This is the twenty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 21 is called "Shot by Sven Week".
Sven Nykvist is one of the most well renowned and critically acclaimed cinematographers of all time. Though he's often associated with his films shot with Ingmar Bergman, he's worked with a number of high profile directors on almost 100 films. If you're unfamiliar with his imagery, its time to take a look.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with cinematography by Sven Nykvist film.
Watching After the Rehearsal in 2021 carries the reality of the pandemic. The film, made for television, is a chamber piece with one set and three characters, the kind of structure that is a bit more prevalent right now, when it is so difficult to be expansive with film making. Of course, Bergman wasn't thinking about pandemics when he made this film (unlike The Seventh Seal, which takes place during a plague pandemic). The three characters are Henrik Vogler (Erland Josephson), who is directing a new version of Strindberg's A Dream Play; Rakel Egerman (Ingrid Thulin), a middle-aged actor who worked with Vogler in the past; and Rakel's daughter Anna (Lena Olin), who is starring in the current production.
After the Rehearsal is itself something of a dream play. Roger Ebert wrote of the confusion people seemed to have with the film:
Reading the earlier reviews of the film, I discover that one critic realized only belatedly that the younger actress, Anna, was onstage the whole time the older actress, Rakel, poured out her heart. Strange, and yet another critic thought the whole scene with Rakel was the director's own dream. Yet another suggested that Anna represents not only herself but also Rakel's absent daughter. And another theory is that Anna is the daughter of the director and Rakel, and is brought into being by the residual love between them, as a sort of theatrical Holy Spirit. The age of Anna has been variously reported as ranging from twelve to twenty, with one critic reporting that both ages of the character are represented.
The film has a supernatural feel, even though Bergman uses no obvious tricks. When the film opens, Vogler is alone in the theater after the day's rehearsal ... as we see him, he is waking up, commenting on how things look strange. Anna appears, they interact ... Anna reveals her hatred of her mother. The mother appears, despite the fact that she is dead ... a younger Anna (played by Nadja Palmstjerna-Weiss) observes it all, unnoticed by the other two. The mother leaves, Olin-as-Anna returns. It is entirely possible that After the Rehearsal comes out of Vogler's head, perhaps in a dream. Bergman doesn't press this point (hence the confusion Ebert mentions). Thus, he creates something supernatural that could just as easily be a straightforward recounting of a night in a theater.
The scene between Vogler and Rakel is especially intense compared to the two scenes with Anna and Vogler, which is perhaps inevitable, given that Ingrid Thulin is one of the most intense actors ever. (Bergman writes of one scene, "[I]n this film she couldn't distance herself from her part. When she would say the line 'Do you think that my instrument is destroyed forever?' she would begin to cry. I told her, 'Please don't sentimentalize!' To me, it seemed natural for her to say the line with cool observance. Instead she burst out crying every time. Finally I gave up.") Lena Olin holds her own in this company, no small achievement considering the abilities of Josephson and Thulin.
Ultimately, After the Rehearsal is as much a family drama as it is a commentary on the theater. As for Sven Nykvist, he doesn't have any vast panoramas to play with in this one-set movie. He uses a lot of close-ups, and overall, he suggests the smallness of the setting without our noticing. It's not as expansive as the work that earned him two Oscars (for Cries & Whispers and Fanny and Alexander), but it perfectly suits what is needed here.
The opening of the film: