I’ve often felt that many of Bergman’s middling films, had they been directed by virtually anyone else, could be another filmmaker’s masterpiece, but Bergman made so many phenomenal films that he more or less overwhelms any possible selection process. Dreams is like that; minor for Bergman, average even, but still outstanding in its own right. Beginning with no dialogue, it introduces its two female protagonists in opposite power dynamics: Susanne (Eva Dahlbeck), owner of a model agency, watching and judging, while the she and the rest of the room ogle Doris (Harriet Andersson), the passive and tortured model. The silence of this opening, punctuated only by the infuriating drumming of a morbidly obese, never-named onlooker, is a purely cinematic experience. It abruptly gives way to a return to the darkroom, then to dialogue, gossip, and finally an argument Doris has with her fiance Palle (Sven Lindberg), becoming highly theatrical. This tension between magnificently modern camerawork and impressive traditional stagework characterises this and much of Bergman, who despite his enormous filmography directed an even greater number of plays. The mastery of both cinematography and staging, and of course the painfully incisive writing, can make it dizzyingly difficult to pinpoint exactly why his films are quite so powerful as they are.
Susanne is tortured, as gossip rapidly reveals, by the end of a torrid affair with a married man in Gothenberg. She comes up with a thin (and, one senses, habitual) pretext that they must go there the next day to shoot. Their journey thereto leads to another innovative silent sequence, her extremely poignant contemplation of suicide on a train, shown only by shot/countershot between her face and the train door’s handles. When she pulls the lever, rain pours in suddenly, drenching her face, and she comes to, in a memorable sequence. She then prays to see her wayward and apparently disinterested paramour, and proceeds the next morning to stalk him at his house. The scenes which follow are heartbreaking, not just for their desperation and futility, but because of the added suspense of knowing that her employees are well aware why they are all there, and that she might soon be humiliated in any number of ways. Still, she remains silent, among the trees, watching her lover’s wife take the children out, looking on in an inversion of the power dynamic by which she gazed at her model Doris. (In The State of Affairs, Esther Perel examines the role in affairs of the act of hiding, so common in childhood but so lost in adulthood, and there’s something paradoxically childlike and innocent about this sequence, despite its sad perversity.) Susanne then enters a café, and in a painful scene, she repeatedly calls her lover Henrik (Ulf Palme) at his office. As her desperation grows the camera inches closer, her voice louder as the bustle of the busy café fades into the background. After an agonising exchange in which, after several insulting disavowals and a long silence he unexpectedly relents and agrees to see her, the camera draws back, revealing that the whole room has been eavesdropping with no small disapprobation. She rushes to leave but forgets to pay for the call, and is called back to the counter, in an incredible scene of brutal humiliation.
Here, as elsewhere in this oneiric tour-de-force, the title is brought to bear; it’s a classic nightmare of public embarrassment. Elsewhere, a dream is coming true: Doris stares into a shop window, predicting Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when suddenly a rich stranger sweeps in to buy her whatever her young heart desires. They make a point of discussing how old and ugly the mysterious gentleman Otto is, but this too is strangely dreamlike, as Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand, then 46, was really quite dashing. Though initially reluctant, she gradually agrees to visit shops with him in a series of escalating negotiations, with much posing on both parts, and some striking camera angles, sometimes literally framed with smoke (from candles) and mirrors. Their chiaroscuro faces are half drenched in light, half in darkness, as in a dream, strangely reminiscent of the best of film noir, lacking only the violence typical of that genre. But any lack of bloodshed is more than made up for in emotional cruelty as the film goes on.
Doris is late; Susanne punishes her incommensurately, and Doris leaves in tears, only to be rediscovered by Otto in the square. As a sort of revenge for being paraded around the shops, when the elderly Otto continues to promise her whatever she wants over chocolate, she excitedly proposes that they go to an amusement park. Once again the camerawork is bewilderingly novel, and somehow more abstract than Strangers on a Train as they ride a roller coaster, then spin (she thrilled, he sickened) in teacups, and finally enter a haunted house ride, with abrupt cuts of gothic imagery reminiscent of Bergman’s Andachtsbilder clockwork intros. Leaving the ride, in the dreamlike but realistic emptiness of a perennially deserted European carnival, Otto, dizzy, falls and injures his hand.
They return to his mansion to patch him up. In the act of bandaging, there is the enchantment of the everyday that somehow underlies all of Bergman; the sense that, in moments of minor defamiliarisation, something magical and more real than real lurks just beneath the surface. The unexpected kindness and unexpected cruelty that strangers can have for one another is just one facet, though a powerful one, of the way in which what is relates to what might be. As in dreams, the characters sometimes suddenly awake, and like Susanne on the train, Doris seems to suddenly realise she’s in a stranger’s home. The magic nearly fades, but Otto, without design, but with a hint of the loneliness of impending defeat, offers champagne. This and Doris’ youth save the moment; she’s shocked by the prospect of drinking it so early in the day. An expensive dress he’s bought her has just been delivered, and she dons the raiment after putting on jazz (she confusedly looks at but discards Bach’s Saraband, the title of a film Bergman would make some sixty years later). They drink. Champagne may appear often in film, but rarely is its effervescent exuberance so convincingly captured as here.
Unexpectedly Otto’s dissolute and infinitely spiteful daughter appears; unexpected joy turns to unexpected hatred, and the daggers come out. “In Bergman,” P. Adams Sitney once remarked, “people say worse things to each other than in any other films,” and this is no exception. The enchantment of the dreamlike dalliance quickly turns sour, and suddenly boundless generosity turns to insults which know no bounds, which seek weak points, startle, and dissipate back into the dream as quickly as they’ve piqued.
The film returns to Doris, whose need for closure brings unexpected tenderness into a soulless hotel room. Once again, the dreamlike suddenness and vacillation, where things can quickly turn: she says that she wants to ask Henrik’s wife, touchingly, sadly, whether she might not borrow him for just a few weeks a year. “You’ll get him back unharmed,” she promises in this conditional construction. It’s a vulnerable but ultimately well-intentioned thing to say. Henrik, knowing she won’t, says that she should. Moments later, daggers: “I want your wife and children dead” and “I’m sick with hatred.” The wife appears. In a scene which in gender and power dynamics will be almost exactly inverted in Bergman’s The Touch (1973), there is a terrible confrontation and reckoning.
Doris and Susanne are reunited, after all they’ve been through, presumably back in Stockholm. The cruelty to which she’s been subjected has softened Susanne towards Doris. It has been an emotional roller coaster, and yet they’re back where they started, at a sort of baseline unhappiness—almost like waking from a dream. You may say that at this length I’ve given away the whole film. I haven’t. The quality of the acting, the powerful visions, the emotional turbulence, all remain safe in this priceless necklace of a dream.