PRINT February 1969


Shame and Unstrap Me

IT’S ABOUT 6:30 IN THE MORNING and this pair, the woman all efficiency, trying to keep to a schedule, the husband always lagging behind, are loading lingonberries into a station wagon that has a funny brine like crust on its discouraging surface. The mood that encases these two, the wife trying to make a go of a failing farm operation, the husband becoming more and more of an isolationist (first he doesn’t want to get out of bed, then he wants to discuss his dream, finally he figures out that neither the radio nor the telephone needs to be fixed) is of one tiny exacerbation scraping against another. It’s a very nice scene: the scale is perfect; the fact that a dusty car, two crabby people and an unflourishing farmyard are in perfect alignment is only part of the feeling of serenity. There are no camera gimmicks or script dramatics to distract from the small chafings between a husband (before he takes a big dip in this picture, Von Sydow is an attractive, crotchety guy without the cocky sternness that narrowed his previous work) and a tough-practical farm wife (Liv Ullmann, very sophisticated but achieving an unselfconsciousness that makes her more woman than a movie can bear).

Shame is a thematically grim movie about a non-political couple, both violinists, who have been forced into farming by a civil war and a husband’s bad heart. Stranded by their lack of commitment, as the war moves into the front yard they sink first into a drunken, slothful existence, and then into the furthest reaches of despair and dishonor, until these quite decent and sensitive people become caricatures of misery; Von Sydow is now a calculating murderer and his woman a numb beast of burden.

There’s great tact and spareness in the way the Rosenbergs are initially presented: a still room at dawn, a woman with a beautiful volume to her body walks with her pajamas opened to the waist to the kettle, moving with an exciting, brisk, hard walk. Between this episode, where everything is quiet except the woman’s energy, and the scene on the ferry as the Rosenbergs head for their customers, a serenely satisfying cadence sets up as two large, entertainingly intelligent bodies chafe against each other.

No one has concentrated so hard as Ingmar Bergman on the principle of push pull as it is worked out by two people dependent on each other because of a lack of diversion or support from their surroundings. In Persona and Hour of the Wolf (a bomb), as well as in Shame, a fated duo is isolated on a craggy island, far away in the country. In Silence, a strangely sexy and physical movie with no man in it, a haggard fight for approval and love goes on between two sisters in a foreign hotel where no one speaks their language. In Winter’s Light, a snowbound rural district and a congregation that has its own problems are the purgatory for a stolid, uncommunicative minister and his plain, morbidly loyal mistress.

This setup, with two people inextricably bound together, both lovers and bitter enemies, at the same time each other’s sustenance and downfall, is similar to the one that characterizes Bergman as a moviemaker. His played down naturalism has picked up grace and elegance in his latest films, but each one presents a bleak arena, with two Bergmans entwined in a battle that never resolves itself. There’s so much lust for naturalism that it’s puzzling how he keeps being seduced into a soupy, pretentious symbolism where characters become anonymous in a charred landscape and sink leadenly into the pathos of a Kathe Kollwitz “despair” drawing.

Shame is a complicated, crazily plotted film that loses most of its development in a slot between the time that the Rosenbergs are rounded up as suspected collaborators and a Millet-like scene with exasperated Ullmann and her spouse digging for potatoes and being real bitter (“When this is all over, we’ll leave each other.”). During this slot that you don’t see, months in duration, the wife has become hopelessly miserable, estranged, and a compulsive drunk. The head man of the district (you guessed it: Gunnar Bjornstrand) is showering the couple with gasoline, special wine and cheese, his life savings and an heirloom ruby, and a speechless neighbor, who is on screen no more than thirty seconds, has metamorphosized from a kindly fisherman to a Resistance leader so powerful that in one crazy scene he has his men methodically break, slash and blowtorch every inch of the farmstead searching for a wad of money that was in Von Sydow’s pocket all the time. Even allowing for war working drastic changes on people, the two protagonists are never credible again: a man who couldn’t kill a chicken to fill his pot becomes a shrewd killer who carries around a tommy gun and a knapsack full of stray knives; his wife, who starred first as the most fetching body-face-spirit since Ann Dvorak, develops a droopy mouth, a Neanderthal forehead, and the piggy, sunk in mud features of a sow.

Unstrap Me is a good title for a crushingly repetitious series of starts, a diary about a millionaire wheeler-dealer named Bojo Wurlitzer who is in pursuit of his dream: a big strong woman to love him. Except for a poetically shot section around Cape Cod, winter shots of the lakes in Truro, a car’s headlights like a bug in the night, and this wanderluster—Wagnerian, avuncular, shuffle-footed—nearly running his car over a Swedish girl in a scuba suit, each episode is slackly developed, with garish honky-tonk Pop Art photography, and a feeling of indulgence but not much invention.

Pretty Poison is a fresh, exuberantly paced low-budgeter, just as though the Bonnie and Clyde of Penn’s movie were born thirty years later. Most of the scenes of the earlier hit are paralleled: the first impression of Tuesday Weld is of her tantalizing young legs, the first fateful meeting is at a hot dog stand, and the soft notion is cleverly and quickly Demy-planted that two teenaged sadists can be lovable, arrive at womanhood or manhood in crime, and bloom and become mythical in a slapstick arty crime career. Weld’s low-key, understated version of the cornflakes American girl is good, but it’s Tony Perkins’ nice virtuoso-ish acting that keeps the movie mysterious for a while. It’s not good on the residents of Great Barrington but it is perceptive on the mill, service station, and entrance into town.

Manny Farber