Aside from their intimidating themes of God, identity, and existential angst, Ingmar Bergman’s films are instantly distinguishable by his small repertory company. He not only established a rapport with performers, writing roles with specific actors in mind (or expediently creating entire movies around the interactions of two actors), but also had romantic relationships with several of them. The personal and professional benefits of these relationships cannot be understated, and are critical for understanding much of his output. An early inspiration and lover, and one of the few players who worked with Bergman in both his pre- and post-1960 work, was Harriet Andersson. Far from the Anita Ekberg paragon of the tall, blonde Swedish sex bomb, Andersson nevertheless became an international symbol of liberated, confident sexuality with the acting chops to back it up. A skilled performer who could switch from the skipping cheerfulness of a Rococo painting to the roiling unease of a Goya, her large eyes and full lips were a palette that could be used to paint emotions and everyday struggles that were difficult to verbalize.
Their first collaboration, Summer with Monika (1953), established the main “type” she would play for him: a working-class woman who was very aware of her socio-economic status, but also ineffably strong-willed, and searching for a larger purpose in life. Many working-class female characters in his oeuvre were relegated to supporting roles; in some cases, such as Agda in Wild Strawberries or Anna in Cries and Whispers, these workingwomen provided emotional labor that did not (or, more accurately, could not) be provided by members of the wealthy families. Andersson, by contrast, was frequently a lead or co-lead, spitting earnest truths about a situation, and fiercely fighting even if she would ultimately be defeated.
These characters’ and their respective struggles were distinct from the vast majority of characters suffering existential crises in Bergman’s dramas (Anna in Persona is another rare instance of a working-class co-lead), as well as from the modern understanding of the conditions under which such doubts arise. In 1943, Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation,” and theorized that once more basic needs of hunger, safety, and belonging are resolved, humans are motivated to solve more complex questions of esteem and self-actualization. Whereas most of Bergman’s heroines experienced existential struggles because their lower needs had already been met, Andersson’s characters grappled with material and existential problems. Bergman’s interest in this dual confrontation reflects his interest in the naturalists, who focused their dramas on young women who had to work for a living, and show how they could not support themselves as domestics or shop girls, and were instead forced into prostitution, a type of involuntary immorality that would spiral into emotional suffering, shame, and angst. August Strindberg, one of the most important naturalist playwrights and a key influence on Bergman, conceived of himself as a member of the “Underclass,” as his mother was a servant before she married his father; for him, the “Överclass” (the wealthy) had a hostile relationship to those who were not truly one of them.
These not-quite Marxist class struggles (as the terminology is borrowed from Nils Quiding) are the centerpieces of Strindberg’s embellished autobiographical novel The Red Room and theatrical works like Miss Julie. Bergman, chewing over more than the question of where to put the actors, studied the wide array of dramatic and socio-economic tensions evident in Strindberg’s works. As a result, he produced female characters that were not simply trapped by a bad marriage but equally punished by their own doubts, expectations about their behavior, and the absence of direction (or God) in their lives. (Peter and Katarina’s meltdown in the first episode of Scenes from a Marriage rather perfectly encapsulates this polyphonic unhappiness that is drawn from Strindberg’s masterful titration of dramatic action.)
Summer with Monika (suggestively titled Monika and Desire; Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl; and simply Monika in other parts of the world) demonstrates the reality that profound unhappiness comes from the structural, personal, and intrapersonal—all together, all at once, without end. Andersson’s portrayal of Monika, the too-attractive-for-her-own-good daughter of an impoverished drunk, believes (but never explicitly states) that Harry, a patient but dopey lower-middle-class boy, will allow her to escape her surroundings. At first, their behavior is reminiscent of students choosing to stay up all night in order to chase a feeling. But things quickly devolve into a semi-feral state: abandoning their jobs, the couple shacks up in Harry’s dad’s boat, and they spend their days sunbathing, screwing, arguing, and stealing food from suburbanites.
Monika remains radiant throughout this debauchery, tanned and unashamed in her rejection of what she ought to be doing with her life; she is proud and brave, in the best and worst ways. She wants the freedom of adulthood with none of the responsibility, but, alas, responsibility biologically asserts itself. Pregnancy forces the pair to return to society, with Monika playing the role of homemaker while Harry does heavy labor and studies for an advanced degree. Whereas Harry’s misery is guaranteed to lead to some progress and (financial) reward, Monika’s tiny, dark apartment causes her to regress to a childlike state. Rejecting the claustrophobic tedium of motherhood, she has her cigarettes suggestively lit by strange men and hooks up with an old flame.
