If watching Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face left a sliver of doubt about the director’s scorn for modern psychiatry, From the Life of the Marionettes makes it amply clear. Only five years separate the two films. Face to Face, starring Liv Ullmann as Jenny, a young psychiatrist who tries, and ultimately fails, to reconcile her anxieties and sensitivity to her anesthetized work milieu, was made in 1975. What made watching the film viscerally agonizing was seeing Jenny’s slow descent into depression and phobia after a disintegrated marriage and being raped while trying to rescue a patient. Bergman constructed Jenny as a character of unfathomable complexity, harrowing to watch, at times incongruent.
From the Life of the Marionettes followed in 1980, yet in its stark black-and-white rendition of psychological anguish, and in its categorical refusal to grant any noble impulses to medical practitioners, it could be seen as a giant stylistic leap for Bergman: a savage yet coolly overplayed parody. Where Jenny from Face to Face left one feeling as if we were being asked to indulge in her unending pain, Bergman’s second glance at the psychiatric profession in Marionettes is more chilling, as if Bergman took a scalpel and surgically carved his narrative, always close to the nerve.
The story of Peter (Robert Atzorn), a young foundering professional, unhappily married to a domineering woman, Katarina (Christine Buchegger), is both the backdrop of a police investigation and a mock-examination of a clinical case. In the opening sequence, repeated at the end and the only one shot in vivid color, Peter starts to cavort with a young prostitute whom he ends up strangling and sodomizing. A series of flashbacks expose Peter and Katarina’s troubled relationship. The two profess to be devoted to each other, yet Katarina dismisses Peter’s attachment to his elderly mother with such vicious pleasure she ends up undermining any real closeness, flagellating Peter’s ego. Bergman seems to suggest that Peter’s dilemma, stuck between the two overpowering women, leads him to live a hysterical and dissipated life. He’s a convenient whip for Katarina, but can be equally lacerating, push her away, or indulge his sexual fantasies elsewhere.
How all this ends up in “the catastrophe,” as Bergman calls the murder, is never clear, and this may be the point. Katarina and Peter’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jensen (Martin Benrath), offers a hypothesis: He blames Peter’s violent outburst on his latent homosexuality, a diagnosis of which we get so little inkling it seems pat, at best. To give it some validity, Bergman trudges in Katarina and Peter’s longtime friend, Tim (Walter Schmidinger), who bares his soul to Katarina. Tim is terrified of aging, of never having gained wisdom, and being all the more foolish as his continues to fall for young men. It is Tim who emerges as the film’s only tragic character. In an echo of a Shakespearean overhearing scene, where the hero wrestles with his passions, Tim examines his face in the mirror confessing, “This whole business of intimacy is a dream.” Indeed, Tim is the one character allowed a high degree of self-awareness. Katarina is more of a mascot (the eponymous marionette¬), a beautiful woman who will not be pigeonholed into a domestic role, even if she must sacrifice her partner’s illusions and dignity in the process, but who ends up being as impenetrable to herself and viewers as she was at the beginning. To Dr. Jensen, Peter is a similar stick figure: Jensen dismisses Peter’s earlier fantasies of killing his wife as attention-seeking. He limits his advice to suggesting his patient drink off delusion, rather than go to a clinic where drugs will strip him of the last bit of his personality.
The two life choices that Bergman entertains—to endure but never be wiser for it or more gracious, or to be utterly anesthetized—are frightening. But there’s a strange, if alienating, beauty in the singular shots, as there always is when Bergman lovingly frames and lingers on his leading actors’ faces during their down-spiraling monologues, or has them get at each other in the Virginia Woolf like bickering scenes. It’s in those fully imagined marital fights that the film sheds it straightjacket of alternating plot twists, and lets the richer, more mournful emotions creep in.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.