fredag 27 april 2012

Bergman's hidden demon

I have finally seen the movie that Ingmar Bergman didn't want us to see. During his life time, whenever there was a retrospectif of his films, this one was never shown. In Stockholm, there was a cinema called Fågel Blå where his films were screened continuously and in chronological order. But this partiular film from 1950 was never shown. In England it was called High Tension and in Germany the title was Menschenjagd. The Swedish title is much more to the point and its direct translation is: Stuff like that never happens here! What a ludicrous title for a film that has been denied its own existence.

Alf Kjellin, Ingmar Bergman and Signe Hasso.

It's a thriller about fugitives from the Baltic states being terrorised by Soviet agents and it features some of the best Swedish movie actors at the time: Ulf Palme, playing the evil spy Atkä Natas and Alf Kjellin as the heroic young police man, in love with the wrong woman. She in turn is played by Signe Hasso, one of the Swedish stars who left Sweden for an international career, and who was at the time living in Los Angeles and acting on the English stage.

The film has some of its most effective scenes in the streets of Stockholm: cars chasing up and down streets, harbours and peaceful suburbs. Especially the well known streets around Slussen and Mosebacke, where there is a beautiful old theatre and a famous out door elevator, Katarinahissen, are nicely used as dramatic scenery. There is a scene when Vera (Signe Hasso) goes to see her copariots who are having a secret meeting behind a movie screen where there is an animated feature being shown, with Donald Duck. The scene reminds me of a similar scene in Hitchcock's Sabotage, the one with the animated film about little Cock Robin being killed... And the creepy scene where Atkä Natas is chased into a corner, up on the bridge beteween the Katarinahissen and Mosebacke square, and jumps to his death, falling into a cluster of bikes on the ground at Slussen, reminds me also of Hitchcock.

There is even a rather amusing scene between Natas and the policeman Almkvist, where a gun travels between them, like a prize for the most eloquent, that reminds me of the constant balancing in Hitchcock's film between tragedy and comedy. It's no coincidence, of course. Bergman studied his competition closely and forged his own cinematography accordingly. High Tension - or "Stuff like that doesn't happen here" is not a bad movie. But it's not a typical Bergman movie either. It has its slow moments and perhaps rather weird twists in the story line - but it is a thriller, and gives a rather poignant picture of the lives of fugitives in neutral countries after the war. The end comes very close to Hitchcock's Notorious, with the woman who was bad being carried away to safety by the man who loves her.

Maybe Bergman thought that it wasn't original enough. He probably disliked it because it didn't live up to his expectations. But does it really matter what the film's director thought? The film works and has a life of its own - regardless of initial intentions and ambitions. I'm inclined to let High Tension live, and crawl out of the closet.

It's touching and it has its great visual moments, mostly due to the brilliant cinematography of Gunnar Fischer. And Ulf Palme is a great villain. It's amazing how Ulf Palme in just over one year would deliver three very different character portraits for the sceen: In Flicka och hyacinter by Hasse Ekman he plays a rather naive writer, trying to understand why a young woman has killed herself. In Fröken Julie by Alf Sjöberg, he acts out the battles between class and sex between Jean, the butler that he plays, and Julie, the high strung upper class lady played by Anita Björk. And in High Tension by Ingmar Bergman, he plays the spy and war criminal Atkä Natas (= Real Satan) who has come in from the cold and wants to surrender to the United States. Ulf Palme was a very sensitive actor who could play on his tenderness and beautiful melodic voice to appear threatening, or just plain weary of life. For his sake, at least, this movie should be seen.

Ulf Palme as Atkä Natas

måndag 9 april 2012

Jane Eyre revisited, part 2

Mia Wasikowska as the 12th Jane.
There is no broken veil scene in Cary Fukunaga's version of Jane Eyre. On the extra material on the dvd, the scene is there, sure enough, beautiful and haunting, making a clear connection between the genre of the gothic novel that Jane Eyre both belongs to, and moves away from, and also showing us the first Mrs Rochester in all her despair: She was once too, a hopeful bride...

In the final film, we don't see her, the woman that Mr Rochester has hidden away in the attic, with the feeble excuse that at least, he didn't send her to an asylum (but is that place really any better?), until after the broken wedding, when it is made clear that Mr Rochester cannot marry Jane. Berta Mason Rochester is still a beautiful woman, but wild and dangerous, and that is why she has to be locked up and hidden from the world.

Does Jane realize, at that moment when she finally sees the first Mrs Rochester, that she could be treated the same way, if she doesn't behave? Or maybe, I hope, she thinks that she has already been there, and survived. She has spent eight years in a school for girls that was very much like a prison. Or a purgatory. And she survived it, making her strong enough to survive anything else that might be just as difficult.

