in film. Up (2009) beautifully confronts the life of a widower and the icons of his childhood; Beginners (2010) reminds us it is never too early to come out; in Nebraska (2013), Woody hangs onto false hopes and dreams. But rarely are we allowed to look at protagonists complexly from their perspective, filtered through their interactions with sons, daughters and grandkids. Isak Borg represents another generation, a remnant of the Victorian era – the end of the 1870s – as a new era comes of age; his elderly mother hangs onto life in her mid-90s. With fifteen great grandkids, she swims in cards, without inheritance, but holds a tangible connection to the past in her collection of toys and dolls. As a professor, Borg lives within his own mind: at his desk, he writes words on paper, reflects with his cigar, reminded of the past by images surrounding him. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer places great attention to framing Borg’s head in side and silhouette. In one incredible shot, Borg watches the sun: for as much time as Borg has left, as long as the sun still rises, there is still life.

Salvador Dalí might be best known to cinema for his work with Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou (1929), though Dalí’s name is littered throughout cinema from his work with Walt Disney on Destino (2003) and with Hitchcock on Spellbound (1945). But in an incredible surrealist scene, Bergman and Fischer draw up visions evoking Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). We delve within Borg’s mind as he imagines a town square with a clockface with no hands, the silhouette of a man and a passing coffin in a phantom carriage, carrying his twisted face and body. But as Mark Le Fanu writes, Bergman wasn’t Freudian, but “too much of an artist to subscribe to any single ideology of the unconscious”. Borg must confront his own legacy: Wild Strawberries acts as a road movie, travelling to Lund to collect a prestigious award, but with stops along the way. The pageantry of the award ceremony is enough to become disillusioned, as though the meaning of our lives can be placed within awards themselves.

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Bergman uses a sense of Dalí-esque surrealism

Bergman drew from his own relationship with his family. As he reflects in Images: My Life in Film, “I had created a figure who, on the outside, looked like my father but was me, through and through”, in all his failings (1990:20). Sjöström invested the film with “his pain, his misanthropy, his brutality, sorrow, fear, loneliness, coldness, warmth, harshness, and ennui”, occupying Bergman’s soul and making it “all his own” (1990:24). Bergman confronted his family throughout his films: in his short Karin’s Face (1984), Bergman draws a montage of photographs of his own mother, allowing us to reflect on who she was as a person and the influence she had on Bergman.

Through Borg, Bergman draws a connection between present and past. Wild Strawberries approaches flashbacks similarly to Manchester by the Sea (2016): separation between time becoming blurred, flowing in and out of each other, as fully realised and immersive as the present moment. Within memory, there are no boundaries. As he reflects in Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work (1998), all creativity is rooted in childhood, achieving a “dialogue”. Writing in Images: My Life and Film, Bergman was “forever living in my childhood, wandering through quiet Uppsala streets, standing in front of the summer cottage and listening to the enormous double-trunk birch tree” (1990:22).

Bergman utilised memory equally well in Summer Interlude (1951), as a ballet dancer recalls an encounter in her younger years. Like in The Go-Between (1971), we search our own pasts and memories to reconcile our youth and childhood. Embodied spaces provide a window into the past; Borg becomes reminded by locations, from grand staircases to fields of grass and flowers. Bergman focuses upon nature, from clouds to trees. As Fischer frames scenes through windows, he creates a literal window into the past to look through. Visiting his grandmother’s house in Uppsala in 1956, Bergman was inspired to create a sense of a man “opening a door and walking into his childhood”, before “walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life”. Borg’s youth is idyllic, kissing in the garden. Bergman uses the motif of wild strawberries throughout his films, appearing in both Summer with Monika (1953) and The Seventh Seal, symbolising a sense of life. At the assembled group at the table for name day, including Uncle Aron and the twin girls in pigtails, there’s something quaint: they bless the Lord, with fancy tableware, rituals, moustaches and a cone-shaped hearing aid.

Accompanied by daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), Borg encounters Sara (Bibi Andersson) on the road, travelling to Italy with her male lovers, Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam) and Anders (Folke Sundquist). With a pipe and her open sexuality, Sara embodies a late 1950s coolness. One of the party comments “I can’t imagine a worse thing than getting old!”; Borg accepts it. He can’t either: his inescapable, present position, but over the course of the film Borg begins to find himself comfortable in his age. Spending time at the table together, playing the guitar and remembering good times over a glass of wine, a sense of youth emerges. As he writes in Images: My Life in Film, Bergman was struggling to deal with the “negative chaos of human relationships”, not only in his separation from his third wife, his crumbling relationship with Bibi Andersson and feud with his parents (1990:17).

Like all Bergman films, Wild Strawberries touches upon theological themes. In his age, Borg might seem like a fountain of wisdom, but Borg is just as lost as the next generation. Wild Strawberries’ contemporary setting makes it more accessible than the medieval theological debates of The Seventh Seal, grounded with a comedic edge. Bergman interjects the film with comedy: in his relationship with his housekeeper Agda, serving him coffee and an egg for breakfast, Borg bounces off her with retorts like and old married couple. Viktor, Anders and Sara squabble over the existence of God, with the same childish edge as the territorial fights for the woman Harry loves in Summer with Monika. Viktor merely wants Sara to show some interest in him. Borg watches these debates, but can give no answer. Faith has no time; the resonance it has (or lacks) with each generation is individual and personal. Marianne’s argument with her husband Evald over her unborn son in a car hit by rain encapsulates a sense of existential nihilism. Evald cannot see any value in life in a meaningless world; giving birth to life is an act of savagery and a loss of control, with intensity beyond Borg’s own youth. The birth of a child offers the film circularity between generations, but Evald cannot accept this unending cycle.

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In the car, Evald debates Marianne’s right to motherhood

The Seventh Seal (1957), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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The Seventh Seal’s effect on popular culture is vast; Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) takes its image of Death from The Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal is easy shorthand for arthouse: in (500) Days of Summer (2009), Tom watches an abstract French film, closing with a game of chess with Cupid upon the beach. Muppets Most Wanted (2014) suggests The Seventh Seal as a possible existential sequel featuring the Swedish Chef.

Upon release, as Bergman describes in Images: My Life in Film, The Seventh Seal “swept like a forest fire across the world” (1990:242). As Garry Giddins writes, its release in New York’s Paris Theater by Janus Films was “transformative”, catapulting cinema “to the front line of a cultural advance guard” alongside “modern jazz, abstract painting, Beat writing [and] theater of the absurd”; Kurosawa and Bergman proved “cinema was a global pursuit of infinite promise”. The transformative effect is perhaps best encapsulated by Diner (1982), Barry Levinson’s portrait of young life in 1959 Baltimore. Billy and Eddie sit in an empty cinema, falling asleep.

“What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”

“It’s symbolic.”

Svensk Filmindustri initially turned Bergman’s screenplay down, an elaboration of a one-act piece, Wood Painting, developed in Bergman’s drama school and performed as a radio play. With the success of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) at Cannes, Bergman was afforded greater power, shooting over 36 days between July and August 1956, largely confined to Råsunda Film Studios. As Bergman reflects, The Seventh Seal is “one of the few films really close to my heart.” (1990:235)

The Seventh Seal reveals another time. Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades, dealing with its aftermath. Writing in Cahiers du cinema in 1958, Jean-Luc Godard praised Bergman as a “film-maker of the instant”, using his heroes to reflect and meditate with a “dislocation of time”. As divinely sanctioned holy war, the Crusades open questions not only to the power of the Holy Roman Empire and papacy, but faith, penance and the bloodshed of forcefully converting the Islamic world to Christianity; The Seventh Seal is rife with questions to its idealism, honour and chivalry.

Following the morning routines of waking up, we witness entirely different subsistence from the modern Sweden of Summer with Monika (1953), centuries before industrialisation. Goats are farmed from the land; pigs and stew are cooked and boiled. In the troupe of travelling players, Bergman drew upon the 13th century manuscript of the Carmina Burana, medieval songs sung by homeless scholars, monks, priests and jesters who travelled “through the downfall of civilization and culture” (1990:231). Men and women follow rituals of love and courtship to get by; actor and juggler Jof (Nils Poppe) lives alongside wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and son Mikael. Normality goes on through domestic disputes. Rituals conceal manipulation: Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) might seem himself as righteous and only committing good deeds, saving a young servant girl, but threatens her with the fact he could have raped her, taking her on as housekeeper with a sense of ownership.

