Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 27min
The romantic dreams that young model Doris and her agent Susanne each chase down in the city of Gothenburg are blindly hinged on the belief that men are not inherently disappointing creatures. Both women are separated in age by about a decade or so, and the gap in maturity shows. While Doris thoughtlessly breaks up with her boyfriend and passionately launches herself into a new affair with the first man to shower her with affection, Susanne slowly unravels as she rides into the city where an old flame resides. Lights from outside the carriage pass rhythmically across her sweaty face, we follow her rapidly shifting gaze between ‘open’ and ‘shut’ signs, and as she mutters an apprehensive resolution to “see him,” Ingmar Bergman maps out the psychological terrain of her anxious, compulsive desire.
Dreams arrived in 1955 a mere two years before Bergman’s major breakthroughs The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and though critical praise was lukewarm at the time, within it are sure signs of a maturing artistic voice moving towards a higher level of filmmaking. The first five minutes of this film are spent in the wordless silence of Susanne’s modelling studio – fresh prints are brought to the agency owner, an assistant lights her cigarette, and finally Doris arrives on set, where the photographer arranges her in elegant poses. It is especially one fat man’s lustful, impatient finger tapping which breaks through Bergman’s subdued sound design of luxurious lounge music and ruffling clothes, creating an atmosphere which begs for escape from its own stifled repression. It is only when Susanne and Doris arrive in Gothenburg on their work trip though that any sort of catharsis starts to feel tangible.
This is not a film about the bond between two women though. Bergman keeps them separate throughout most of Dreams, alternating between their parallel stories. His visual compositions are precise and considerate, especially in the constant presence of reflections around Doris as she gazes through shop windows and lets herself be swept away by Gunnar Björnstrand’s wealthy middle-aged consul, Otto. Mirrors follow her into the dressmaker’s shop where he buys her a new gown too, inviting her into his superficial, material world, and she returns the affection as she takes him out to an amusement park. There, Bergman fixes his camera to rollercoasters and spinning rides, letting it fly in manic movements and cutting its footage up into violent montages within a ghost train. While she screams with delight, he is visibly queasy, and though he regains his composure upon taking her home to his giant manor, that uneasy dynamic soon returns.
This time though, Otto’s reservations seem to stem from quiet guilt rather than nausea. A painting of his wife on the wall bears significant resemblance to Doris, but she has been dead for some time now, according to him. When a third party enters the scene, it comes as a surprise – Otto’s daughter’s entrance is framed in a doorway that Doris is peering through, and she immediately launches into a disdainful chastisement of her father’s arrogance.
“You disgust me. I find you ridiculous and repulsive.”
Otto’s wife is not dead, as it turns out, but in a psychiatric hospital he refuses to visit. He is stingy with spending money on his own family, but apparently not on Doris. “Lust overcame tightness this time. It’s a laughable sight,” his daughter derisively proclaims, before quickly realising that he has even gifted her valuable family jewellery. For the first time, there is cold detachment in Bergman’s blocking, poignantly facing Otto and Doris out a window before she awkwardly departs with the realisation she has walked in on a sad, wounded family, and pulled them even further apart.
At least Doris has the excuse of naïve youth behind her though. With Susanne’s extra years of experience, she should know exactly what she is walking back into with her old lover, Henrik. For a time, she dances around the decision, silently passing through forests where she spies on his home, and eventually making the call to meet up. Once again, Bergman chooses to carry this stretch of storytelling without dialogue, absorbing us in elegantly composed shots which themselves become expressions of her silent emotional journey.
The contrast between the Susanne we see in these lonely moments and the woman in control of a modelling agency is quite striking. When Doris misses a shoot, Susanne proves herself to be a harsh, assertive woman, though evidently one simply using this severe demeanour as a cover for her own insecurities. Deep down she is “sick with hatred” for Henrik’s wife, even wishing her dead, and yet this intense loathing frightens her. The further we get into Dreams, the more this seemingly confident woman is layered with internal conflicts.
Quite essential to our reading of Susanne’s vulnerability is also the ways Bergman lights close-ups to perfection, especially his dimming of the backlight to emphasise the contours of each expression passing across her face during her rendezvous with Henrik. For a brief time, she is swept away by his romance and invitation to join him in Oslo for a work trip, though such fantasies are short-lived with the arrival of his shrewd, perceptive wife. Her words are cutting – there is no substance to this man whatsoever. He is lazy and tired, and any illusions one might have about carrying on affair with him would be quickly destroyed by his own inability to commit to anyone. Henrik meekly lingers in the background of this scene, framed right between the two women, and with this succinct visual blocking, Bergman definitively proves his inadequacy.
Dreams is bookended with a return to the modelling studio it started in, signalling a withdrawal to the ordinary lives Doris and Susanne have always known, and effectively putting an end to those far-flung fantasies suggested in its title. Even here though, Bergman continues to draw a brilliant formal contrast between these two heartbreaks, letting the wildly emotional Doris emerge with renewed optimism and love for her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Susanne is driven further into her cynicism, tearing up Henrik’s apology letter and re-invitation to meet him in Oslo. She has evidently been in Doris’ situation before and forgotten how deeply this misery could cut her. Perhaps this is just part of life’s cycles though, Bergman posits, leading both young adults and their older, wiser counterparts down the same paths of inevitable disappointment.
Dreams is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.