Do you like puzzles? Yes? Then the mysterious moviemaking of Ingmar Bergman is sure to be a game of choice. Just don’t look for clues in UC Berkeley Art Museum forthcoming exhibits to be held in tandem with presentations from the Pacific Film Archives. Never mind the avowed effort to integrate art and film under one roof. When it comes to Bergman’s films, the connection to painting is tenuous. He said it himself: “There is no art form that has so much in common with film as music.” Even that connection is iffy. After all, most of Bergman’s films are devoid of music as well as sound and even of dialogue.
Consider “The Silence” about two sisters who don’t get along traveling to a foreign country where they don’t speak the language. Given the movie title and its jillion other symbols of communication issues, you think you have the film figured out as an emblem of alienation. But then you catch sight of Peter Paul Rubens’ colored drawing “Delianeira Abducted by Nessus” hanging in the lobby of the hotel where the sisters are staying – you know, the one where the language is foreign to them – and you’re left wondering why.
So there they are, the sisters who don’t communicate with one another staying in a place where they can’t communicate with anyone else and you’re faced with the Rubens’ work describing a mythological female getting hit on. What’s up with that?
To add to the puzzle, Rubens’ picture isn’t his usual damsel-in-distress image as are those in his “The Rape of Lucippus” and “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” Unlike those accosted women who make zero eye contact with their assailants, Delianeira looks directly at Nessus, as if to say, “You’re kidding, right?”
Not that sex is of little interest to the females in Bergman’s films. In fact, you might say that sex runs riot in them. In “The Silence,” for instance, one of the sisters is shown in promiscuous acts and the other, who is dying, is shown masturbating. But hey, not to worry if the sex makes little sense. As Bergman told Playboy in 1964, “I don’t want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them.” See? The sex scenes aren’t meant to be understood, they’re made to get you to feel is all.
Bergman wasn’t alone in his push for feeling versus thinking. Francis Bacon said the same thing about painting: “Hardly anyone really feels about painting. They read things into it—even the most intelligent people—they think they understand it, but very, very few people are aesthetically touched by painting.” Culture critic Susan Sontag also said this, that too many intellectualize art at the expense of sensory experience, the “erotics of art.”
But wait, appreciating the erotics of “The Silence” still doesn’t untie the Gordian knot it presents. Checking out the aesthetics of the film doesn’t help reconcile the glaring disconnect between the monotone palette of Rubens drawing featured in the film and Bergman’s filmic palette of deep darks and harsh light. All that comes across in “The Silence,” then, is the sense of aloneness that can leave you alone with thoughts that lead nowhere, which was Bergman’s point. Apparently.