Friday, 3 July 2009
Summer with Harriet
57 years on from what is perhaps Bergman’s most direct and purely sensual movie, Summer with Monika, our heroine is no longer sunning herself on a Swedish island (how wide of the mark the Americans were, by the way, in the hilarious naughtiness-sells advertisement above). She’s here in London, in the lovable personage of her creator Harriet Andersson, one of the three key Bergman muses. Can it really be as long ago as 1992 that I last saw her at the Barbican with her successors in the great man’s complicated love life, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, as well as Gunnel Lindblom? They ran elegant, stylish rings around bemused film critic/presenter Philip French like the ladies in that, well, not entirely successful Bergman comedy About all these women.
Thanks to the diplo-mate introducing me to Swedish Cultural Affairs Councillor Carl Otto Werkelid, I got to meet Andersson the evening before the Barbican screening of Summer with Monika. I’m prepared to let my absurdly grinning mug appear on screen as this is the only good shot I have of us together.
This was a high-profile concert to celebrate the Swedes taking over the EU presidency from the Czechs, and ticked many of the Nordic boxes in the City of London Festival’s agenda. It was a chance to see inside the Guildhall, which I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a teenager obsessively sightseeing all the city churches, and very splendid it is too despite much post-blitz reconstruction. Thrilled to see those legendary giants Gog
even though they’re limewood replacements for the originals, and amused by the OTT monuments to Nelson and the Pitts. Beguiled, too, by bits of a generous programme from the Nordic Chamber Orchestra and Christian Lindberg.
From where we were sitting some way back, the wittier throwaways of Grieg’s Holberg Suite got a bit lost and Lindberg’s declamations between trombone blasts for his own performance-art piece Kundraan couldn’t be understood (alas, there was nothing about it in a badly-proofed programme, either, so it remained baffling, ephemeral perhaps but a lot livelier than most of the post-serial stuff). As usual in cathedral-ish acoustics, the quiet passages of the evening worked best, chiefly those of Part’s Fratres – the trombone version doesn’t quite come off in the faster stuff, to which I can never reconcile myself on this instrument, though Lindberg does it better than anyone – and a gorgeous string arrangement of Sibelius’s B minor piano Impromptu.
Anyway, pressing the flesh of La Andersson was bound to be a highlight. She was utterly natural and charmingly pooh-pooed my declaration that she was my favourite Bergman actress (‘you’d say the same to Liv or Bibi’). It’s true, though. At any rate, she’s certainly the one who’s covered the biggest range, from wild-child Monika and saucy maid Petra in Smiles of a Summer Night through to the schizophrenic girl of Through a Glass Darkly - this poster is part of an exhibition outside Barbican Cinema 1 -
the dying sister of Cries and Whispers and even the cameo grotesque maid Justina in Fanny and Alexander.
Here’s what Bergman had to say about her in The Magic Lantern: ‘She is an unusually strong but vulnerable person, with a streak of brilliance in her gifts. Her relationship to the camera is straight and sensual. She is also technically superb and can move like lightning from the most powerful empathy to conveying sober emotions; her humour is astringent but never cynical; she is a lovely person, one of my dearest friends.’ And later, in Images: ‘Harriet Andersson is one of cinema’s geniuses. You meet only a few of these rare, shimmering individuals on your travels along the twisting road of the movie industry jungle'.
Although I’ve seen Monika twice before, it was startling to be reminded of the teenage Andersson’s contemporary-ness, as if 1952 were today; the mobile expression of changing emotions is amazing, and that scene late in the film where she turns to challenge the viewer directly still takes the breath away. I had to find the still of this, and while I await the Ingmar Bergman Foundation's permission - and I could be waiting a very long time - I'll assume it amounts to good publicity for IB and credit Svenska Film.
The image the Barbican used shows Andersson's Monika, eyes shut, adored by Lars Ekborg as Harry, a man with better teeth (take my word for it) than the one seen with her above.
It was another full evening, cornerstone among the usual suspects of the Barbican’s Bergman ‘Directorspective'. The Swedish ambassador made the most urbane of many speeches we’ve stood or sat through in the past few days, remembering his young days in America when Eisenhower described Sweden as a land of ‘sin, suicide and socialism’. We got to see for the first time in the UK Stig Bjorkman’s half-hour edit of Bergman’s on-shoot ‘home movies’, Images from the Playground, including more from Harriet and Bibi about those golden days. What came across were the dynamic companionship, the energetic teamwork, the humour (Ingmar as Groucho at one stage); needless to say, the fun surprised viewers at Cannes earlier this year. There was live music, a chance to see Bergman’s witty Bris soap commercial in which the 3D actress leaps the screen, then Summer with Monika and a chat with Andersson and Bjorkman conducted by that ardent Bergmanite and distinguished documentary-maker David Thompson.
Andersson was frank about Bergman’s long-term seduction – was it she by him or he by her? – and the telephone time on Sundays he set aside in later years. Was it true, asked David, that the reason they had to go back to the island was because the studio damaged the film? No, that was a lie - he was a great liar - he just wanted to get away from his wife and be back with her in the summer idyll. She seemed rather moved to compare the old man with the handsome charmer of the 1950s. There was never any jealousy, she said, between Bergman's women: how wise, how Swedish. In fact when she saw Bibi Andersson filming a Bris commercial with Bergman, and he told her (Harriet) to leave the studio, 'I thought, she looks so fresh and lovely, and I said to myself, "Ah, there's the next Andersson" - which in a couple of years turned out to be true'. Talk about the need for comedy on the set in Bergman's grimmest scenes led her to speak frankly about how her character’s death in Cries and Whispers was modelled on that of her father, screaming with agony from cancer back in the days when morphine was less readily available.
Afterwards, I was enjoying a drink at the cinema bar with friends Pia and Sylvia, getting to talk Schnittke with Timothy of the Brothers Quay and soprano Allison Bell, when the VIPs emerged (minus the Swedish princess, I think, who by that stage had left). Carl Otto encouraged me to show the 1992 Barbican programme I’d brought to HA, because she’d wanted to know how long ago it was and what had happened then. Again, she was charm itself, even in her rather peremptory utterances (‘move your ass HERE!’, said with a comedy-American accent), sought reassurance that her ‘performance’ in the interview had gone well and chatted away happily to Pia in Swedish. One last jolly shot, then, of Libedinsky, Andersson and Ostlund.
But that’s not the end of Swedomania in London. On Saturday another Andersson even better known to the world at large, Benny, brings his band to a free concert in Parliament Hill Fields (further details here). A few Abba hits are promised. We’ll be there with two of the godchildren.