And here I was all prepared to finally have something bad to say about a Bergman film. Viewing films as an auteurist, one often feels guilty earnestly liking what one would acknowledge as objectively subpar efforts, and even then such personal attachments have their limits. I thought within the first few minutes of Secrets of Women, I had found mine. Bergman’s tendency towards finding the underlying misery in happy exteriors sometimes results in some rather forced dramatic situations, and when, within minutes, one character launches unprompted into her own life’s misery, I feared we were in for such an instance. But there’s so much more to Secrets of Women than this initial set-up would suggest.
First, a point of clarity. Like most of Bergman’s early films, Secrets of Women was known by another name – Waiting Women, and it is that title you’ll see most often referred in various writings and listings. One can imagine an American distributor looking at the original title and not understanding why people would want to see a movie about some women sitting around, and one can sort of see his point. To make things easier, since it is under that title that Criterion has posted it to Hulu, I will refer to the film as Secrets of Women, and amend any further quotes to reflect that.
Secrets of Women takes a very spare premise – four women are waiting for their husbands to join them at the family summer home – and extrapolates from it unceasing wonders. What we get are three very unique stories (the fourth woman simply says she has nothing of any interest to tell), both in tone and subject, dealing with infidelity, pregnancy, and the games one plays many years into a marriage. The first section is, in a manner not uncommon to Bergman’s pre-Seventh SealÂ work, quite a sensual affair, which didn’t sit well with everyone.
In ExpressionÂ in 1953, Staffan Tjerneld wrote, “From an intellectual point of view, this is rubbish. To be honest – and why shouldn’t I be? – it has to be said that this is pornography in a form acceptable to an upper-middle-class audience. We will soon say a quiet prayer for a time when we are able to spend an evening at the cinema when the actors wear something more than night gowns, when the bed is not the only piece of furniture and when the plot is about something else, no matter what. We are not a nation of erotomaniacs.”
That last sentence is a winner, but one can’t help but feel a little bad for Tjerneld as the next few decades of cinema became increasingly sexual, but his points are not without merit. As I’ve mentioned in other entries in this series, no small amount of Bergman’s successes, particularly in his early years but also well into his later work, came from the scandalous nature of his subject matter, and I’d be surprised if Bergman didn’t know exactly what he was doing on a commercial level. But then the audience has to be complicit in this arrangement, and Tjerneld’s line about pornography for the upper-middle-class is apt – sex sells, and for a certain segment of the population, this was viewed as an acceptable way to get your kicks without risking (much) embarrassment.Â Where I’d differ from Tjerneld is that I don’t think this is such a bad thing.
The second story is Bergman at his most adventurous, anticipating both Persona in a wild editing montage and The Silence for its spare approach to storytelling. Undoubtedly the most wrenching, Marta (Summer Interlude‘sÂ Maj-Britt Nilsson) tells of how she and her eventual husband’s whirlwind affair led to a pregnancy that drove them apart even as it demanded they be together. I don’t know what caused Nilsson and Bergman to cease their working relationship, but the little it yielded is truly stunning. Here, Bergman has to rely in large sections merely on Nilsson’s expressions, conveying yearning, hope, regret, and resignation – years of feeling into a compact period of time. To anyone who has seen Summer Interlude, Nilsson’s ease in this area is hardly surprising, though no less thrilling.
“[Secrets of Women]Â wasn’t really intended to be experimental in any way,” Bergman noted. “It was meant to be a commercial success. But it contains another, more heavily disguised experiment. And that’s the little bit with Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten. It has almost no dialogue, only some 50 lines. This really was an experiment, an attempt on my part to tell a story in pictures. An attempt I didn’t repeat until The Silence, where there’s very little dialogue. But it was a secret experiment, too – we didn’t dare tell anyone we were experimenting.”