The word "difficult" makes me stop for a moment. I heard it yesterday, in a very different kind of film, although it too was about women surviving in a man's world. (Ok, that was very broad - what film isn't?) The film was the Sarah Jessica Parker-movie called I don't know how she does it. It was a really sweet film about a career woman played by Parker who juggles career and private life with a sweet husband and two sweet kids, a boss who doesn't care about family, co-workers who either are trying hard to be dicks or robots, and a new collegue, played by Pierce Brosnan, who sees all the right possibilities in Parker's lovable and capable character. It's really a great little film for its focus on hope to all women out there in the audience: Yes, it is possible to love your work and love your family!
Sarah Jessica Parker gets friendly advice.
Well, there is a friend in there, who is a redhead and single mum, who talks to the camera, giving us the clues that we might not get if we were not told about them. And one of the things she says is that being "difficult" is something that has to be avoided at all costs, as being difficult is being everything that is not a "man". It's a bit corny but it works. I loved that movie.

Sadly but evidently, we are still much in the hands of the males controlling everything, and if we want to play with them, we have to make sure we appeal to them.

Jane makes an impression on the disturbed Mr Rochester because she is not afraid. She even says it, straight to his face, on one of their first encounters. (On their very first one, she shows it, when Mr Rochester nearly runs her over with his horse.) Still, everything about Mr Rochester is frightening, and she knows it. Why does she fall in love with him? That is something that has always intrigued me. In the now classic analysis of the gothic romance story, there is the idea of the woman saving the man with her love. But from what? And does he really deserve her love?

In this film, there is a moment when one almost hopes that things will take another turn, when the nice Mr St John asks Jane to follow him to India, as his wife. Her answer is almost fierce, as if she was mad at him for asking. She insists on calling him a brother, nothing else. He suggests love may not be between them but that it will come, after they're wed. This upsets her even more. Jane is really the faithful type, the one who gives her heart once, and never more. So she has to wait for Rochester and luckily for her, Bertha decides she has to end it all - to make way for Jane? And Rochester turns blind, which will probably milden his manner and make him a more humble husband to Jane.

Jane Eyre saying no.
As I said, this film eludes the famous veil scene, but in return does marvels with other unexpected things, that I haven't seen in other film versions. For instance, there is the scene by the window, which I don't remember from the book and might have the script writer Moira Buffini to thank for its existance. Jane is standing by one of Thornfield's windows, and Mrs Faifax comes to remind her that tea is ready:

”I am not in need of tea, thank you” says Jane, rather rudely. But Mrs Fairfax is not easily put off. Maybe she has even been there herself, staring out of the windows of Thornfield Hall. She is after all a relation to Mr Rochester.
The windows are large, small panes of glass inside heavy frames. Outside, the sun is setting. Mrs Fairfax says:

”It’s a quiet life here, isn’t it? … This isolated house. A still doom for a young woman."
Jane looks irritated, as if she doesn't agree. She answers her with quiet rebellion:

“I wish a woman could have action, like a man. It agitates me to pain that the skyline over there is over our limit. I long somtimes for a power of vision that would overpass it. If I could behold all I imagine… I’ve never seen a city. I’ve never spoken with men and I fear my whole life will pass.
Jane turns and faces Mrs Fairfax, who answers without malice:

"Now, exercise and fresh air…"
This scene comes directly after a series of pictures showing Jane tutoring Adèle. They are in a big library. Jane and Adéle in deep concentration, pressing flowers, bent over an atlas, discovering the world together. Then they sit together on the floor, bent over a large book with a magnifying glass. Jane is telling Adéle about some kind of demon in animal form. Adéle gets scared, and Jane, dead pan, just says "It's just a story". Then Adèle tells Jane a story: about the woman who lurks around the house after dark. She stands with her back to a large doll house, where we can clearly see a doll with black hair, staring out of one of the windows. Adèle is embellishing her story now, making the woman look like Snow White, a Snow White with fangs, like a vampire.
”What nonsense” says Jane, who, as we know, is not easily scared.
Then the camera pans delicately past a church yard. We're watching Thornfield Hall from a distance, from the home of the dead, crosses seen close up. Then we're back inside, with Jane, looking out at the vast and lonely landscape, and wondering how her life would have been, if she had been a man. And there is the scene with Mrs Fairfax.
A woman is doomed to a life inside houses. She can be a wife, a house keeper or a governess, but she will always have to live inside a house, like a prisoner. This scene also reminds me of other scenes where women are being trapped by window panes. One is Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession.  