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The travelling jester and players offer theatricality

As the impact of the plague hits, we sense the economic impact: merchants must deal with unsold stock; silver bracelets are traded on the black market. Omens of the Last Day seem all around. Unrelenting mortality might seem quaint: from our comfort, we can acknowledge how silly it might seem to hold onto this notion of the Last Day. But we must understand the perspectives and events forming these beliefs. Bergman draws upon comedy and humour in extreme contrast to darkness, finding a sense of humanity: in the depths of despair, people find life, drinking at the bar, Jof dancing on top of the table like a bear, eating wild strawberries at a picnic through seasons. As Giddins writes, to 1950s audiences, Bergman drew a “correlation between his vision of the Middle Ages and the midcentury fear of atomic devastation” in a cinematic climate dominated by “apocalypses, holocausts, plagues, eschatology, and resurrection” in B-movies, adventure films and biblical epics.

Bergman questioned religion and institutions from his earliest works: in Summer Interlude (1951), Marie feels anger and contempt at God for the death of her lover. But The Seventh Seal is the pinnacle of Bergman’s religious exploration in its notoriety. The Seventh Seal draws upon a passage from Revelation 8:12, recited in the opening monologue, speaking of seven angels and seven trumpets: “when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”. As Bergman reflects in Images: My Life in Film, he was “still very much in a quandary over religious faith”, placing his “two opposing beliefs side by side” to create a “virtual cease-fire” between his “childhood piety” and “harsh rationalism” (1990:235).

Made in a secular Sweden and set in the Middle Ages, the world of The Seventh Seal is founded in religion. Upon horseback, crusaders recite verses about the Lord singing up high. Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary in gleeful surprise, wiping his eyes in disbelief. Waking up Mia, smiling, she doesn’t believe him; they debate on different realms of reality, between truth and psychology. With Mia, Jof conceives a song of Jesus and rejoice in Heaven, turning to religion for his creative works. As Bergman writes in Images: My Life in Film, Jof and Mia represent a “holiness” that remains even when you “peel off the layers of various theologies” (1990:236).

The players’ song acts as a medieval morality play; Bergman uses a similar approach, using art and film to critically confront the values of religious faith. Some actors question their profession. Assembled together for the All Saints Festival in Elsinore, their comedic banter feeds an industry built by priests and the sickness of the Black Death; even in the darkest days, they must find ways to make a living. Handling a skull, one actor bemoans frightening “decent people out of their wits” with “nonsense”. Raval cannot see sanctity in the dead, stealing from corpses to save his own skin, as though God cannot hear him.

Our understanding of the medieval period rely upon tangible records: tapestries, documents, drawings and churches, before modernity offered digital approaches to discerning history and records of the past. These records are shaped through faith, wall paintings and murals as frightening reminders of death, enshrining characters like Jöns the squire in paint, dancing with girls and laughing at God, but without its context that surviving the passing decades and centuries. The existence of Jöns must be left to historical conjecture. The theatrical arrival of supplicants, whipping until they bleed, is prefigured by an elaborate church mural, constantly witnessed in the background. Marching with smoke and an effigy, they interrupt the joyous performance of travelling players with solemnness. They chant, bemoaning humanity as condemned and asking all to be wary, prepared for God’s punishment as they confront their “final hour”. In a long shot, Bergman follows mass crowds reacting in prayer to the carrying of the cross.

God’s name becomes used to justify women’s oppression: condemned as witches and guilty of spreading the plague. As a woman cries out in pain, her body motionless, Block seeks to provide comfort. Bathed in fluid, she feels a spiritual connection that protects her, trusting the fire won’t hurt her. But in her eyes and slow, weak voice, we see rigid fear; amid the nothingness, Block struggles to see God, allowing her to feel such pain. In close-up, we see the physical process of death: her body loses life as Bergman focuses upon the physicality. Wood and her body combusts, as we feel emptiness. As a man watches on, he reflects that “our fear and hers are the same”. Bergman’s fear of death had become “something unbearable” through his teens and twenties (1990:238); through his sickness and the production of The Seventh Seal, Bergman confronted his own feelings towards faith and death. As he reflects in Images: My Life in Film (1990:241):

Suddenly I realized, that is how it is. […] First you are, then you are not. This I find deeply satisfying. […] Everything is of this world. Everything exists and happens inside us, and we flow into and out of one another. It’s perfectly fine like that.

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A young woman condemned as a witch struggles to face the physical process of death

In the iconic opening, Death announces his presence as Block kneels upon the beach with his sword. Death, not Jesus, has “long walked” at Block’s side. Playing chess, spoken of in paintings and sung of by travelling performers, his presence is a symbolic contradiction: sitting upon a beach, whilst suggesting a metaphysical dimension beyond everyday perception. But Block often plays chess alone, only his horse for company.

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Antonious Block plays chess with himself upon the beach

Through the crosshatch, Block’s confession provides the film’s most powerful scene as he speaks to Death, feeling disgust, fear and emptiness. Block wants guarantees in his pursuit of knowledge, becoming a voice for Bergman’s insecurities and anxieties as he confronts his own shadow. A crucifix of Jesus looks down upon the confession, lifeless and empty. Like with Rodrigues in Silence (2016), we must ask ourselves what that silence actually is. Block gazes upon the assumptions of faith and sees life as “preposterous nothingness”, unable to accept a God who hides “in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles”, yet finds himself unable to kill God within his heart.

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Block speaks to Death in confession

As they run through the forest, actions and conflicts become territorial, Lisa, manager Skat and blacksmith Plog throwing insults and innuendo. As Skat pleads, Death cuts the tree down with comedic playfulness. Bergman wanted to create an image of Death with the “features of a white clown”, acting as an “amalgamation of a clown mask and a skull”. (1990:236) Unlike Faust, there are no acquittals nor loopholes out of this; he must accept he will no longer care for his family and children and must accept fate, as much as Skat is unable to accept his performance his cancelled. As the tree falls, a squirrel rises upon the stump. The circle of life continues on, across all creatures.

Bergman creates a world defined by natural landscapes. The opening presents a cloudy sky and dramatic score, composed by Erik Nordgren: horses stand upon the beach beside Block as the sea grows more violent. Avoiding dialogue, we focus upon the sunset and the waves, the body rolling against the immensity of nature. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer divides the frame into three parts, between land, the blackness of the sea and the sky above. In the forest, as Raval dies, Fischer creates distance, framing his death in long shot rather than in close-up as the sun begins to dawn. As Godard praised of Bergman, “he alone has not openly rejected those devices beloved of the avant-gardists of the thirties”, but embraces an aesthetic where his “lakes, forests, grass, clouds” are not “mere showing-off or technical trickery”, but “integrated into the psychology of the characters” to achieve a “precise feeling”.

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Sun dawns on the forest upon Raval’s death

During the film’s stunning final scene, set against a storm, Bergman offers some comfort: Block is reunited with wife Karin (Inga Landgré), embracing as they bid each other farewell into the eternal abyss. Setting the table for breakfast and praying for mercy, Bergman forms a tableau of a last supper like Luis Buñuel does in Viridiana (1961). As the camera slowly moves into Karin’s face, we see her tears. Our characters must bid welcome to Death, breaking the fourth wall as they introduce their identities in monologues, each with their own distinct responses. Bergman engulfs the screen in blackness, fading in the sounds of nature rising anew; a horse upon the beach in the morning light. Bergman and Fischer took advantage of an approaching storm, placing the camera back in place and improvising a scene with “a few grips and a couple of tourists”. In silhouette, Death invites them to dance, moving away from the dawn. Jof departs upon his horse, walking away with his back to us.

Summer with Monika (1953), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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Adapted from the 1951 novel by Per Anders Fogelström, who collaborated with Bergman on the adaptation, Summer with Monika acts as a portrait of working class life in Stockholm, as young Harry (Lars Ekborg) works days away in Forsbergs stacking glasses; Monika (Harriet Andersson) works as a shop girl in a grocers. Harry is constantly denigrated, considered a “sack of potatoes”. Harry seeks a small act of revenge in defiance, hesitant to push a glass until it finally falls to the ground. In the pub, we see the men around him are twice his age, without anyone to relate to. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, a frequent collaborator of Bergman’s, perfectly encapsulates Stockholm during this period, presenting the intersection of the city with modernity as trams pass by; Fischer pays close attention to frames and silhouettes.