When Harry interrupts her tryst, her long hard stare into the camera is confrontational, and, like many wordless moments in Bergman’s films, utilizes the medium to its fullest nonverbal potential. (Wouldn’t you feel trapped in this crappy, dark, tiny apartment after spending the summer swimming and wandering wherever you pleased? At least you get to leave!) Throughout her selfishness and strident demands for more petit bourgeois accouterments—more cigarettes, a new coat, extra movie money—that fail to fill the void, she remains a sympathetic character, to me, at least. (Based on critical essays and Kanopy comments, this seems to be, in the parlance of our times, an unpopular opinion.) The film concludes with Harry and his aunt selling off their apartment’s furniture in the snow, all physical remnants of the summer destroyed. But, while rocking baby June in his arms, Harry gazes into a mirror and recalls Monika running across a rocky beach and sunning herself on top of the boat; his reverie concludes with him driving the boat away from the camera into the endless horizon.
Instead of insinuating that Harry was tricked or manipulated by a woman who didn’t really know what she wanted, this repetition of his memory of her sensuousness emphasizes her freedom. It suggests that he, out of any other man on the planet, really did get to see the best of her. This fondness and sincerity lands largely thanks to Andersson’s choices as a performer throughout the film: the way she turns Harry’s head toward her after his fight with the boat arsonist and then passionately kisses him; how she washes her face with cold lake water without hesitation; the way she rubs her cheek against his as they share a cigarette. Her nude and semi-nude scenes, which were pivotal in the de-censorship of cinema in the United States and elsewhere, remain images of defiant pride rather than leering male fulfillment. Life cannot simply be what society says a young woman ought to do, especially one so brave, which is why she, not anyone else, is the point of identification in the film, and not its lone villain.
While Summer with Monika seems to suggest living in the moment is and isn’t the answer to the meaning of life, Bergman took the same seriocomic look at male/female relationships in the rest of his 1950s collaborations with Andersson: Sawdust and Tinsel, A Lesson in Love, Dreams, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Last Pair Out. (The tragedy and comedy in these films are drawn from how such relationships are impossibly complicated and often doomed, another favorite theme of the Scandinavian naturalists.) Although these are considered “lesser” Bergman today, Sawdust and Tinsel, set in the fading light of the happiness so uncompromisingly experienced in Summer with Monika, helped to cement Bergman’s international reputation. Andersson is Anne, the mistress of a circus manager who, while her beau is off attempting to rekindle a relationship with his estranged wife (Annika Tretow), cheats on him with an actor.
The comparison between these two actresses, both physically and emotionally, is drawn out in Dreams. Andersson plays Doris, an up-and-coming model who repeatedly refers to herself as a working girl that’s struggling to balance work with life; Eva Dahlbeck, the more phenotypically Swedish woman (tall, blonde, large breasts), plays Susanne, who assumes her protégé is making some of the same mistakes she’s been making with a married man. Dwarfed by Dahlbeck, Andersson’s role confronts the pressures of the male gaze and beauty without ever coming off as put-upon. In many key moments, Andersson’s mouth is emphasized, particularly in the scenes where the alternately sweet and poisonous Otto is showering her with gifts, literalizing her hunger for wealth. Like Monika, Doris comes to understand that money is not a liberator but its own prison after seeing Otto’s daughter, fang-like bangs and all. (As in her job, the items Otto gifted her were only to be worn for modeling purposes, not to be kept as her own.) Although she opts to go back to Palle Palt, her rather dull beau, she still remains assertive and unconquered. Rather than totally submit, she is actively asking that question about work/life balance until the very end.
Andersson’s mouth and pouty lips, perfectly matched to her large eyes, both exceedingly hungry, are front and center in her most iconic collaborations with Bergman: Through a Glass Darkly and Cries and Whispers. Rather than seeming confident in eschewing middle-class morality, she is fighting against the world around her to be heard and understood, often with success that’s ambiguous at best. These performances are extremely physically demanding, with Andersson heaving her body, gasping for air, and screaming to express her struggle in a way that is corporeal.
