Partly an internalized memory play and partly a strident drama in the vein of Strindberg or Ibsen, Ingmar Bergman's latest swan song to cinema bears the mark of a master. Graceful yet unrelenting, Saraband qualifies as a sequel to Bergman's 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, but the new film broadens the playing field even as the writer-director narrows his eyes at shadows of mortality and meaning.
Years after the painful split depicted in Scenes from a Marriage, 63-year-old Marianne (Liv Ullmann) wrestles with a mysterious compulsion to visit her former spouse, the now-86-year-old Johan (Erland Josephson). She finds him, for all intents and purposes, "all alone in the deep, dark forest" despite the near proximity of his son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and grandaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Father and son trade cruelties, Henrik smothers Karen, and Marianne intervenes with true but reckless insights.
The family relationships have long since turned dysfunctional. Schlumpy Henrik lives for and through his daughter, tutoring her in cello, perhaps now to her detriment. He retains a transgressive emotional hold on her, though the time is nigh for her to relocate for study and social purposes. Johan passingly dotes on his granddaughter, partly as a supreme method of getting under Henrik's skin. Out of perceived necessity, Henrik slinks to his father to ask for advances on his inheritance, but Johan holds out, inspiring arguments that cut to the bone.
As for Marianne, she begins and ends the story at a table mussy with old photographs. To her, Johan represents the great unresolved emotional thread. Repelled by Johan's horrid treatment of his flesh and blood, Marianne nevertheless takes pity on a man as pained as he is hurtful. "Sometimes I look at my voluntary isolation and think I'm in hell," he confesses. "That I'm already dead, though I don't know it." This, too, is possible; like Bergman's other chamber dramas, Saraband lives in a sadly placid setting, delicately lit, quiet, but fit to burst with anxiety.
Ten scenes, a prologue, and an epilogue tell the tale. Exceptional acting compliments richly realized dialogues (the title refers to an "erotic dance for two"). All four perfomers excel, though Ullmann is especially disarming when she turns to the camera and admits her own latter-day disconnections. Not every ending can be a happy one, but at least in one instance, Bergman allows for generosity of spirit—or is it self-knowing empathy?—to well up and wash over loathing.