Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 20min
There is little wonder why All These Women has been so maligned over the years as one of Ingmar Bergman’s worst films. This brightly coloured pastiche is about the furthest thing one could imagine from the black-and-white meditations on faith and love which have defined his greatest artistic triumphs up to this point. Even his previous comedies such as Smiles of a Summer Night carry a more eloquent wit than the slapstick and buffoonery he happily indulges in here, and which one snobbish music critic awkwardly inflicts on the film’s country chateau setting while visiting famed cellist Felix. Cornelius hopes to write a biography on the reclusive musician and additionally get his own composition broadcast on the radio, but unfortunately his host has made himself scarce, leaving the writer in the hands of his seven female companions. Bergman is swinging wildly in all directions with his comedy, but the point of his derision is firm – this industry of artists and critics is a totally vacuous farce.
Quite significantly, All These Women also marks Bergman’s foray into colour filmmaking, imbuing Felix’s grand summer estate with a Baroque radiance that is ironically tempered in a largely monochrome production design. The towering candelabras, marble floors, and undecorated walls are pristine in their silvery whiteness, while costumes and the odd piece of furnishing imprint dark shapes on the mise-en-scène. As such, the small flourishes of colour that Bergman inserts truly stand out in his scenery. The flowing pink gown Cornelius wears while in disguise, the dusty orange sunrise shedding light across Felix’s bedroom, and the vivid red outfits at his final concert each become the centrepiece of multiple compositions, many of which carry the symmetrical precision of Peter Greenaway’s films.
Of course, Greenaway was still sixteen years away from his cinema debut at this point though. Bergman’s actual influences here are incredibly diverse, appropriating the Technicolor vibrancy of Michael Powell’s mannered dramas, the heightened physical comedy of the Marx Brothers’ zany hijinks, and the formal self-reflexivity of Jean-Luc Godard’s genre deconstructions. Though a little subtler, the parody of Federico Fellini’s 8½ in All These Women is also notable. Both films share a dazzling Italian spa set and a postmodern critique of artistic egos, but Bergman’s strongest critique of the Italian filmmaker is directed at his relationship with women.
Much like Guido’s dream in 8½, Felix is surrounded by a harem of adoring female fans in All These Women, played by many of Bergman’s frequent collaborators including Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, and Bibi Andersson. There are seven in total, many bearing nicknames drawn from art history, Irish legend, and Christian theology. Bumblebee is his “official” mistress who takes an immediate liking to the foppish Cornelius, while Adelaide is his discontent wife, and Isolde is the flirty chambermaid. Filling out the rest of the female ensemble is Felix’s ageing patroness, his student protégé, his young cousin, and his piano accompanist, each serving their own clearly defined roles in his home, and collectively serving his outsized ego.
Though the imagery he crafts from his rigorous blocking of these women clearly indicates a director who has trained in the art of visual composition, it still possesses more of a still-life, painterly aesthetic than we have seen from Bergman before. Characters pose in tableaux of upper-class elegance around lounges, sculptures, and grand pianos, making for a brilliantly jarring contrast to his otherwise lowbrow humour. While the women gossip at the poolside surrounded by Greek-style columns and sculptures, Bergman ruptures a splendidly composed wide shot with Cornelius’ abrupt appearance in a swan-shaped pool float. The critic’s humiliation only intensifies when later pushed to dress in unconvincing drag, hoping that he might finally be granted audience if Felix believes there is a new woman on the estate. Even the musician’s graceful cello music has an incongruent counterpoint in the recurring instrumental motif of ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’, amusingly shifting musical styles with each new variation.
Still, for a director like Bergman with such powerful command over comedy and drama though, it is evident that he is not always playing to his strengths. Some of the film’s harshest critics will point to its sped-up chase scenes, overlong physical gags, and parts of Jarl Kulle’s exaggerated performance as evidence of the film’s messiness, and they aren’t entirely wrong. Even with the targets of Bergman’s satire in mind, much of this humour is far too clumsy.
When Bergman develops his comedy with a little more self-awareness though, he hits on something far more inspired. One could almost imagine Monty Python pulling off a similar trick when he cuts away from Bumblebee and Cornelius’ sex scene, flashes up title cards reading “To avoid censorship, the act of lovemaking is depicted as follows,” and segues into a tame, black-and-white ballroom dance. Similarly, when Cornelius accidentally sets off a box of seemingly unlimited pyrotechnics, Bergman is sure to inform us that “The fireworks should not be taken symbolically.”
There’s no doubt that this is among Bergman’s most formally experimental films to date, and by far his most playful. On a structural level he is often pulling his narrative in non-linear directions, and even chooses to open the film with the final scene of Felix’s funeral. His fate is thus sealed from the start and is seemingly confirmed when an assassination plot is revealed – ludicrously motivated, as it turns out, by Felix’s own desire to be executed for demeaning his art. When the time comes for his big radio concert where Adelaide will pull the trigger though, there is no need for murder. Felix anticlimactically dies of natural causes, leaving his women to mourn and Cornelius to conjecture the rest of his biography alone.
Even in death, this object of everyone’s worship is an obscure, mysterious figure. His face has been conveniently obscured the whole time, leaving a great deal to the imagination when each women sees his dead body and vaguely proclaims “He looks the same, and yet so different.” Perhaps each of them have conceived their own unique ideas of him, as when Cornelius begins reading his biography, none can agree on a single description.
Not that it really matters at this point. The arrival of a new cellist in the house immediately soaks up all the love, affection, and attention once reserved for Felix, thereby relegating him to the pages of Cornelius’ history book. That we never really knew a whole lot about the famed musician makes this a particularly smooth transition. In the conceited world of All These Women, men are but faceless idols cycling in and out of fashion, hiding with infatuated fanatics behind facades of highbrow culture. Through Bergman’s irreverent pastiche and mischievous mockery, at least one truth becomes absolutely evident – art has no real relevance to the narcissistic pretensions of artists.
All These Women is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.