Friday 7 August 2015

Ingrid as Fury

Intelligence about an extraordinarily underrated film starring one great Swedish lady came to me from another, Sophie Sarin, who,  I hope she won't mind my saying, is something of a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Katherine Hepburn. At any rate I can imagine her taking the place of La Bergman's outrageously attired character on her balcony, sipping Djenne Djenno cocktails and occasionally stroking her pet leopard (they keep saying 'panther' in the movie) as she watches the snare closing around her intended victims. Sophie is, of course, the biggest help Djenne has ever had in terms of protecting its valuable legacy (see her latest blog entry), the opposite of Bergman's dark angel of destruction winging down on the people of fictional middle-European Guellen.

The film in question is The Visit, released in 1964 and directed by Bernhard Wicki. A continental friend was very surprised I didn't know the original play on which it's based, Der Besuch der Alten Dame (The Visit of the Old Woman) by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt - both title and playwright only names to me, since I'd heard of von Einem's opera (but again, neither heard nor seen it). It was a game role for Ingrid Bergman to assume, since she was not quite 50 at the time - she would have been 100 at the end of the month, so retrospectives are in order - and probably not ready for the label 'old'. Though in fact Wicki allows for Bergman's undimmed glamour in not exactly following Dürrenmatt's description of a 63-year old redhead who's 'a society lady with a rare grace, in spite of all the grotesquerie' and who turns out to be many parts metal following a plane crash in Afghanistan.

Wicked, though, she seems at first, until we get a greater tilting towards sympathy in the reasoning of this tycoon's widow for offering a failing town a million dollars in exchange for the death of the man who ruined her life. We soon learn that the natural corollary of the poster's subtitle 'Hell hath no fury...' is much more than just a woman scorned.

I corrected my ignorance of the play by buying a copy of the translation by Patrick Bowles after having seen the film, in which both Bergman and that ever-surprisingly good actor Anthony Quinn as the 'victim' of her hunt excel. The play does indeed read more as comedy than tragedy - ripe for the Richard Jones or Rupert Goold treatment - but I think I like the extra human dimensions Clara (or Carla, as she's called in the film) Zachanassian takes on in Ben Barzman's screenplay. Without the play's 'conspicuous consumption of husbands' and its false witnesses whom she's tracked down, had blinded and castrated and drawn into her circle of lackeys as Koby and Loby, she seems less absurd, and you have to keep pinching yourself to remember what a terrible vengefulness she intends to extract. The endings of film and play are outwardly different and yet - I can't say more without needing a spoiler notice - the film does not, I think, betray the essence of the situation.

So why was it not a hit? Too harsh, too unsoftened even in its ending to succeed with the public? Did they hate the idea of lovely Ingrid as, in the words of the play's Schoolmaster, not so much a Fury as a Fate, a Clotho 'spinning destiny's webs herself'? At any rate the characterisation, which can switch from deadly hate in the face to charming smiles in a second, is a long way from the usual image of Ingrid Bergman, who does indeed seem to have been the nicest person anyone ever met, albeit with a 'scandalous love life'. She knew the names of everyone on set and always arrived on time, I learn from an amusing 'Bergman vs Bergman' slot, jokily comparing actress and director, in the latest issue of the always beautifully produced Swedish Film which has a lovely photo of young, butter-wouldn't-melt Ingrid on the cover.

There's also an excellent article by Stig Björkman, whose new documentary Ingrid Bergman - In Her Own Words was shown at Cannes this year but has, as far as I know, yet to reach these shores. Disappointingly he doesn't choose The Visit on his shortlist of Bergman's best films, which features three I have to see, The Count of the Old Town (1935), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941) and a Rossellini which has somehow escaped me, Europa '51, alongside two firm favourites, Bergman's Autumn Sonata and Hitchcock's Notorious, which has just been made into an opera in which Nina Stemme is to star in Gothenburg.

Furious women and a destructive outsider, if I might make a transition which has a strange hold on my imagination, also figure in an absolute and ever-timely classic of the theatre, Euripides' Bakkhai. Ben Whishaw is a predictably spellbinding Dionysos in James Macdonald ingeniously tradition-conscious production at the Almeida, and the Bacchic choruses are both elaborately set to a cappella music by Orlando Gough as well as stunningly well executed by a group of ten singing actresses (though there are some unmusical theatregoers who just don't get it). Enough; I've written my paean already over on The Arts Desk.