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Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer focuses closely upon frames and silhouettes

Harry and Monika never want to slave away in the world of work, seeking to escape norms set upon them by society. Oversleeping one morning upon his father’s boat, Monika convinces Harry to quit work and find time to themselves. But roles quickly become domestic: Harry must put bread on the table as they search the archipelago for something to eat. The concepts of the teenager and separation between childhood and the working world of adulthood are constructs: as the documentary Teenage (2013) explores, the notion of the teenager was formed through the changes within society and status of the post-war period; each generation has their own unique relationship with youth.

Their dream of travelling the world has a source: in the Garbio cinema, they watch a Hepburn film, Song of Love (1947). Monika is led to tears; Harry is disinterested. Song of Love fosters values of love and escapism and a good life that Monika attempts to emulate, dooming it to fail. Films directing our gaze back at the screen itself offers a unique approach to our own relationship with cinema: the cinematic screens within Donnie Darko (2001), Maniac (2012) and La La Land (2016) offer self-reflexivity, allowing us to see who are characters are and their values. Cinema extends beyond its escapist tendency into a confrontation to who we are and what we hold onto. Monika stares into high street windows, wanting to wear the clothes glamourised by women, to buy a dress and be fashionable. She performs her sexuality based on films themselves, describing Harry as “just like someone in a film”. Bergman embraces a female perspective, subverting the male perspective of the original novel. As Laura Hubner writes, Harriet Andersson represents “the arrival of a new kind of female star” with a “natural beauty that shuns Hollywood glamour”, whilst harkening back to “Bergman’s early male heroes who rebel against society”.

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Monika’s dream emerges from the cinema itself

The pair’s intense sexual desire follows the rush of the early stages of a young relationship. Monika is in charge of her sexuality, having slept with other men before. As she smokes cigarettes, she connotes sheer sexuality. Perhaps the best-known example of teenage melodrama and rebellion from the same period is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), depicting a fragmented parental relationship and concerns around gang violence. Harry and Monika never feel content with home lives; family life seems to just be reading magazines. Around their parents, they have to monitor how they express physical intimacy, putting their clothes back on. Even on the boat, moored to the coastline, they cannot escape family entirely; it’s Harry’s father’s boat. The boat is never the dream imagined: space is cramped, somewhat subduing the freedom of sexuality where they have space to get undressed together. Without responsibility, there’s infinite freedom as an endless summer against a seemingly endless landscape. But all summers end one day; time seeming stretchless and endless must pass.

Summer with Monika was shot on a small budget, filming over three weeks in July on Ornö Island, reshooting and dubbing scenes afterwards; Bergman promised producers it would be “the world’s cheapest film”; production lasted until October. As a couple left to themselves, Harry and Monika have a space to have sex in peace and go skinny-dipping on the island. As Bergman commented in a self-interview, “I haven’t heard that nude swimming has become obligatory in Swedish filmmaking. But I think it should be.” But they cannot escape creature comforts, or even other people: Monika brews coffee; Harry shaves with his razor. Unsatisfied by cooking mushrooms, Monika searches out a garden of fruit but steals meat, getting in trouble. A fellow tourist sets their boat on fire; Harry must prove his masculinity and defend against him, getting in a fight framed in close-up by Fischer. Nature has power beyond them, with Fischer emphasising the landscape and the island’s constant storms. Harry and Monika become reduced to ants as Fischer emphasises the landscape around them.

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Landscapes of the archipelago stretch on beyond Harry and Monika

As much as they try to sing songs and read books, they cannot escape responsibility, talking to each other about their issues in life and feelings of loneliness as they drink away. Harry and Monika vow to be monogamous as they move into their next stage of life: remain together, raise kids, study to be an engineer. They speak from youth, whilst attempting to factor in and deal with mature responsibility. Summer with Monika bears comparison to Summer Interlude (1951), a ballet dancer’s recollection upon youth from adulthood, recalling a sense of innocence and dreams of adulthood upon a romance on the archipelago that ends in tragedy. As Hubner writes, Monika follows the “seasonal cycle” of Bergman’s 1950s films with “renewed dynamism”, through their meeting, romance, disillusionment and maturity.

Bergman was in part working from his own experience: Bergman and Andersson had had a brief relationship. But in its initial US release, Monika’s vision of teenage youth and romance was distorted and devalued, released as an exploitation film re-edited by Kroger Babb, Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, emphasising the film’s lewd sexuality and inserting footage from a nudist resort on Long Island. In Los Angeles, the film was confiscated as pornography, its distributor fined and sentenced to three months in prison.

But Monika is continually affected by male ownership over her sexuality. At work, colleague Lelle constantly torments her as a sexual target; she’s sexually assaulted, placing his hand up her skirt, groping her breasts and pushing her around. Harry’s boss considers her a slut, not someone to get involved with. On the island, Harry and Monika find a mirror to their relationship, as older couples dance away the evening at a resort. Summer with Monika is a cyclical narrative, as Harry and Monika begin to look more and more like their parents: chaotic, loveless, abusive, even as fighting authority seemed their deepest desire. As Hubner writes, Monika “has no alternative other than to become financially dependent on a man […] or to repeat the poverty cycle like her mother”.

As Monika becomes pregnant, Harry and Monika appeal to the courts for a licence to marry despite being underage, dressing smart. Looking after a baby is immensely difficult, contending with work, the economy and the constant need for new clothes. Harry and Monika find it difficult to keep up their old sense of life, forced back into industrial jobs, accepting reality as it is. Their relationship quickly becomes abusive: Monika attempts to oscillate their relationship between arguments and intimacy, but Harry punches her. Monika abandons her child, but the strain on her isn’t difficult to see. As Monika smokes her cigarette into the camera in direct gaze with the audience, we feel her pain. In the final scene, Bergman flashes back to the beach, recalling the past with a sense of its passage and acceptance as Marie did in Summer Interlude.

Summer with Monika may not be the first film one thinks of when approaching Bergman’s career. Bergman had been working in film for over a decade, honing his craft working in theatre, careers he kept simultaneous. Summer with Monika never had a chance to be taken seriously outside of Sweden, but the success of later works allowed for reappraisal as Bergman’s name became more prominent. Monika is an essential work, acting as a powerful portrait of the inevitability of change and the impermanence of young relationships.

Hard to be a God (2013), dir. Aleksei German

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Hard to be a God is a testament to vision and persistence. German began a screenplay of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Hard to be a God (1964) in 1967; Boris injected the piece with his own feelings on the political situation, but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year, work was abandoned. As German tells Anton Dolin in a 2011 book of interviews, republished within Arrow Academy’s booklet, he tried to take over Peter Fleischmann’s adaptation, Hard to be a God (1989), but was unable to negotiate as Fleischmann’s finances were already invested. Under Gorbachev’s relaxations, the film’s relevance seemed to have dissipated; German felt a national feeling of “the evil had been conquered”. German didn’t start production until 2000, shooting over a six-year period and editing until his death in 2013; completed posthumously through wife Svetlana Karmalita and son and filmmaker Aleksei German Jr.

German died considering himself a failure despite awards, producing only a handful of films within limitations of censorship; never achieving worldwide distribution or acclaim and suffering from depression. As he joked to Dolin, compared to a “severely beaten human being” or political prisoner, he was a “winner”. Shot on 35mm, the sheer scale of Hard to be a God is difficult to grasp, ostensibly science fiction but lacking few identifying characteristics besides its premise of a visitor to another world.

Hard to be a God is an exercise in worldbuilding, thanks to the efforts of designers Sergei Kokovin, Georg Kropachev and Elena Zhukova, and directors of photography Vladimir Ilyin and Yuriy Klimenko. Shot in castles in the Czech Republic and Lenfilm Studios in St Petersburg and recruiting numerous extras, Hard to be a God astounds. In the opening scenes, we feel distance: expositional narration offers a fairytale-esque glimpse, scientists gazing upon inhabitants framed by the circular lens. Rather than an escapist, futurist world, Arkanar becomes a reflection of our own history within the same genre as the swords and sorcery epics of films like Labyrinth (1986), series like Game of Thrones (2011-present) and multimedia franchises like Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons & Dragons. Though Hard to be a God lacks mythical creatures, it follows the same principle, just as steampunk refigures industrial technology into the future.

