(I started writing reviews of the Criterion Collection Bergman films with Wild Strawberries, having missed the first three films. This is the second part of the rectification.)
Ingmar Bergman’s first movie has a handful of charms, but it’s ultimately an unfocused bit of over-assured storytelling that never comes together. It’s the work of a young artist convinced he’s more in control of his narrative abilities than he actually is.
The problem at the movie’s core is that it’s really unclear whose story this actually is. We really have three choices. There’s Nelly, the waifish young girl, Mutti, her guardian who has raised her since infancy, and Jenny, Nelly’s mother. Until the end, I would include a fourth character in that list, Jack, a distant relation to Jenny, but his fate makes it clear he’s not the main character, though up to that point there’s question about it.
The assertion that any of these three characters could be the main character is interesting from the outside, however, from the inside of the film, it’s really just frustrating. No one character really dominates the movie, and they’re all going through different emotional journeys that involve the other two but don’t actually mix with the journeys of the other two. So, you have Nelly caught between two mother figures, but the mother figures’ arcs are less about being different ends of a single struggle and more about their own demons. Mutti is dealing with an undefined terminal illness (that disappears from the movie about halfway through) and questions about whether she loved Nelly for Nelly or for herself. Jenny is dealing with lost youth and her desperate effort to cling to it. Even before Jack kills himself with about ten minutes to go in the film, he takes up about as much screentime as the other three characters with two separate soliloquies about how much he hates himself.
The actual plot of the film involves Jenny coming to the little Swedish town where he left Nelly with Mutti in order to reclaim her daughter. After Nelly causes a small scandal involving the mayor under the influence of Jack, she runs away with Jenny to work in Jenny’s salon in the big city (presumably Stockholm). Nelly’s leaving seems to have nothing but good effects on Mutti (oddly enough) until Mutti has a nightmare that leads her to take the train to the city and visit her adopted daughter. There she finds that Nelly lives a very nice live and doesn’t seem to need her before going back home. That night, Nelly gets seduced by Jack, an act that Jenny watches. When they are done, Jenny chastises the young girl for falling for Jack’s tricks. Jack walks out and shoots himself. Nelly then takes the train back home to Mutti where she finds her old life willing to take her back.
The whole thing is pure melodrama in the most base and pejorative sense. It’s heightened displays of emotion taking place of actual character work. Nelly, arguably the central fulcrum of the film, is the least well drawn of the three characters, feeling more like a cipher than a woman.
As a film on its own, Crisis has little to offer, but as the first film of Ingmar Bergman as both writer and director (he had written a few films before this, but never directed), it carries some importance. The movie is strongest visually, a pretty obvious influence of Bergman’s mentor, the famous Swedish silent film director Victor Sjöström, who would play Dr. Borg in Wild Strawberries. However, the shots of two characters in frame speaking to each other is always just off in terms of executions. Faces fall in and out of focus pretty consistently, implying that the action wasn’t blocked out very well and the cinematographer chose the wrong lens for what Bergman wanted. There’s even a long dance shot that’s dominated by the back of Nelly’s head and nothing else at one point, and it’s obviously because they didn’t block the shot well enough to account for how the two characters were going to move several feet in the camera’s direction precisely. There are also hints of Bergman’s later thematic focuses, like the concentration on women and their perspectives on things. Beyond that, though, if Ingmar Bergman had just been another studio director in the Swedish film system, Crisis would have rightfully been long forgotten. As the first film of the man who made The Seventh Seal, it’s important to keep this in mind in terms of Ingmar Bergman’s overall career.
Netflix Rating: 2/5
Quality Rating: 1/4