This is just to acknowledge the arrival of Anne Carson's often faithful translation - so good it's made me get my old Greek text off the shelf - as published by Oberon Classics. It's the best homage to Greek tragedy, I reckon, since Tony Harrison's magnificent poetic equivalent for Peter Hall's Oresteia. Hall's Bacchae, by the way, was very good, but the Almeida's Bakkhai is superlative. Can't wait for the whole-day reading of The Iliad next Friday, and Goold's Medea with his wife Kate Fleetwood, an extraordinary Lady in his Macbeth, should be quite something too.

One more fury: myself. I realised in a shrinksession that my anger in the public sphere is spilling over into the private, not the other way around, at least consciously. Every day this government brings in new bills, tries to reverse old ones, in a flaming trail of destruction and dismantling. That includes seemingly trivial things like relaxing aspects of the foxhunting ban and bringing back bee-killing neonicotinoids which we, along with much of the rest of Europe, had already banned; but it also slips them in between major horrors like the so-far-thwarted attempt to make the UK withdraw from the European Bill of Human Rights and the atrocious stand on the endlessly suffering refugees trying to get in to Britain from Calais, where the French, no better, have been treating them worse than animals. Bravo, David Cameron, for the accolade from Forza Italia; you must be very proud.

This country must be so soul-bankrupt if we can't put ourselves in the position of people who've lost everything but now suffer what one of them said on the radio recently was worse than anything he'd ever experienced (that would, admittedly, have to be someone who hadn't been tortured). And you wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is beginning to seem like the only human alternative* (heaven spare us Yvette Cooper et al). Worthy folk like Polly Toynbee and Alan Johnson are constantly telling us that choosing Corbyn as new leader makes Labour unelectable, but in five years' time, if this extreme right-wing behaviour goes on, who knows? What's to lose, anyway? And here's someone who hasn't just come out of the blue as a charismatic contender, rather a politician who always was charismatic but genuinely didn't seek the limelight, was/is palpably sincere and honest - and no, Guardian scaremongers, not extreme. So yes, Mr. Corbyn, I'll take a chance and yes, goddaughter Rosie, I'll join you on the next demo. Rant over - for now.

*10/8 - subject to thorough examination of his stance towards Russia. I can accept that he finds things to criticise about America's and NATO's response to Ukraine, but the warning sign is equating their behaviour to Russia's, and if he gives the simple answer 'yes' to 'did you and do you still support Putin's annexation of Crimea?' then sorry, bye bye. But let's be careful always to get the words from the man himself.

**18/8 - regular appearances on Russia Today, that organ of misinformation and propaganda, as well as the constant allying with dictators and terrorists, are enough to turn me off. So I retreat with my tail between my legs and try and decide which of the others is the best of three not very goods. Not that my ballot paper has arrived yet.5/4/18 - which it never did, and I was told to ring three numbers. So I jumped ship and paid my dues to the Lib Dems, though that's not paid off. And I still remain devoted to our superb Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaughter.


toubab said...

Well , dear David, there is a third Swedish lady involved in this and that is Eva Emnéus,the Swedish ambassador to Mali and a dear friend who always lets me stay in her lovely residence when I am in Bamako.One night we wanted to relax in front of her wide screen TV and we rifled through her collection of DVDs. We found 'The Visit', at the back, forgotten, still in its cellophane wrapper. She, just as I, had never heard of it. We started watching it expecting it to be rubbish since we had not heard of it, and after a while we glanced furtively at each other : 'what do you think?' well, I think it is rather good actually!' Oh, good! so do I!' So we watched it and decided it was a classic that deserved fame!So thank you for this plug!
And really David:'A mixture of Ingrid Bergman and Catherine Hepburn' and 'do I mind?' No I don't mind-(how could I?) but I think you are lovely but have lost your marbles!

David said...

Ah, I don't think I was aware of the whole story, dear Sophie, and I love Eva already for all the kindnesses I know she's shown you. I have to say we both laughed when we saw Ingrid's grande dame sitting on her balcony and agreed it was very 'you'. I think you should try and find a pair of the Dame Edna glasses she wears just to complete the picture.

You might also like to know that my fanatical film buff friend David Thompson, documentary maker, who loads me with every bit of unusual Ingmar Bergman he can find, also didn't know about The Visit and came back to me saying he'd snapped up a Spanish copy - as I had (fortunately the subtitles can be removed). I'm trying to push the play on Richard Jones, but he probably knows it already.

Much marbleless love, and what extraordinary things you're up to, as ever.