German coordinates mise-en-scène perfectly, creating a sense of the chaos of overcrowded streets, characters overlapping each other. German has less interest in narrative progression, without a clear journey: the film is circular, opening in snowfall by a black pool of water, ending in white snow as a man and a young girl walk by; people on horseback walking through the desolate landscape, the corpse of a dog hanging from a swing set. German’s worldbuilding is his philosophy: referencing Ivanov’s masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People (1857), he told Dolin he would “rather create a single piece but a good one”.

As a medieval world trapped 800 years in the past, Arkanar’s Renaissance was forestalled by the repression of Don Reba, head of Crown Security, dissolving universities and its intelligentsia of “thinkers, smartarses, bookworms and artisans”, in war between Blacks and Greys. Reba is central to the film’s political commentary, drawing parallels between the Tower of Joy and the KGB; the Strugatskys foregrounded the novel within the repressions of the Soviet regime. Presented an award by Putin, German reportedly told him “the most interested viewer should be you”. Precepts become ludicrous: the world’s caste system, with slaves employed in tin mines, designate “gingernuts” as other, purely for the shade of their hair.

Arkanar feels otherworldly and anachronistic: the Renaissance exists as an alternative universe, references to Da Vinci, Baron Munchausen and a local tobacconist dropped throughout. Technology seems from another time and place, from spyglasses to an intricate flute that plays catchy yet equally as desolate blues music throughout the film that gives the young girl a “tummy ache” in the final scene. As a visitor, Don Rumata acts as a conduit to the contrast between this world and our world but with a Renaissance anachronism. Through the centuries, we feel distance from medieval life, unable to imagine what it must have been like. Perhaps the most successful vision of the degradation is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but it is still ultimately a comedy; German creates a world real and tangible. German wanted to “make a film with a smell”, immersing us within the Middle Ages “through a keyhole”. In Stalker (1979), adapted from the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), Tarkovsky created distance between science fiction and present reality through his industrial and natural landscapes to represent the Zone, grounded within our relationship with nature itself; Arkanar follows that same relationship. Natural elements are stark: a world of rain, fire, mist and swamps smothered in blood, alcohol and faeces, roses unable to distract from the disgusting.

German builds a terrifying vision of death. Bureaucracy relies upon torture; traders sell eyeballs; disembodied heads litter streets; rotting bodies hang from gallows, eaten by flies and marred by white splotches; poets drenched in fluid; disease spreads cholera and plague. It is a world of memento mori: Ruba handles the skull of a cow, before a young boy tells him it’s actually a boar. In an overhead shot, the Black Order march through the Land Beyond the Straits as premonitions, seen only in helmets and cloaks, a passing bird revealing the sheer scale. The precepts of the ordained authority of the Crown Security make fearing death itself a heretical crime. God’s existence becomes a constant act of debate: as a lone visitor attempting to shape the future, Rumata has a god complex, but in the Dolin interview, German argues he is only acting. God is dead, but Rumata asks God to stop him (if he exists), still debating whether there are souls or no souls. Frescoes create insight into the history of religious icons and the Arkanar Massacre itself, an event never directly glimpsed on screen.

Agrarian existence depends upon a relationship with animals. Eggs are held as produce; butchers handle animals; fish lay dead; cows, goats, hedgehogs, tortoises, monkeys and ducks walk through the frame; in close-up detail, we follow a horse in armour marching on. “May your donkey shaft you” becomes a visceral threat of violence. Sexuality runs rampant, one of the few things to entertain in a world where nothing seems to have any value. Naked bodies are as prominent as animals, filled with dicks, boobs and flagellation of butts. In the opening scene, we hold on a man defecating from an open window. Balls and bulges are fondled; German holds the camera on the oversized dick of a donkey’s. Bestiality is commonplace; rumours abound about a man having sex with a goose. Women become punished by archaic systems: abused by a solider, looking up her dress to determine whether she is a “gingernut”; burned at the stake as “whores”, with little to verify the authenticity of those slurs. German’s open use of sexual and needs driven bodies might seem to place him in the same category as Walerian Borowczyk, in the crossroads between high art, pornography and exploitation, but adds an additional layer of authenticity and reality to his world.

Almost the entirety of German’s films have documented Stalinist era history, shot in black and white. As he tells Dolin, two crimes were committed against cinema: the emergence of sound and colour cinema. German comments that he “see[s] the world in black and white”; colour is but a sensor within the mind. Black and white affords timelessness, placing Hard to be a God firmly within another era, its scale evoking the great Russian epics of Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1942-44), Hamlet (1964) and Andrei Rublev (1966): nationalist mythmaking intersecting along exploration of faith, death and value systems.

Inspired by the scale and thematic exploration of Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bertolucci and Bergman, by the end of his life German felt disengaged with cinema, becoming what he described to Dolin as “a spectacle for people who are too lazy to read”. Hard to be a God seems unmatched in its slow and contemplative 3-hour runtime. In long shots, the camera acts as a character within itself, never seeking to hide its presence. Extras walk up and look into the eye of the camera, watching out at us, performing to or avoiding as the camera catches their gaze. German breaks the fourth wall in much the same way as Tarkovsky did with Stalker, imagining the audience as participants and observers within this world. Largely avoiding close-ups, German allows us to examine the frame for ourselves and find our own narratives.

Stalker (1979), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

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Andrei Tarkovsky is a director like few others. Ivan’s Childhood (1962) is a film of stunning images, placed within the final days of World War II; Andrei Rublev (1966) is a testament to scale and ideas; Solaris (1972) delves into the depths of memory and consciousness. Tarkovsky was in constant negotiation with censors over what his films could represent. Stalker was troubled from the start: shot on experimental Kodak 5247 stock, the initial print manifested an unwatchable dark green tint, leaving unending debate about whether it was accidental or sabotage. Tarkovsky reconceived, altering the character of Stalker and elaborating the film into a longer two-part epic under cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky.

Although the basis is the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), Tarkovsky wasn’t interested in a literal adaptation. As Mark Le Fanu writes, Roadside Picnic is “hard-boiled” science fiction rife with “slang and violence”, but underneath its dystopian vision is “a humanistic belief […] in the sacredness of the family unit”. Tarkovsky saw science fiction as a set of ““comic book” trappings and vulgar commercialism”, but the Zone is a descent into mystery, embodying a shifting state of reality. Stalker opens with an aura of documentary and the literary, grounded within science fiction and our own world, using a quote from Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace as an epigraph.

What was it? A meteorite that fell to Earth? Or a visitation from outer space?

From the opening, Tarkovsky confronts us with uncertainty: no troops returned from this “miracle of miracles”. As Geoff Dyer highlights in his illuminating deconstruction and memoir on his own relationship with the film, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012:5), this opening caption was added at the bequest of Mosfilm, situating the film within a small bourgeois country that wasn’t the USSR. The epigraph is never detrimental, nor should it be ignored, but essential to our perception. We learn Porcupine has come to the Zone as a Stalker before, never to return; skeletons are just another part of the landscape. But as Tarkovsky stresses in Sculpting in Time, “the Zone doesn’t symbolise anything”; the Zone is life itself (1986:200).

Filming around abandoned power plants and chemical factories around the River Jägala in Tallinn, Estonia, Tarkovsky scouted locations in Tajikistan, whilst considering Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea as possible alternatives. Conditions were harsh, likely leading to the cancer and early death of many of the cast and crew, including Tarkovsky himself: mechanic Sergei Bessmertniy describes a dirty river of reddish flakes and foam where fish still lived, coming off of “waste of pulp and paper”.

