The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: May 18 - 25, 2000

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Soulful eye

Sven Nykvist uses the screen as his canvas

by Chris Fujiwara

"IN THE COMPANY OF LIGHT: SVEN NYKVIST," At the Harvard Film Archive May 19 through 28.

An excellent retrospective of the work of cinematographer Sven Nykvist might consist simply of Ingmar Bergman's films from Winter Light (1962) to Cries and Whispers (1972) -- a career plateau for both the director and the cinematographer. The Harvard Film Archive's Nykvist celebration takes another tack, making room for three anomalous Bergman works, including two of the director's least-liked films, The Touch (1970; May 20 at 9:30 p.m.) and From the Life of the Marionettes (1980; May 24 at 9 p.m.). There are also non-Bergman films in the series -- it's an intriguing, varied sampling of Nykvist's work.

Sven Kykvist and Ingmar Bergman In Light Keeps Me Company (2000; May 19 at 7 p.m., May 21 at 6 p.m., and May 30 at 7 p.m.), an intimate documentary made by son Carl-Gustaf Nykvist, Bergman says: "Sven and I saw things alike, thought things alike; our feeling for light was the same. We had the same basic moral positions about camera placement." The closeness between the two makes it difficult to isolate Nykvist's contribution to Bergman's work, especially since Bergman's own concept of cinema was changing at about the same time Nykvist became his regular cinematographer. Yet it's reasonable to assume that the visual purity, restraint, and naturalism that distinguish Nykvist's camerawork on Winter Light and Persona (1966; May 20 at 7 p.m.) from the more flamboyant work of Gunnar Fischer on The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), and The Magician (1958) owe as much to Nykvist's genius as to Bergman's maturing temperament.

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953; May 19 at 9 p.m.), which precedes by at least seven years this shift in Bergman's cinema, prophetically encapsulates it. This tale of adultery and despair among members of a traveling circus was filmed by two different cinematographers, and it mixes drastically different visual styles. Hilding Bladh shot the film's most famous sequence, a flashback dealing with a clown's public humiliation by his wife at the seashore. With its screaming blacks against dead, chalky whites, this furious montage is a piece of visual overstatement that heralds what would soon become -- through Bergman's late-'50s successes and the work of Fellini -- the most recognizable mode of European art filmmaking: the director intervening monumentally to take something that the script has already marked out as a big scene and blow it up into a major statement on the human condition.

On the other hand, the sequence in which the circus owner visits his estranged wife in her tobacco shop is lit in a cool, naturalistic way that says Nykvist. The muted lighting of a little boy dealing calmly with his father from behind the shop counter, the sunlit curtained windows in the back rooms where the two adults have their conversation, the streams of soft light crossing the floor in the hall, where the boy keeps an inquisitive eye on his parents -- these touches subtly expand the tonal range of the film and help make the subtext of the sequence, the father's longing for domesticity, understandable and poignant.

Persona is an interchange between two characters, a nurse (Bibi Andersson) and a famous actress (Liv Ullmann). The psychological concentration of the film is served by Nykvist's spare elegance: the clear, smooth fields of gray create the necessary abstraction without ever falsifying or banalizing reality. Nykvist's control of mood is so total that the most minimal light change has a palpable effect: Andersson bends down beside her patient's bed and the light from the radio she turns on seems to warm her face; night falls in successive waves over Ullmann's unblinking face. Nykvist's framing avoids stifling the actors; in a scene in which the two women drink in the kitchen, the camera is close but not tight, creating a sense of happiness with its relaxed moves, panning down with Andersson's face, left with Ullmann's hand as she brings a glass to her lips, then back as she stretches her arm out again.

The Touch is barely remembered today except as Bergman's big mistake. Happily married to doctor Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson plunges into an obsessive affair with a neurotic archaeologist. The apparent error of casting Elliott Gould as the archaeologist is compounded, for the film's detractors, by having everybody speak English -- a language in which, it's easy to imagine, Bergman didn't feel comfortable. But The Touch has a superb performance by Andersson (who will be present at Harvard's rare screening of the film) and a brisk, crisp style new in Bergman's work, aided, of course, by Nykvist's delicate lighting.

From the Life of the Marionettes, an inquiry into how the breakdown of a bourgeois marriage leads the husband to murder a prostitute, is a hermetic, emotionally cold film that would be claustrophobic without Nykvist's expansive textures. At the opposite extreme is the radiant The Magic Flute (1975; May 26 at 9 p.m. and May 28 at 8:30 p.m.), whose pale yet vibrant colors and strong, simple lighting, more than any other factor, allow Bergman to express his love of Mozart.

Persona From the early 1970s on, Nykvist worked increasingly outside of Sweden. His career apart from Bergman has been productive but has yielded only one masterpiece, Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (1986). Harvard's archival copy of The Sacrifice is getting a deserved rest, but the retrospective includes a good selection of Nykvist's other non-Bergman work. His grace and subtlety make the absurdism of Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976; May 23 at 9 p.m.) more, not less, disturbing by bringing it closer to how reality is felt. He gives Louis Malle's overly tasteful Pretty Baby (1978; May 22 at 7 p.m.) an amazing visual integrity: the gorgeousness of the Storyville brothel interiors and the lushness of enclosed gardens are surveyed by Nykvist with a calm demonic rapture. Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988; May 21 at 8 p.m.) is a triumph of fluid understatement thanks to the compassion implied by Nykvist's sculptural lighting. And Nykvist's glowing colors deepen the dourness and anxiety of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989; May 23 at 7 p.m.).

Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993; May 22 at 9:15 p.m.), a pleasantly sentimental portrait of a small Midwestern town, has some of Nykvist's most refined later work. Strong diagonals give structure, movement, and a sense of relationship to such homely vignettes as a grouping of four people at various planes of a forgotten grocery store. The film's imagery -- the flat lighting on the faces of two people watching a sunset from between haystacks, the sublimity of four lamps surrounding a deathbed, the forlornly cheerful effect of balloons left over from a birthday party against the gray-out of early morning -- has the authority of remembered experience.

Nykvist occasionally ventured into directing, most recently with The Ox (1991; May 24 at 7 p.m. and May 26 at 7 p.m.), a simple fable of a farmhand (Stellan Skarsgård) who kills his employer's ox to keep his wife and daughter from starving during a famine. Skarsgård has said that Nykvist "can't really direct at all," and The Ox bears this out: the film's images are correct and elegant, its few ideas clearly understandable, but Nykvist seems afraid of the story's dramatic force and is content merely to hint at it.

There are no ill-considered or thrown-away shots in any of these films; the least Nykvist scene is an astute piece of craftsmanship, and at his best, he is an astonishingly subtle painter of atmospheres. Ingmar Bergman called the movie camera "an incredible instrument for recording the human soul as captured in the human face." No one has used the camera to that purpose more sensitively than Sven Nykvist.

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