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, anger--and fear-our demons. Not that they're inappropriate mental states at times, nor always avoidable, but I have come to think that neither one is useful. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "'Hope' is the thing with feathers," and so I join you heartily in celebrating renewal of the grant to the Djenné Manuscript Library.

David said...

Like anything, they need channeling and turned into practical action. A always think of Brecht's inverted Seven Deadly Sings - 'anger' is 'anger at injustice'. No longer can we sit on the sidelines hoping - I'm not the only one to say the time has come to go out and protest more. Not that that seems to make governments listen, but it shows we are not alone. Sure, it's not Russia, and Obama is giving us a lot to hope for, but this shows how much of a restraining hand the Lib Dims might have been in the coalition, and how untrammeled Cameron must feel now.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I can't of course speak to what's best to do in England, I would only say that celebrating what can give real hope is not to my mind equatable with sitting idly by. I suspect, in the context of your post, my thought was inapposite, but for myself, what I've come to feel is that the best thing I can do is to applaud the good, rather than reward the bad with yet more attention. Here, for example, many friends and colleagues, not to mention the press, have been fascinated by the antics of Donald Trump and gleeful at the prospect of yesterday's Republican "debate." To me, paying one second of attention to that bunch of clowns isn't worth my time. I would rather celebrates examples those doing good in the world.

David said...

I couldn't agree with you more about Trump, Sue - haven't wasted any time investigating myself. But that man will never take office; now we have a wolf in sheep's clothing who's systematically shredding everything good. So applauding the positive won't help beyond a certain point, you're right, in this case. It's a full-scale battle which it still seems to me could be won by fierce, angry opposition at each and every point. This is what the surprising and admirable Charlotte Church and others mean by getting in there - again, what have we got to lose? And what good are old New Labour values now? Some of them, beyond the early days of Blair's first term when good bills were passed, got us into this mess in the first place.

I want to be practical, but part of me sees that youthful idealism just could changed the world, at least joined to experience. The compromises will come, but it's good to start from a clear, absolute point.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Indeed, youthful idealism is the greatest hope of all for changing the world. From what you describe, and from what else I've gleaned, it seems that Britain is encountering the sort of shredding that started here with Reagan. We've not recovered, by a long shot, from that disaster.

David Damant said...

As for refugees, one has to start not with Calais but with the fact that in July 50 000 migrants arrived in Greece alone. I cannot understand how the UN people can criticise Greece, which has its own problems anyway. And if the reception there and elsewhere were made more humane the numbers travelling would increase, from so many horrible places I notice that many new migrants want to get to Germany and Skandinavia where the reception is clearly friendly - but eventually a cap will have to be imposed, even by those countries. What then? It is a world wide problem and the UN should take the lead

David said...

Yes, a cap, eventually, but you ignore the fact that the European Union advised some months ago that every member state could and should still take more desperate migrants who can't go home for fear of persecution than we do. The UK (ie Cameron and his cronies) refused to participate. Italy turns out to be far more humane. Your argument doesn't hold water, I fear, other than suggesting that the UN also needs to do more.

Pointing out what one organisation needs to do doesn't exonerate others from responsibility. At any rate the French have treated the Calais migrants disgracefully, and Cameron's language has been unhelpful. Current measures are just sticking plaster and cost huge amounts of money.

d said...

I cannot understand why the arithmetic is ignored. The proposal ( to which as you say the UK did not adhere) was to spread 40 000 migrants around the EU. But 50 000 arrived in Greece in one month.They are in the frame for humane treatment now. So do we add 50 000 ( plus those in Italy and Malta) to the 40 000? One UN report suggested 60 million migrants world wide. They suffer poverty illness famine. complete lack of opportunity etc etc even before one takes violence into account, which in the case of Syrian refugees is clearly there ( and there are millions of them) They have ( as many of them say) nothing to lose by taking risks in the hope of a better life. There was a lovely German lady saying how she was helping three young men immigrants. It was heart warming. But what if she was faced by 30, or 300? It is just not possible. So I suppose the immediate logic is to somehow put up as complete barrier around Europe and then see what to do with a manageable number. But how such a barrier is geographically possible I cannot imagine

David said...

Yes, the figures are horrific and the long-term prospects bleak indeed. None of which detracts from the fact that reaction to the Calais crisis from both the British and French sides has been lamentable. A little compassion, a little understanding linked to some practical solutions would not have been impossible.