Stalker’s opening might present a sense of normality, presented in monochrome that is what Dyer describes as “muddy sepia of sleep that is like a dream of death” (2012:131), filmed in colour and printed in black and white, aesthetically unappealing yet perfect to mood. Tarkovsky intersects monochrome and colour throughout his work: Andrei Rublev closes in colour within the present, icons surviving storms and passing centuries, whilst Solaris set meeting scenes in monochrome through a televised window; Mirror (1975) uses similar techniques. In the opening shot, Tarkovsky forms a recurring tableau at the bar, rarely moving the camera. We move through a bedroom door with a sense of unreality, motion seemingly impossible as a frame forms around; we slowly pan across a girl in bed and objects upon a table, following routines of getting dressed. Our spaces are shipyards, not anywhere else.

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Tarkovsky forms a recurring tableau of Writer, Professor and Stalker at the bar

Industrial and natural landscapes are both abandoned and untouched. Telegraph poles are embedded within the Zone’s landscape, grass sprouting up. Power plants and stone houses lay in the distance, buried by mist. Van Eyck’s icon of St John the Baptist lies submerged in water, a marker of human presence and faith. Writer lays down in the overgrowth, moss around him, a conscious vessel beside the life of nature itself. A lone dog walks through water, both in dream and reality. In seemingly endless sand dunes, a bird moves past, eerily looped as Tarkovsky repeats the footage, the bird disappearing from existence. In the fields, a dust storm moves upwards. In one incredible shot, Tarkovsky pans across the edge of a ridge into the black abyss of the water, before emerging again upon the other side. In a pool of water, the encircled surface shimmers. Moving inside a tunnel, stalagmites and stalactites line the circular roof, the Writer a lone figure.

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In the film’s cyclicality, Tarkovsky returns to the opening setting. A girl, Monkey, reads a book as though reading the film as fable and parable. Shot in colour, the landscape is made more haunting: she walks by in side profile, snow falling. The family walks by with the dog as we glimpse a power plant in the distance. This could be the same family living in Chernobyl in 1986: the power plant behind them, unsuspecting of its power, another everyday family that became victims.

John A. Riley reads Stalker’s landscapes through the lens of hauntology, extrapolating upon Jacques Derrida’s theory of communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Spectres of Marx (1993). In his essay Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (Journal of Film & Video 69(1)), Riley writes that hauntology is both “a way of conceptualizing our repressed past” and a way to understand “our obsession with failed futures” (2017:19). For Riley, the film’s industrial ruins are “a trace of the economic stagnation” under Brezhnev, acting as a “monument to failure” (2017:21). As Dyer points out, the hydroelectric power plant within the film by the Jägala River had been blown up by the retreating Red Army during World War II (2012:61).

Tarkovsky’s use of the frame allows for an interesting relationship with the viewer. Writer looks out as though speaking to us. He sits upon a cylinder, turning to us in Shakesperean soliloquy; Tarkovsky’s cinematic stage becomes theatrical. He speaks in monologues, embodying his literary identity and confessing his deepest, darkest feelings. Stalker’s wife recites verses of Apocalypse, looking directly at us; Monkey recites Fyodor Tyutchev. As Dyer writes, Tarkovsky contravenes Roland Barthes’ edict that “it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera” in cinema (2012:33), but Tarkovsky’s demolishing of the fourth wall allows for intimacy questioning the constraints of cinema itself. As rain falls, Tarkovsky pans out into the darkness, engulfing our protagonists as he finds another frame to act as border, making use of industrial landscapes.

Stalker never feels like political commentary; Tarkovsky achieves timelessness extending beyond everyday politics. But there are some suggestions. In the opening act, set against barbed wire, we feel a sense of power through armed guards. For Dyer, “Stalker is not a film about the Gulag, but the absent and unmentioned Gulag is constantly suggested” (2012:17). Le Fanu draws a direct line between Stalker and his films directed in European exile, Nostalgia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986), drawing upon Tarkovsky’s personal diaries: as Tarkovsky dreamt of imprisonment, he envisioned a “Cold War fantasy of breaking through barriers”.

Tarkovsky saw cinema as literary, drawing upon a prehistory of Renaissance art and Baroque music that acknowledges minds and innovators before him; Tarkovsky is one voice. As he describes in Sculpting in Time, even in structure he wanted to “observe [Aristotle’s] three unities of time, space and action”, each frame flowing into each other. (1986:193) Le Fanu argues Tarkovsky’s literary habits were “imperceptibly feeding ideas into one another”, reading The Idiot (1869) and The Death of Ivan Ilych (1986) and working on a stage adaptation of Hamlet (1977). The concept of Stalker might seem the beginning of a joke: three men walk into a bar. But Tarkovsky uses the archetypes of Writer and Professor, guided by Stalker, to craft an allegory delving within the realms of consciousness. Stalker’s characters act as philosophical interlocutors, conveying ideas as they move through a landscape. As Pedro Blas Gonzalez writes, Tarkovsky’s axioms of knowledge achieve “with cinema what Plato accomplished in philosophical discourse”.

Through Writer, Tarkovsky channels his own insecurities and feelings as a director, resonating with all aspiring artists and creatives out there. For all creative people, there is the question of legacy. Writer questions the purpose of writing itself and importance of reception, and whether his words will be remembered a hundred years from now. He detests writing as “torture” and “a painful, shameful occupation”, yet continues onwards with his craft, something I identify with strongly. As Tarkovsky comments in Sculpting in Time, “artists work at their professions not for the sake of telling someone about something, but as an assertion of their will to serve people”; but no artist can freely create, but is “created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives.” (1986:181) Both the Writer and Professor embody a certain spiritual dimension: the Writer conveys words of meaning; the Professor must seek truth within the world. Framing his characters in side profile, Tarkovsky encourages an exploration within the mind itself.

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Tarkovsky bears comparison to a director like Terrence Malick: spirituality becomes indivisible from both the person and the work, permeating not only philosophical discussions of meaning but natural landscapes. Ivan’s Childhood ends with a child upon a beach, a heavenly calm beyond the chaos of war; Andrei Rublev examines the life of an icon painter; Solaris seeks God within the infinity of the cosmos and memory itself. Tarkovsky elaborates upon the theological hints within Roadside Picnic, using the Stalker as what Gonzalez describes as “a kind of Prometheus that disperses cosmic secrets to man”, but “cannot guarantee the moral and spiritual integrity of those who enter with him.” In the Room, the bomb becomes a test of faith to whether it is activated or not. The supernatural powers of Monkey are a display of the powers of miracle and belief, moving the cups in front of her with a clatter, reportedly inspired by Russian telekinetic psychic Ninel Sergeyevna Kulagina. In the BFI piece, Vladimir Sharun comments that Tarkovsky both believed in miracles and “the existence of flying saucers”, “all harmoniously combined with his faith in God.”

Stalker asks us the meaning of music itself: not connected to reality and devoid of association, yet transcendent within itself. Stalker’s use of music is intermittent, as is dialogue. But Stalker is built through its music and soundscapes. As Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time, music creates a “necessary distortion of the visual material in the audience’s perception” to “prompt the emotions of the audience in a particular direction”, acting not just as an “appendage” but as “an essential element of the realisation of the concept as a whole.” (1986:158) Having previously worked with Eduard Artemyev on Solaris and Mirror, Artemyev’s synthesised musique concrete score combines Oriental and Eastern influences, including an Azerbaijani tar and flute. Stalker confronts us with the intensity of the vibrations of a passing train, shaking the world around us; Stalker’s sounds are visceral to our very core.

The Beguiled (2017), dir. Sofia Coppola

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After failed development of a darker, underwater-shot version of The Little Mermaid at Disney, Coppola’s next project looked uncertain. Coppola may be overshadowed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, but the Coppola family has branches throughout Hollywood, from actor Nicolas Cage to Gia Coppola, director of Palo Alto (2013); the Coppolas are important not only for directing films but for American Zoetrope’s film distribution. Coppola approached The Beguiled after reading Thomas Cullinan’s long forgotten novel A Painted Devil (1966) that provided the basis for The Beguiled (1971), making notes on holiday. Cullinan’s novel framed each chapter from a different woman’s perspective; Coppola sought to approach the material freshly.