But maybe I can offer a slightly different view: For the first time in her life, Jane is free to do what she likes inside a house. She can explore it, use its books, and she is being treated with kindness and respect. When she is ready, she is let out, to start exploring the world. That is when the scene with Mrs Fairfax appears in the film, and it is Mrs Fairfax who suggests that she takes a walk, taking the letters to the mail. And that is when she meets Mr Rochester for the first time. And Jane, who has been battling her fears all her life, finally stands in front of her life's biggest challenge: a man who frightens her but who loves her.

I think this film version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is rather wonderful. Don't you? 

Judi Dench showing the way.

söndag 8 april 2012

Jane Eyre revisited

Jane Eyre entering the tall, dark house.

"Last night I dreamed I was back at Manderley again..." That is such a great line, and  I've always wanted to use it. It draws on the memory of long lost houses, lost in the cobwebs of time, but still there, waiting, ready to haunt us... It's like a dream I had for many years, when I was constantly getting lost and finding myself in huge, dark  and dreary places. It's not very unusual. Don't we all know a house like Manderley, strange and frightening, and yet so intimate and familiar? Yes, of course, it's very Freudian. But I've always loved the way the way Joan Fontaine reads the line, in the beginning of Hitchcock's Rebecca, while the camera creeps through the shrubs and weeds of a forsaken garden, with her soft melodious voice. It's is both wonderful and scary.

Actually, I was going to write about Jane Eyre, and about the new film version of Charlotte Brontë's famous novel, which I fins very enchanting. The new film version has a script by Moira Buffini and is directed by Cary Fukunaga and Mia Wasikowska plays Jane Eyre to Michael Fessbender's Mr Rochester. The film also has a good part for Judi Dench, who plays an unusually interesting Mrs Fairfax, and there is a scene by the windows of Thornfield Hall,when she talks to Jane, that most certainly will haunt me for a long time. And there is a lot to be said about this beautiful film version as well. If you'll bear withe me, I'll get there.

Joan Fontaine och Laurence Olivier i Rebecca.
So why do I start with a line that has nothing to do with Jane Eyre? Well, Hitchcock's Rebecca was made after a novel by Daphne du Maurier, and it is a very obvious homage to Brontê's famous novel. The line from Rebecca just shows how Charlotte Brontë's heroine continue to live through the ages. She always seems to have something urgent to tell us, in our own time. And there are so many of us who keep coming back to Thornton Hall or Manderely, seeking for something tha we know is both lost and found. The spirit of Jane is always there, hovering over us with her clear "I". We need her and we can't get enough of her. That is why we by now can count to 12 film- or tv versions made from the novel about her. 

What is she telling us, this plain and young governess of 18 years, who survived both a cruel stepmother and a horrible institution like the Lowood school for young girls - only to fall in love with a man who is just as hard, brutal and commanding as the life she is trying so hard to leave behind? Here's my story.

The first time I met Jane Eyre was on the screen, in the early seventies. It was the film version with Susannah York as Jane Eyre and George C. Scott as Mr Rochester. I saw it in a cinema in Malta. I was nine. It was very scary and not surprisingly, it was the scene where Mr Rochester's first wife, Bertha, tore up Jane's bridal veil, that made the deepest impression on me. I was always scared of the dark as a child and I kept thinking that when I closed my eyes before going to sleep, strange creatures would appear to live around my bed, so if I suddenly opened them I'd see the most horrible things...

Mother should never have let me see that film. Later, I remember that Sister White, at our school, The Covent of the Sacred Heart, in S:t Julian's, was a bit surprised when mother announced that my sister and I were reading Jane Eyre. Were we not a little too young for that kind of novel, she asked? Mum assured her we weren't, but I think it was probably the Ladybug version that we actually read.

A few years later, my mother and I went to a book fair at Skansen, the out door museum in Stockholm, and I bought my most cherished copy of Jane Eyre. It was published in 1946 in USA to comemorate the centennial of the novel. With this edition came strange and beautiful illustrations by Nell Booker, an artist from North Carolina. Jane Eyre was her first comission as a book illustrator. She later did the illustrations for Wuthering Heights as well. The pictures were in color and in black and white, they looked as if they had just left the hand of the artist, there was something fleeting and swift about them, a clear spring breeze flew through them.

I remember very clearly that summer afternoon at Skansen when I got the book and I've loved it ever since, keeping it close through the years, showing it with pride to my daughters.
Today, I can see that Nell Booker's pictures recall the Hollywood film version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Yes, her again. She played both the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, and a few years later, Jane Eyre. Incidentally, she and I share the same birthday: October 22nd.

And that's a great line to end with. For now. But I'm sure I'll be back at Thornton Hall soon again.