Comedy hero Stewart Lee has a brilliant piece in the The Guardian on what's been going in the UK while he's been in the Pyrenees.

Laurent said...

How interesting to hear you describe the Cameron Government, ready you entry I thought, he is describing Canada under Harper. However Harper is an ideological friend of Cameron and of Forza Italia. Why is the right at this time seen by so many as the saviour with all the solutions? There is a lot of selfishness in right wing politics and I have noticed how people who agree with such politicians only think of themselves and paying less taxes. It is almost a pay back time for what they deem as the excesses of the Left or the Centre. Many agree with the current government because they were against any changes to their privilege from the beginning. Now they make themselves known. Not good for society as a whole when there is so much disharmony.

David said...

Quite a while back I thought that if I needed to define the difference between the right and left, it would be one of self-interest versus wider interest, the common good. That still holds but things have got much, much worse. The rest of Europe and America can see it but our government becomes more and more isolated in its selfishness. Lee's biting satire is one way of coping with it.

David Damant said...

As regards left versus versus right, Mrs Thatcher gave a basic analysis in 1978. She referred to "two very general and seemingly conflicting ideas.......There is the great Christian doctrine that we are all members of one another.....from this we learn our inter-dependence, and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of society." "But there is also another [truth], that we are all responsible moral beings with a choice between good and evil.....You might say that the whole of political wisdom consists in getting these two ideas in the right relationship to each other"

I would add that in the post war consensus the second of these was not given enough weight, and when Mrs Thatcher acted to restore the balance she was accused of promoting selfishness, which is not the same as encouraging individual responsibility and initiative. One could say that the Republican Party in the States seems to give a terrible over-weight to the second only.

If I can use simplistic science, I note that lately the idea that we are driven by a "selfish gene" has been qualified, in that it is now proposed that our genes also impose a factor encouraging cooperation with a group. I think that Darwin also ( not talking about genes of course ) proposed a similar balance, on the basis that cooperation within a group assists the survival of an individual

David said...

Fine words - that paragraph I quoted from towards the end of Mann's Joseph and his Brothers had much the same idea - but she failed, most horribly. So, after his early years in power, did Blair. So did the coalition, and lest I think the present government is the worst I've known, J reminds me of the Thatcher years.

Interestng about the co-operative gene. I rather think that it's the rational, intellectual side of us that encourages co-operation, against our instincts and our unconscious will to destruction and selfishness. But then animals, by and large, do have the co-operative instinct. I suppose we differ in that in the animal world it's pure expediency for survival.

Now, anyone interested in The Visit and Bakkhai? I shouldn't have added the political bit at the end...

Willym said...

The Visit is a play that has fascinated me since I first saw it with the Lunts at a Saturday matinee when I was a wee lad in Toronto. It was 1958 just after the Broadway run - New York cast national tours were common in those days. Directed by Peter Brook in a translation by Maurice Valency, Teo Otto was the production designer though I have a feeling Lynn Fontanne's costumes were by a well-known fashion designer of the time.

It was the last vehicle for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne - and a very unlikely one for Miss Fontanne at least. The Lunts had become better known for their almost Boulevard-style comedies in the early 50s and this was a great, but magnificent, departure for them. Duerrenmatt's description of Claire - aged, grotesque with flaming red hair, a wooden leg and a wooden arm - in no way match the soignee Miss Fontanne. Though given the actress she was she could have played it that way but instead she was elegance and grace personified which made her demands and actions even more startling and, to my 12 year old mind at least, fascinatingly horrible. I recall three moments - even at this distance in time - Claire sitting on her balcony wreathed in white (her costume and the smoke from her cigar) watching over the town as greed took hold; the meeting between the two old lovers in the Forest before the town votes; and Lunt cornered by the townsfolk in the station as he tries to leave but doubles over retching in fear. There was very little in it to match the playwright's description of it as a comedy.

A production at Chicago's Goodman many years later kept the elegant Claire - in the person of a very fine actress Rosalind Cash - but played up the comedy. My only memory of it was that as the townspeople began spending the sets, costumes and props became more and more gold. A bit of heavy handed stage symbolism as ever I've seen.

I haven't seen the film in years and as always you have me scrambling to find a copy of a book, film or article you've mentioned.

David said...

How fascinating to have your take, Will, on a play I've never seen staged (and what a history!) The consumerist aspect in the film is especially bleak: there's a stunning scene where goods are up for the taking on credit and the townsfolk go wild. And the scene where the 'hero' fails to catch the train is especially scary and nightmarish.