Set three years into the American Civil War in 1864, The Beguiled is a story of the South, shot in the Madewood Plantation House in Louisiana and set in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia. The enclosed world Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) builds seems unimportant amid wider conflict, teaching girls French lessons and table etiquette. Alicia (Elle Fanning) takes up embroidery and farms agrarian land, sowing soil and growing carrots in a long, tedious process, meals directly from the land. Coppola sought to present “women left behind” during wartime, rather than men at war: the house abandoned, slaves fled, husbands and fathers lost in war without a single reference; as art director Jennifer Dehghan describes, young girls Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), Jane (Angourie Rice) and Amelia (Oona Laurence) were “babies when the war started”, growing up within a “claustrophobic and trapped” environment.

Drawing a moodboard of references, Coppola drew upon Civil War photography and portraiture, watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990). Coppola has a distinct aesthetic, drawing not only from film but fashion photography, influences from the naturalism and femininity of Juergen Teller and Corinne Day and the colour photography of William Eggleston. The Beguiled is most striking in the work of costume designer Stacey Battat and production designer Anne Ross. Dehghan researched into sewing equipment, musical instruments, table dressings, ironwork and vegetables, installing moss, vines, vegetable and rose gardens, raiding antique shops around New Orleans and focusing budget onto the interior and exterior of the house. Visiting the Met costume archive, Coppola worked from fabric swatches, creating a faded palette of pastels of dresses “washed many times”. Kirsten Dunst mentions the crew socialising together, holding Bible study, cooking breakfast together and learning dances. But as Corey Atad writes, the film’s “aesthetics are not apolitical”, highlighting that the film was shot in the same location as the empowering and illuminating Lemonade (2016). Black writer Angelica Jade Bastién argues the “untended garden” acts as an “unavoidable visual marker for the labor of black people”.

Conflict exists upon the periphery: Confederate soldiers march by the gates transporting prisoners of the war; explosions provide the only noise and light, touching the house from a distance, creating what Coppola describes as a “stark experience”. The Beguiled remains largely silent, the score by Phoenix only intermittently used. A Quiet Passion presents a similar sense of the periphery of war and gender: Emily Dickinson voices opinions on slavery and conflict, but remains confined to her house, told to keep silence and her place; Davies shifts through the archive of war, compiling a montage of photographs and music. The General (1926), one of the earlier films about the war, positions Johnnie as a train driver trying to hold onto his way of life as the war passes behind him. Atad himself argues Coppola’s exoticised South bears comparison to the “false nobility” perpetuated by The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), the latter a film Coppola confesses she drew her first impression of the South from.

In the opening, Coppola plays the film as a dark fairytale along the lines of how Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) foregrounded mythology with the historical and political context of the Spanish Civil War. Young Amelia walks through the twisted branches of the woods, picking mushrooms for supper as she discovers the body of Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell); with his Irish lilt, McBurney recalls the United States’ founding as a nation of immigrants. Each girl responds to his presence differently: Jane treats him with distrust as an enemy and mercenary, feeling loyalty to the Confederacy; Martha threatens to return him as prisoner of war; others feel he should be treated with respect and dignity. McBurney becomes an empty vessel, speculated over but never knowing his identity, limping around on crutches and spending most of his time in bed in the music room. As Martha washes open wounds with alcohol, the awkward stitches feel like a David Cronenberg film. As Christian Lorentzen comments, “[g]ore is a new element in the work of Sofia Coppola”, through the “mangled flesh and bone” and the blood on Martha’s nightgown during the amputation.

The Beguiled is defined by its women; John is relegated to the housework. Coppola went into filmmaking as an act of visibility, taking over The Virgin Suicides (1999) from a male director out of persistence and making films for teenage girls that “treat that audience with respect”. Coppola drew influences from female-centric films, including the films of Jane Campion, The Innocents (1961), Tess (1979) and stills from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), reflecting the rituals of femininity.

Martha is the most manipulative figure, holding unspoken influence and control at the head of the dinner table. Kidman delivers a powerhouse of a performance, remaining as affecting as her sheer sexuality in To Die For (1995), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), spirituality and existentialism in The Others (2001) and The Hours (2002), emotion as a raped woman in Dogville (2003), and her more maternal role in Rabbit Hole (2010). Previously working with Coppola on Somewhere (2010), Fanning is quickly becoming one of the greatest young actresses of recent years, embodying teenage sexuality and desire in Alicia that she has done so well in the idealised, imagined body of Jesse in The Neon Demon and Julie’s indifference to sex in 20th Century Women. Fanning grew up with Coppola’s films; she still regards The Virgin Suicides as one of her favourite films. Dunst, working with Coppola since she was a teenager, is able to achieve character and identity far deeper than Mary Jane in the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-07) and Vivian in Hidden Figures, developed with personality. But as Richard Brody writes, Coppola’s Civil War and women are “an abstraction”, reducing complex historical and political events without the flashbacks, interior monologues and images of war that lace both the book and original film, interested instead in each character’s “immediate experience”.

The young girls of the Farnsworth Seminary carry youthful innocence, dressed in white, virginal dresses. The Beguiled’s conceit of multiple women interested in the same man might seem the premise of a raunchy sex comedy or exploitation film, but McBurney’s presence creates a deep exploration into female desire. Colour changes: girls put on blue and pink dresses, but remains subdued. Amelia remains oblivious to adult desire, keeping a button from his uniform as a memento and staying friendly with her pet tortoise. Martha heads a meeting on what impact McBurney is having; the impact is clear.

Examining wounds, Martha is tempted to touch his thigh, but holds herself back, without the “incest and a fervid erotic imagination” or “dark past or kinky yearnings” from Siegel’s film. In the middle of the night, Alicia sneaks out, kissing him as he lies asleep; later, the pair have sex. As Edwina confronts them, he’s pushed out of bed, falling down the stairs. The loss of McBurney’s leg becomes a phallic metaphor: Martha decides the best course of action is to amputation to stop the bleeding, without knowing anatomy. McBurney rails against the women in masculine aggression, knocking a chandelier to the ground and throwing Amelia’s tortoise. Martha is a butcher and castrator: he would rather be dead than less than a man. His sexuality embodies newfound ferocity: having sex with Edwina, he rips her pearls off, rolling along the floor. As Brody describes, rather than the frenzied “slathering lust” of Siegel’s film, Coppola approaches female desire with “a lyricism, a gracefulness, an elegance that doesn’t in any way diminish its carnality.” But The Beguiled entirely rejects black female sexuality: slave Hallie in Siegel’s film, controversially not present in Coppola’s adaptation, is for Atad a woman who “stands up for herself with a ferocity drawn from any number of black women in the blaxploitation genre.”

The women must reconcile Catholic faith with sexuality, entwined within 19th century culture, carrying expectations of marriage and love; sexual desire becomes a sinful hindrance to repress. The Beguiled becomes a cautionary tale. Although McBurney isn’t the crucified Jesus analogue of Siegel’s film, McBurney becomes what J. Hoberman describes as a “snake in the garden”, the seminary “one step from Eden”: paradise in the middle of chaos. The seminary’s welcoming of McBurney reflects their faith: a young girl feels looking after him would be the proper Christian thing to do, whilst Edwina prays for his health. Given a Bible, McBurney sets it aside, never looking through. The seminary maintains religious rituals, saying grace at the table, but rarely practices what they preach. Martha stages a last supper, but it depends upon murder, a twisted dark fairytale intertwined with theological iconography: she feeds him poisonous mushrooms he willingly consumes, effectively causing his own demise, speaking in double entendre. McBurney is left a white shroud, symbolised only by a blue ribbon hanging upon the gate.

Working with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola conforms to a highly classical style running through the film’s narrative, cinematography and characters, using vintage lenses. With Marie Antoinette (2006), Coppola chose the opposite approach, opting for an anarchic, ahistorical punk aesthetic. Little in the film, scarcely its sexual politics, feels 2017, but a product of an earlier era of filmmaking. In the opening shots, even the pink lettered title feels as though it were imprinted on physical film at the same time as Siegel’s film. Le Sourd excels in shot composition, conveying the enclosed nature of the seminary: white, blown out windows and drawn curtains; a little girl watching events from a tree; girls crowded together inside, watching from the curtains. As Martha meets a Confederate soldier at the gate, Le Sourd creates a duality within the frame, creating a distance between them. At the dinner table at night, the lighting is perfect, darkness only illuminated by candles. The Beguiled’s classicist approach bears comparison to The Lost City of Z and its emulation of the form of earlier, biographical epics: approaching history as history, foregoing an explicit clouding from present aesthetic sensibilities or cultural values.

