If the rumblings are true and the hi-definition video sequel Saraband is indeed Ingmar Bergman’s final work, then he has left on a summative high. As powerful in its own way as Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, Saraband unfolds over 10 increasingly intimate sequences that revisit two characters—Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson)—from the director’s great Scenes From a Marriage, and also examine the near-incestuous relationship between Johan’s son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and his daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Bergman consistently evokes the ghost of history in Saraband, opening on Marianne sitting before a table scattered chaotically with personal photographs: as his heroine contemplates the divides of her life, Bergman considers the gaping abyss separating film-past and video-present. The encroachments of memory continue into the next sequence as Marianne wanders through Johan’s country home, where doors close forcefully with no apparent rhyme or reason—somewhere, Henrik Ibsen nods approvingly.
A saraband is an erotic dance for two, commonly performed for royalty of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Bergman’s movie is an ongoing series of these two-person interactions, the passion and intensity increasing masterfully with each passing moment. The way in which Bergman’s characters touch is without parallel in cinema—there’s a primal physicality in each instance of bodily contact, giving an impression of civil and animalistic behaviors locked in perpetual, bloody battle. Fittingly, by movie’s end characters are stripped naked of their illusions—both in a literal and figurative sense—and they are left to take comfort in either the fleeting pleasures of life or the blissful uncertainty of death. And in a final twist Bergman brilliantly implicates his bourgeois audience in the saraband, tempering our fetishistic and voyeuristic impulses with a master’s dose of ambiguity and catharsis via a sublime close-up of Liv Ullmann—no less than cinema’s death and rebirth captured in one glorious video image.