Through a Glass Darkly is the first entry in “the trilogy,” Bergman’s triptych of films about his own doubts regarding his acetic Lutheran upbringing, and is dedicated to his fourth wife, Käbi Laretei, who was a concert pianist. It also happens to be the first instance of Andersson playing a not explicitly working-class heroine, the focal point of energy within a much smaller cast. Here, she is Karin, a young woman just released from a mental institution for schizophrenia treatment, and is staying with her husband Martin, brother Minus, and author father David (Björnstrand) on a small island. It remains ambiguous whether or not she’s actually ill (or speaking to God or the Devil).
Karin imagines a voice to be emanating from the wallpaper, an interior decoration that has long been a signifier of bourgeois domestic oppression. Undoubtedly the most famous instance appears in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 Yellow Wallpaper, a short story about a wife who constructs delusions around the wallpaper inside the small room her husband has confined her in, allegedly for her own good. Though pulling from the same homebound archetype of female oppression, Karin’s wallpaper is not a point of identification (as it is in Perkins Gilman’s story) but a holy gateway that she must kneel in front of; she is beneath this torn and peeling wallpaper, which suggests that perhaps she is not of the same class as whoever decided to put it on the walls to begin with. As in Summer with Monika, she does not consider herself to be a part of a home, even when it is as run-down as this one.
“What” is speaking to her becomes murkier when the voice instructs her to investigate her father’s papers, which reveal he’s interested in using her illness as fodder for his writing. This betrayal, as much as the sound of the helicopter that comes to pick her up precipitates her final breakdown. She awaits the divine, her mouth joyfully open and hungry for God’s arrival. But he is brutal and terrifying, no old man with a beard God, but a God that’s a disgusting spider, that rapes her. After being sedated, she informs her family what she saw, mouth slack, eyelids heavy: she is tired from the drugs, but also exhausted from the fight. She is led into the living room, and, refusing her brother’s assistance, puts on her coat, shoes, and sunglasses, and silently leaves the house trailed by David and Martin.
Her experience—a sacrifice of sorts—leads Minus and David to finally connect emotionally; in the final moments of the film, Minus cheerfully murmurs to himself, “Daddy talked to me.” Andersson’s character in Cries and Whispers, though similarly fated to suffer, also serves to alleviate the coldness and suffering between family members—a martyr of sorts. In his production diaries, published in Images: My Life in Film, Bergman wrote that he wanted a certain class of “enigmatic” women to play the sisters—and named Andersson specifically. The opening moments of the film introduce Andersson’s Agnes, lying in bed, chest heaving, forcing herself to keep breathing even as she sleeps.
Although her eyes are lined an unhealthy pink, her lips cracked and dry, and she is seemingly moments away from death, she contains that unique strength and hardness. Agnes seems out of place within the blood red rooms of their mansion, worn down and small compared to her sisters Karin and Maria. Her desire for warmth and touch does set her apart: when she cries out in the middle of the night, she knows to call for Anna, the maid, who presses her against her bosom. Still, Agnes does not resent her sisters for their lack of physical tenderness. As her sisters and Anna matter-of-factly tend to her hygiene, Agnes gently smiles, exuding a tender gratefulness that makes clear her screamed pleas to stop the pain are not directed at those assembled, but whatever fate or force that has given her uterine cancer.
There is nothing neat or tidy about her deterioration, because she refuses to accept that it is the end. But neither is there anything pathetic or degraded about it. Perhaps it is this inborn strength—evinced by her final, shuddering thrashes and pleas—that allows her to return to her sisters after she has died, either in a dream, a daydream, or as a ghost, and help them heal and finally, beautifully touch each other, removing the emotional barriers ascribed by their prim upper-class lives. Although Maria forgets (or “forgets”) her posthumous intervention, it is Agnes who gets the final say. In the last moments of the film, Anna reads Agnes’s diary, which recounts a day where all four of them strolled together on a beautiful fall day, and concludes with, “come what may, this is happiness.”
Andersson’s contributions to Bergman’s oeuvre cannot be understated. Her fearlessness about her body within a performance allowed her to create something that was fierce and distinctive. Whether in the full bloom of youth or in middle age, her powers lie in her ability to harness that confidence into a type of power that fights against the polite norm, and uncompromisingly offers us a glimpse of a world that is often invisible—one that exists beyond the increasingly tight, torrid expectations inscribed by capitalism.