Coppola’s The Beguiled presents an interesting counterpoint to earlier adaptations, helped by strong performances and characterisation from some of the greatest actresses currently working. Coppola approaches the material with a confident visual style and identity, harkening back to another era.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), dir. Matt Reeves

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One of the most successful rebooted franchises of recent years has been the Planet of the Apes series, finding a new perspective on how the world emerged. Planet of the Apes (1968) pitted astronaut Taylor against a future Earth, screaming against the Statue of Liberty buried in sand. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) destroyed the world itself, but the films that followed travelled back through time through deus ex machina. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) positioned us in the near future as Will Rodman sought an Alzheimer’s cure, exploring the relationship between man and chimp and touching upon contemporary anxieties, with the global pandemic of the Simian Flu spreading on an airplane. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) expanded that world further, as a diminishing human population sought to survive. Director Matt Reeves might be best known for Cloverfield (2008), but is quickly becoming a big name, developing The Batman for Warner Bros.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) may be the defining character of the rebooted trilogy, but Caesar was never the focal character in the original series, played by Roddy McDowall in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Serkis has dominated motion capture, roles as diverse as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2002-04) and The Hobbit (2012-14), Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and the mysterious Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Serkis is so recognisable it becomes distracting: beneath his voice and eyes, we see Serkis, not Caesar. Caesar is never entirely sympathetic, forced to make uneasy decisions that cast his leadership in a bad light. Apes exist on a spectrum of colours and textures: orange, white, black, with characters like orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer). WETA Digital have developed an impressive array of visual effects, but WETA’s realism is a contradiction, falling into the uncanny valley, seeking sympathy and emotion for ape characters that we know have no physical presence. Faces begin to look like a videogame, with close detail on wrinkles, fur, rain and blood vessels within the eye.

War for the Planet of the Apes positions conflict between apes and humans. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) suggested unity, a post-nuclear society of peace: in the forest, apes learnt human qualities through a school system. Rise attacked our treatment of animals, whilst in Dawn, we find sympathy in some characters but contempt in man’s militarism. War offers few shades of grey. Military faction Alpha-Omega is headed by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), outfitting signs with “THE BEGINNING AND THE END”. Mute girl Nova (Amiah Miller) reminds us of our humanity, but barely: picking pink flowers in the snow, taking her name from a metal plate from an abandoned Chevy. Nova feels like a sister to Laura in Logan (2017), expressing herself through body language. Reeves positions her within the frame alone, a singular remnant of what humanity could be. But War for the Planet of the Apes is far more interested in its apes. Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), perhaps the most infuriating character, crosses boundaries between ape and human: hermit and sole survivor from the Sierra Zoo, personified by a hat he adopts from an abandoned ski lodge whilst attempting to convey comedy.

War draws upon imagery of multiple conflicts across different terrains, through forest and snow, evoking World War II in tanks, Iraq in uniforms and green lights, and pre-industrialised wars with apes riding upon horseback. In the opening, we gaze upon graffiti on Vietnam-esque helmets, soldiers marching forward in camouflage, outfitted with phrases like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” and “COMBAT KILLER”. We follow a first-person perspective, staring through crosshairs at an ape on a horse. At times, forest combat feels like Return of the Jedi (1983), Ewoks protecting land from the Empire’s machinations.

In the snow, human bodies become identical, lines of white uniforms demarcated by a circle of blood. In his muscularity and masculinity, McCullough acts as an archetype, speaking highly in his admiration of Napoleon. He listens to Hendrix, holding onto his youth. McCullough peddles fundamentalist Christianity, hanging a cross upon the wall next to a picture of the son he sacrificed in biblical fashion for the greater good. His battle is spiritual, crucifying apes upon battlefields. When he commits suicide, drowned out by whiskey, we feel no sympathy.

In its runtime and 65mm, War for the Planet of the Apes attempts to be an old war epic: Reeves riffs on the relationship between Nicholson and Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the scale of Apocalypse Now (1979), similar to Vogt-Roberts’ emulation of Vietnam War cinema in Kong: Skull Island (2017). Apes move through tunnels, setting off explosives, throwing mud at a soldier as a small act of revolt. There’s pathos to the destruction of the natural landscape: though a victory, devastation remains felt. War’s intertextuality is painstakingly obvious: graffiti on a tunnel reads “APE-POCALYPSE NOW”, as though we didn’t get the reference.

The Planet of the Apes series is directly tied to racial politics, both in how societies are structured and in how we treat others. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes built upon the racial conflict of the Civil Rights Movement, imagining a similar system to apartheid and segregation; apes kept as pets and slaves, leading to the fiery bloodshed of revolution. But the difficulty of reading the Planet of the Apes series through a racial lens is it embodies contradictions, no clear message lying beneath the surface. Human characters reflect white America: McCullough is obsessed with borders, but War is never about Trump. McCullough heads a rogue, militarised United States, groups of soldiers worshipping the American flag as an old record plays The Star-Spangled Banner; a flag set aflame during ensuing conflict. Alpha-Omega is dominated by white men; African-Americans and women become homogenised into the dominant system, without a voice, used as faces but not characters.

Imprisoned in camps, the old guard seeks to contain the new; apes are never a minority, but are kept back by existing power structures. Apes become redeployed in a way mirroring systems of slavery: redeployed in combat as lackeys, carrying equipment and turning on their own people. Apes become brandished with new names that aren’t their own, without heritage.

Borders aren’t just a question about Mexico, but about how America deals with Native Americans. The ape colony emerging in the Muir Woods around San Francisco represent new settlements; apes’ faces are painted in tribal imagery, seeking to reclaim land that was always theirs. War exists within a post-civilisation resembles an early America of manual labour, rooted in trees and overgrowth: remnants of the past still exist, faded Coca Cola trucks and tractors dotting the landscape, run-down corner stores, an abandoned ski resort thawed away by ice, frozen in time, but its landscapes never feel as effective as the concrete and hydroelectric dam in Dawn. Shot in Vancouver, natural landscapes are capped by waterfalls and snow, replenishing where humanity lived.

Reeves’ use of the imagery of westerns is a contradiction. In Muir Woods, whispers tell of great deserts and lands upon the horizon. Apes ride on horseback like cowboys, traversing the landscape of North America in a dream of new land and survival. In some respects, War draws parallels to Logan: a neo-western road movie, moving across from the Mexican to Canadian border in search of an Eden prophesied in comic books. In the final scene, War makes the western parallel obvious: Reeves slowly fades between shots as we walk into another film, discovering a colourful lakeside paradise that might as well be Monument Valley, clouds hanging stationary as though an artificial, painted backdrop. Caesar lays dying of his wounds, passing on to another generation, but his death captures little emotion; we never have enough reason to care. Logan’s parallels to the western worked because Mangold still innovated, developing his own visual style whilst acknowledging the influence of films like Shane (1953) within the film itself. But Reeves proves unable to find his own style, creating discontinuity of form with the previous films.

Reeves’ achievement is in sound and dialogue. From the opening logos, the soundscape immerses us with war drums, rain and the call of birds. The exposition in the opening captions conveys a documentary quality but with the same substance of a Wikipedia summary, RISE and DAWN awkwardly emphasised: we gaze upon a nature documentary, watching a civilisation we cannot entirely understand through human eyes. The director is not Matt Reeves, but David Attenborough. Scenes play with minimal dialogue, apes communicating through gestures, grunts and subtitled dialogue. Within world cinema, subtitles have direct justification, transcending cultural and language barriers. But Reeves’ subtitles create a hindrance to conveying meaning. Grunts seem a string of meaningless sounds, unable to capture emotion. Michael Giacchino’s score overpowers the soundscape, manipulating mood whilst never immersing us within the scene.

Caesar acts as interlocutor between apes and the viewer. Although Caesar’s use of English affords uneasy power within the tribe, it draws attention to the limitations of the film itself, speaking English with little justification. Dawn crafted narrative out of communication: conflict arose from miscommunication and conflicting needs, Alex’s sketches and love of Black Hole (1995) to emphasising the universality of visual communication. In War, Reeves explores how language acquisition is socialised. Raised in a zoo, Bad Ape’s broken English was acquired as a means to survive, embodying the philosophy of a working class sage. Devolution emerges from a loss of language acquisition. Nova’s communicates through her gaze with Maurice, edited in shot reverse shot and framed in close-up.

War builds itself as a remix of earlier genre works within a blockbuster franchise. But Reeves uses elements in a way that isn’t transformative, relying too heavily on recreation. War never feels fresh, with little to offer that hasn’t already been told in previous war or post-apocalyptic films. War can never be an old war epic or western, because that isn’t what it is.

Song to Song (2017), dir. Terrence Malick

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Terrence Malick’s recent works have struggled to find audiences for their experimental tendencies, but though experimentalism implies lack of narrative, experimental cinema often retains narrative even as structure is manipulated to its limits. Song to Song’s lyrical, expressionistic structure relies upon fragmentation, built by editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin and Keith Fraase in rapid fire. Malick attempts to mirror the temporality of life: experienced one way in the moment, another way through emotion, another way within memory.

Manipulating time is never purely aesthetic, but cinema’s core. Malick’s world is in motion, rarely using locked off camera except to emphasise the stillness of nature and the city: trees, mountains and overbearing glass windows stand still, gliding through living rooms in Steadicam. In the music festival, we open on mass crowds, tackled to the mud with sheer fury of motion; later, we glimpse assembled crowds at a football stadium and a church conference.

Malick builds a cacophony of voices between primary characters interspersed throughout. Faye’s (Rooney Mara) voiceover reflects upon time past, but grounds no present, lacking indication of when she is speaking. Only a Day of the Dead festival gives any clear indication to time within the film itself, moving through what could be many months. We move through the mundane: people on Segways riding through the park, or driving in the car. Cinema’s tendency is to simplify narrative for convenience, turning complexity into something straightforward and tangible. But though act structures might seem natural, life is lived through moments and spaces in-between, just as film is fused by iconic images and dialogue. Where narrative is manipulated, beauty can be found. Malick refuses to conform to the tenets of romantic drama: there’s no beautiful, affirming first date, or break-up leading to reaffirmation of love. Sexuality becomes a dance between kisses and flirtations, glimpsing fidelity and infidelity in the before and after: cause and effect.

Sound transcends physical space: sound designer Will Patterson drowns out diegetic sound, overtaking dialogue and music itself, hearing passing cars, crickets, birds and wind at a visceral level. Malick overwhelms us with the enormity and smallness of life, moving small moments and lives through a wider canvas of the progression of time. Through memory, we imagine life as linear, moving from point A and B: partners, jobs, moods, locations, events. But in complexity, we forget how time passes: we move between fluctuating and conflicting emotions without clear rationale, unsure where the next moment will take us. Memory rarely follows the right order: a flash of one time prompts another time, itself triggering something that happened before or after. Malick attempted this best in The Tree of Life (2011), moving from rural life in the 1950s to the immensity of the universe, simultaneously discarding the creationist story of Eden whilst witnessing the beauty of intelligent design and the work of God’s hands.

Rather than linear narrative progression, Malick draws thematic and emotional parallels. We hang within space itself, gravity no longer a hindrance, holding upon the slow movement of clouds from a cockpit window, floating in a reduced gravity aircraft. We move between colours and clothes, BV (Ryan Gosling)’s hair dyed blonde in some scenes. Malick seems almost as radical as Eisenstein and Vertov: remembering film editing and time as open, beyond the confines of formulas, audience expectations and studio profitability.

As a medium, film is directly tied to time. All film is manipulation, combining fragments of scenes and performances and layers of screenplay and dialogue to attempt to form something cohesive, seeking to engage us within a screen present regardless of narrative framing. Shot in 2012, we feel immediate separation. Rooney Mara is closer to The Social Network (2010); Portman closer to Black Swan (2010); Gosling closer to Drive (2011); Fassbender closer to X-Men: First Class (2011). In one scene, gazing upon an extract from a silent film, we’re reminded of the temporal distance inherent within film. Film depends upon distance: ideas formed years (or decades) ago, screenplays written years ago, production often lasting years; rehearsals, filming and editing. When a film is released, or rediscovered, might be considered the most important aspect, but even this is far from essential. Malick has only made a handful of films, preferring to allow time for things to develop.

Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, Song to Song combines multiple visual aesthetics. Scenes carry a home movie quality as a representation of the normal and everyday, as though nothing cannot be filmed. We witness animals through the fish eye lens of a GoPro, but Malick combines the film with some of the most beautiful cinematography put on screen.

Set against the music scene in Austin, Texas, Austin is deeply personal to Malick, a portrait of a city he knows to his core. But Song to Song isn’t directly about the struggles of being a musician: instead, music acts as a unifying background. We intersect along fragments of songs and artist cameos, including instrumental, classical, faith-themed pieces, Lykke Li and Die Antwood, the most bizarre soundtrack in film history. Neon Indian writes on a whiteboard with Faye at a party. At the festival, Duane (Val Kilmer) saws an amplifier in half and throws a sex doll around before being dragged inside a car. Flea and Iggy Pop appear in cameos. Patti Smith acts as a mentor to Rhonda (Natalie Portman), waxing philosophical as she beautifully and sorrowfully reflects upon her life. Smith’s presence affords an aura of documentary, blurring lines of fact and fiction, our protagonists embodied as real people within a real music scene.

Gosling’s performance as singer/songwriter BV provides an interesting point of comparison to La La Land (2016). BV is never entirely likable or charming: he treats women with a sense of sexual ownership, drawing an X on Faye’s body in red marker pen, later hooking up with Amanda (Cate Blanchett) in Freudian conflict. He cares for his dad, confined to his bed in sickness, struggling to reconcile his mum’s feelings about his relationship with Faye. But BV also has innocence and vulnerability: record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) manipulates him, owning rights to his work and never standing by his side. In his black suit, Cook acts as the Devil incarnate, living a life of gluttony. Though he treats the vase of ashes by the pool with respect, Cook engages with visceral sexuality, staging a threesome with prostitutes and between Faye and Rhonda, naked women diving into the pool at the party.

Women become a sexual object: Faye’s naked body becomes a centrepiece to the party covered in food to eat off. Mara may be the film’s best part, purely for the power and strength Mara puts into every role ever given, one of the most underrated actresses of recent years. Performing on stage, Faye excels. Like Therese in Carol (2015), Faye has a queer edge: she feels initial hesitance to making out with Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), but rediscovers intense sexuality, masturbating her and moving with each others hands. Malick’s women aren’t faceless, but with goals and desires: Rhonda wants to be a teacher, working as a waitress in a bar in a pink uniform. Rhonda attempts to reject Cook’s advances, but is ensnared by his destructive lifestyle.

Malick’s approach to cinema relies upon intense spirituality. Even Song to Song’s approach to time feels spiritual, removed from the dimensions of linearity. Malick’s spirituality allows for a sense of the emotional beyond the grounded. Patti Smith holds onto her wedding ring, still feeling the presence of her late husband, Fred, within the physical object. Rhonda’s goal of becoming a teacher is paralleled by a prostitute Cook hooks up with, forced into a line of work she doesn’t want to be in, holding onto the memory of her husband tattooed onto her, as she prays this is all part of God’s plan and she will get out of this and find fulfilment. Each protagonist is spiritual in a certain way: in voiceover, Faye reflects on the moment she realised she has a soul, having found the word embarrassing, laying her hand upon a religious icon; Rhonda attends a conference and a blessing with her dog; BV performs hymns on his piano. In a scene of mourning, we feel the immensity of the world around and intensity of emotion, moving overhead from the car park with a sense of isolation. Malick’s spirituality is tied to nature, touching down upon the water, moving across mountains and gazing upon birds in the sky, mirrored by the intricate mobile in the bedroom.

Where George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg became household names of New Hollywood, Malick still exists on the outside as a singular voice, recruiting big names for experimental cinema that transcend limitations. Though Song to Song might polarise, it is never not interesting. Malick’s approach to cinema demands to be seen. Song to Song may be the most beautiful portraits of our experience with life in recent years, interested in far deeper questions than entertainment, but reaching into the core of our souls.