Rightwing Film Geek

Dour Scandinavians update (1)

Last week, Sven Nykvist one of the great cinematographers — if not the greatest — died. And there’s the trailer Bilge put up to Ingmar Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF (just about the most important Bergman-Nykvist collaboration I *haven’t* seen)

His work was inevitably tied to that of the great director Ingmar Bergman, with whom he shot about two dozen films. But he also worked with other Scandinavians, shooting the Liv Ullmann-directed KRISTIAN LAVRANSDATTER (which I have not seen, shame on me), and Lasse Hallstrom’s WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, plus works by such important American directors as Philip Kaufman (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING) and Woody Allen (several titles; the best-known being CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS). And let’s just say I hope he was well-compensated and put his kids through college for lensing MIXED NUTS.

But for a measure of Nykvist virtuosity, look at these shots from UNBEARABLE — how he adapted Bergman’s close-up heavy style to produce two iconic sexual presences (Lena Olin in the hat; Juliette Binoche with the camera; both in their English-language debuts) yet could also make convincing fake “newsreel” footage of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

But probably his important non-Bergman related work was when exiled Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky came to Sweden to make THE SACRIFICE. In Chris Marker’s documentary ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVITCH, we see the two collaborating despite neither speaking the other’s language. It’s another measure of his brilliance that Nykvist was able to get the kind of images that made Tarkovsky Tarkovsky — an oversaturated but dirty lushness in the nature shots, e.g. Just as he got the kind of images that made Bergman Bergman — a bold chiaroscuro in the overcast pearl-gray Swedish light in the black-and-white movies; a mercilessly bright, decadent and pastel-free hues in the color ones. Two movies in that latter category — CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER — won Nykvist his two Oscars.

For an example, look at this shot from AUTUMN SONATA. As I said about the Thai director “Joe” having a distinctive look to his films based on the lighting near the Equator, the Swede Nykvist seemed to work best when working with soft, diffused light in nature and a harsh interior contrast. Every time I see CRIES AND WHISPERS (one of my 10 all-time faves), I get a physical chill down my spine and goose flesh all over when we get the outdoor scene that ends the movie — so different in feel, look, breath and ultimately hope from everything that went before it.

Nykvist did direct one film of his own — THE OX, an early starring role for Stellan Skarsgard, with Bergman vets Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow in significant supporting parts. Sweden submitted THE OX as its entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and it did nab one of the five nominations, but lost to Italy’s MEDITERRANEO, a film I have neither seen nor ever heard a good word about (Gilligan’s Island with subtitles and a more-bosomy Ginger, it looks like). But 15 years after seeing it, I have nothing but fond memories of THE OX — dour, but so superbly acted (how it could not be) and classically structured. Nykvist also made it just *look* so right, without being showy or overly pretty or ostentatiously ugly. But THE OX is not like Bergman or even Tarkovsky in that plays out according to the moral framework of a traditional Christian-era tragedy. There’s little of Bergman’s existential Angst, and none at all of Tarkovsky’s Orthodox Holy-Fool-ism. To be perfectly frank, sitting before my computer now, I only have good memories of THE OX, and can’t recall why I only graded it a “7,” except maybe that I thought of it as “Bergman-lite,” given who all was involved in making it. I’m not engaging in “speak no ill of the dead,” I don’t think — I may need to take a look at it again.


Stills from UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and AUTUMN SONATA from Matthew Dessem at The Criterion Contraption.

September 28, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment