A Ship Bound for India (1947)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 38min

Underlying many of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films is a psychological intrigue seeking to understand his flawed, complex characters, but even in his early melodrama, A Ship Bound for India, his development of a Freudian love triangle carries power in its twisted relationship dynamics. Though the biological matriarch of the Blom family is present in this story, Kapten Blom’s decision to integrate his mistress, Sally, into this clan of sailors immediately sets her up as a surrogate parent of sorts. With her being several decades younger than Blom, the affection is mostly one-sided, and further complications arise when she begins to strike up a romance with his son. Naturally, Johannes’ aroused interest in Sally drives a wedge between him and his father, and while there is no incest to be found here, the love and disdain that he directs towards both parental figures makes for a knotty, Oedipal-adjacent dynamic.

Hanging over this story is an air of fleeting transience, embodied literally by the ships sailing from one dock to the next, and formally weaved into the narrative’s structure as a single, extended flashback, nostalgically yearning for missed connections. Johannes’ incidental run-in with Sally seven years after their brief romance motivates this recollection, and despite the appearance of a random voiceover that we never hear again, the transition is effectively made with melancholy rumination.

It is unclear whether A Ship Bound for India was shot on Bergman’s home island of Fårö like many of his later films, but given the rocky beaches and dreary landscapes on display, it is very much possible. His camerawork is more refined than ever at this point in his career, displaying a depth of field in his blocking that paints out the meaningful character dynamics within its small ensemble, as well as an array of beautiful compositions, such as one particularly striking shot staggering silhouettes of dock workers against a grey sky.

The giant windmill set piece is a significant highlight in this aspect, as Bergman delivers a magnificent establishing shot of the wooden structure rising into an overcast sky and dwarfing the two lovers, before moving into its rough-hewn, timber interior where divisions are visually drawn between them out of log bannisters and sticks. These obstructions are present all through their quarrel, but it is only when they fall into each other’s arms and finally kiss that Bergman unites them in the frame, crafting a delicate, romantic composition.

Realising that Johannes is the only man who loves her without wanting anything in return, Sally all but turns away from Blom, whose hostile behaviour worsens. The ageing sailor feels his youth and vitality seeping away from him, and with the knowledge that his eyesight is going too, he pugnaciously lashes out at those around him. His long-suffering wife can’t wait for the day to come that he is completely blind, believing that maybe then he will settle down a little, but we can see instead the opposite is true. Upon discovering that Sally has left him for Johannes, he impulsively makes an attempt on his own son’s life, cutting off his air supply while he is scuba diving. As his cranking of the pump slows to a halt, Bergman ominously cuts to his shadow, revealing his malicious turn through the darkness he casts on the wharf. Likewise, when the time comes for the police to arrest him, he locks himself in his murky, low-lit bedroom, though this time Bergman hangs on his guilt in a long take, flashing a slow, pulsating light across face.

Johannes may not be directly responsible for his father’s death, but the Oedipal implications are hard to ignore. With his family virtually destroyed by his relationship with Sally, and his work summoning him to India, all they have to hinge their hopes on is the assurance that he will one day return and take her away for good. The pain of the past is still raw, but if there was ever a time to fulfil this promise, it is the present, where fate has drawn them back together on the same docks where they met. The metaphor of ships passing in the night is practically begging to be acknowledged in this tale of romance, trauma, and healing, and under Bergman’s assured direction, it manifests with a light touch of wistful longing.

A Ship Bound for India is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel


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