The commercial element really takes over in the last segment, which centers around a couple who has been married for fourteen years (played marvelously by Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar BjÃ¶rnstrand, who would go onto star in A Lesson in Love) and, after a dinner party, get trapped in their building’s elevator overnight. During this time, they begin to bond to an extent they obviously haven’t in some time and in a manner that is unceasingly entertaining. It’s no surprise that Bergman would go onto build A Lesson in Love around them.
Bergman based the scenario on his own experience being trapped in a stairwell with one of his long-suffering wives, noting immediately that it was a great premise for a comedy, but the inspiration for its execution came from a more cinematic source.
“[It was] thanks to Hitchcock, particularly,” Bergman said, calling out Rope in particular.Â ”I’d long been intrigued by shooting long sequences in difficult an cramped circumstances, weeding out anything irrelevant – quite simply, in making things hard for myself… It’s a challenge, not having anything to play tricks with and get lost in.”
“We shot it on slow film, which called for quite a lot of light. The elevator itself was a technical monstrosity. Several of us had sat down together and figured it out. But technical complications, no! And then Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar BjÃ¶rnstrand were so sweet, and such fun to work with. It’s mostly thanks to them the sequence turned out as it did.”
This final segment’s place in the structure of Secrets of Women is notable from both an artistic and entertainment standpoint. In the case of the latter, it lets the audience go out on an up, and it’s little surprise that this ended up being Bergman’s first true commercial success. In the former, it mirrors the framing device’s gradual move towards lightness and hope. As the women tell their stories, we’re also following Marta’s younger sister Maj, who is planning on eloping with her boyfriend, and the way the women look at Maj and her youthful enthusiasm gradually gives way to a sunnier view of their own circumstances. It’s a canny, subtle move, one that redeems the typically leaden structure of the framing device, but then, Bergman always had a way of invigorating a flashback structure a liveliness uncommon to similar films.
Even for Bergman’s flashback-happy ways, Secrets of Women is quite an audacious task, employing various other departures from the flashbacks themselves, resulting in dreams within flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and so forth. So next time someone tries to tell you than Inception really pioneered something new, remember there’s a whole wealth of cinema still out there.
“When writing a review about Ingmar Bergman’s new film you risk losing yourself in enthusiastic superlatives. But, in this case, it is certainly hard to muster even the smallest reservation. [Secrets of Women]Â is an episodic production in which the film poet and director Bergman lets his imagination and creativity pour forth with all his affection for human beings and his seductive, light and tender sense of humor as from a horn of plenty.” – Ellen Liliedahl, Svenska Dagbladet, 1948.
Secrets of Women is available on Criterion’s Hulu Plus channel in, you guessed it, standard definition, which leaves a lot to be desired even as one is enormously thankful for the film’s availability at all. Bergman’s catalogue is deep, and even I haven’t seen all of his films available on Region 1 DVD, but I’m still grateful for Criterion putting these few out there. Still, one must contend with no shortage of compression artifacts – even as one admires the magnificence of Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography, rich in glowing whites and deep blacks, one wishes for more. Should Criterion decide to put this on Blu-ray (and why wouldn’t you!), they’d be doing cinema a tremendous service, as this really marks an important stylistic point in Bergman’s career – there are some visual devices at play that he wouldn’t revisit for a decade, but are no less thrilling here. I’d love to see some supplements, especially a visual essay, exploring how these avant-garde elements slowly invaded his work, culminating obviously in PersonaÂ but very present in so much of his work that followed this.
“The women in Bergman’s films tend to be more interesting than the men. But women are, after all, more interesting according to Bergman; a statement that would make him appear to be a successful student of the psychology of women, at least in the eyes of the female part of the audience. In contrast to the incredibly stereotyped accounts of women in Swedish film, Bergman’s nuanced view of women was refreshing, and to women, [Secrets of Women]Â gave a glimpse of the real world, something they were able to recognize. This was the film that first gave him a reputation as a describer of women.” – Marianne HÃ¶Ã¶k, in a piece simply titled “Ingmar Bergman,” 1962.