Through a Glass Darkly contains all of the classic elements of early Bergman: Aristotelian unities of character, time and location, long and dialogue-heavy black-and-white takes, wearyingly intense performances, excellent glasses, and a winning combination of earnest religious doubt and chic continental angst. Nobody makes despair look as cool as Bergman.
Like most of his works of the same period, it’s a deceptively simple story (I could say something here about how it was ‘conceived as a chamber piece’, but you all know where Wikipedia is). The film focuses on 24 fairly melodramatic hours in the lives of four characters. David, a morbidly self-obsessed author suffering from writer’s block, returns from a period of artistic retreat in Switzerland to visit his much-neglected family in a remote cottage in the fjords: Karin, his energetically schizophrenic daughter who has just been released from hospital; Martin, her decent, upstanding and rigorously boring husband; and her younger brother Minus, a precocious and conflicted 17 year-old with a massive paternal inferiority complex and an uncontrollable crush on his flirtatiously batshit sister. Let battle commence.
The initial harmoniousness of the father’s return is broken by Martin’s revelation to David that Karin’s recent schizophrenic breakdown may in fact be an incurable illness. Karin later discovers David’s diary, in which he admits to his intention of using her impending mental decline as the artistic subject-matter that his intensely bourgeois life has so far failed to provide. This precipitates a mental unravelling in which the codified meanings of domestic life break down and taboos are temporarily suspended. While David and Martin are on a daytrip to the mainland, Karin and Minus find themselves careering towards a consummation of their irrational mutual fixation.
Like John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence, the film on one level portrays a female consciousness ground down by the patriarchal tedium of domestic life. Martin does a great line in irreproachably unfanciable Nordic steadfastness: tall and reassuringly boring, like an Ikea wardrobe. The earnest man-chat between him and Karin’s father that opens the film is so hilariously leaden that in five minutes it creates a ready-made empathy for Karin’s mental unravelling. We instantly side with the weird and sexy dionysian over the unsexy domestic males. What’s more, so does young Minus.
Whereas Martin personifies groundedness and certainty, the three blood relatives stand on differing points along an imaginative scale passing through religious uncertainty and ending in total annihilation (the mother died following a mental illness). David – who writes commercially successful novels but wishes he was a great artist – is a quietly despairing narcissist who perversely envies his daughter’s more extroverted suffering, as well as his son’s naïvely uninhibited creativity.
Minus oscillates between creative and destructive impulses and struggles to control or comprehend his nascent libido; he and Karin, who perennially teeters on the precipice of self-destruction, are irresistibly drawn to one another. In a farcically charged scene, Karin catches Minus taking time out from his Latin conjugation homework to surreptitiously flick through a porno mag. When she grabs the magazine from his hands and teases him, Minus spits in her face before collapsing in shame and self-reproach. Bergman ends the scene with a close-up of the scrunched-up magazine sandwiched between the leather-bound respectability of two Latin textbooks.
Like Erica Kohut in The Piano Teacher, Karin and Minus embody in varying ways the conflict between the irrational destructive spirit, and the structural staves of consensus reality. Picking up the Kierkegaardian theme that runs though Bergman’s early work, the film is a study of the potential unravelling of meaning and morality in a world bereft of a God-shaped lynchpin. Bergman frequently drives dangerously close to self-parody, yet here as elsewhere there is a certain stripped-down intensity and focus that gives improbable depth to a plot that could easily have been merely melodramatic. With just four symbolically tessellated characters Bergman creates a switchboard of conflicting energies, correspondences and false oppositions.
For those unfamiliar with Bergman, Sweden may not seem the instinctive first-port-of-call for such an explosive cocktail of sex, art, taboo and philosophy. But then once you are familiar with Bergman there are a great many things about the world that never really seem the same again.