Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min
For a director so often associated with existential dramas of overcast skies and sombre expressions, Ingmar Bergman had no qualms indulging his lighter, more playful side in A Lesson in Love. His previous film, Sawdust and Tinsel, was a financial failure, and so Swedish producers approached him with the challenge of creating something with broader appeal to mainstream audiences, like those romantic comedies which Americans seemed to adore. The resulting screenplay came together in two weeks, serving as a frivolous experiment which he carried out “just for fun – and money.”
Still, A Lesson in Love is inseparable from the rest of Bergman’s oeuvre. The presence of wry humour does not detract from the marital drama at play, following in the lineage of his previous films like Thirst and To Joy, and driving the wedge of infidelity between middle-aged spouses. Gunnar Björnstrand is David, the unfaithful gynaecologist seeking out fresh experiences with young mistresses, and Eva Dahlbeck is his wife Marianne, who left old flame Carl-Adam at the altar for her current husband. Now in the present day, she is travelling to Copenhagan to right those wrongs, and finally marry her ex-fiancé – with the only problem being that David is on that train too.
As is typical of Bergman, flashbacks ensue, though these windows into the past look much more like sketches from Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch comedies than subdued reflections. We learn Marianne was already getting cold feet on her wedding day before best man David came into the picture, as he finds her tying a noose and fully ready to suicide. A tug on the rope brings the entire ceiling down around her, and while the dust settles around her confession of love, her uncontrollable sneezing sends the romantic moment crashing into idiosyncratic foibles.
In the modern day, these old nostalgic fantasies have faded. “The conjugal bed is love’s demise,” David humorously surmises when his mistress considers returning to her own husband, proving Bergman’s own versatility as a writer to draw from his well of philosophical musings and construct succinctly witty lines. The integration of comedy and drama in A Lesson in Love is unfortunately not always so smooth as this, especially given that his narrative tends to alternate unevenly between both. This is more of an issue with the formal cohesion of the piece than individual moments though, as Bergman still often uses his blocking to build out the conflict of his characters, whether by laying their heads next to each other in opposing directions or trapping them together in their claustrophobic train compartment.
The great paradox of David and Marianne’s relationship is just how little these lovers with wandering eyes are actually interested in anyone else. David does not give much regard to his mistress, and now as Marianne approaches Carl-Adam for the second time with the intent of marriage, she once again finds herself falling back in David’s arms, not unlike her wedding day sixteen years ago.
Ironically, it is Carl-Adam’s own doing which motivates this, leading his old friend into a kiss with a stranger which incites Marianne’s violent jealousy. Their feud spills out into the streets of Copenhagen, though Bergman keeps his distance from them in a long shot covering the breadth of a vast river, panning his camera with them as they furiously shout and pace back and forth. Old habits die hard apparently – there is far more vigour in this relationship than anywhere else, ending A Lesson in Love on a quaint, slightly rushed note of their sudden reconciliation. For a relatively minor Bergman film, this is an impressive display of comic versatility, playing to the sort of gags one might have found in Classical Hollywood. Even then though, one should never discount the pure savagery and heartbreak that he brings to such a vividly troubled marriage of chilly, resentful lovers.
A Lesson in Love is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.