A faded actress in Ingmar Bergman’s new film After the Rehearsal explains both her acting method and her painful life by saying to her director, “I only ever want the truth—no matter how repulsive.” That line could be a description of Bergman’s career in films: It’s been a relentless, uncompromising search for truth, no matter how painful or horrible.
Bergman’s films have been intensely private, and sometimes that has led to a frustrating obscurity. Now that he’s at the end of his career, we can appreciate the majesty of his canon; from The Seventh Seal to Persona to Cries and Whispers, he has charted his own path; even the more enigmatic films can now be seen as part of the fabric of the work as a whole.
Last year’s Oscar-winning Fanny and Alexander was announced as Bergman’s last film. Thank heaven he didn’t take that announcement seriously. Actually, Bergman is now distinguishing his new works by referring to them as “TV-films,” since he shoots them for Swedish television, and After the Rehearsal is the first of these.
It’s 70 minutes long, and the action takes place on a single set, as an aging stage director (Erland Josephson), who has fallen asleep after a rehearsal of Strindberg’s A Dream Play, wakes up and has dialogues with two actresses.
One is an up-and-coming actress (Lena Olin) who flirts with the director and demands to know why he cast her.
The other, who enters halfway through, is an older, alcoholic actress (Ingrid Thulin), who has been given a tiny part in the new production. She is the ex-leading lady and the ex-mistress of the director, and she looks for assurances that she is not hopelessly over the hill.
We never know whether either actress is real, or whether they might be phantoms within the director’s mind. Certainly the film is about his self-appraisal, and the fact that he’s staging A Dream Play cues us that he may be dreaming this examination of his hypocrisies and doubts.
The film is clearly very close to Bergman, and he has kept his family of collaborators near. Sven Nykvist photographed, as usual. Josephson and Thulin, both superb here, have had long associations with Bergman. Olin had small roles in prior Bergman films, and she essays her first big role for him with the kind of frank commitment that seems normal for Bergman actors. Her performance is eloquent evidence that the master has not lost the touch.
First published in the Herald, June 27, 1984
I like Bergman’s work more now than I did then, being more of an enthusiastic Hitchcoko-Hawksian at the time; re-seeing a number of his films in preparation for a lecture a few years ago (and finally seeing the five-hour Fanny and Alexander) left me in no doubt of his colossal, easily Nobel Prize-worthy status. Even at the time, After the Rehearsal was a strikingly good picture, especially from a man who’d retired two years earlier (right!). I have not watched it again, but would like to see this and some of Bergman’s subsequent TV movies someday—Lena Olin, for one thing, would have a new context seen from the vantage point of her later international career.