Trespassing Bergman is not a film I can give a recommendation per se, but it falls into the strange grey area in reviewing documentaries, where the quality of the filmmaking is at odds with that of the content. It offers an infantilised, banal overview of Ingmar Bergman’s career and work and yet due to the sheer amount of talking heads involved still becomes a watchable, enjoyable film of sorts. For those people who consider auteurs like Michael Haneke and Claire Denis rockstar-type figures, and who spend hours reading up what Jean-Luc Godard thinks about the films of Kenji Mizoguchi and other equivalent forms cinephile tabloids, this will be enjoyable viewing, but by the same token, these will likely be precisely the same viewers annoyed by the film’s approach to Bergman, completely devoid of insight. On the other hand, for the completely uninitiated looking for a Bergman 101 documentary, they probably won’t be the people watching with glee as Haneke finds Bergman’s VHS copy of The Piano Teacher and other film geek incidents. So it’s worth seeing as trashy cinephile porn, but feels like cinematic candy with zero substance aside from some fun moments.
Its loose structure seems at odds with itself in the direction it’s going, and ends up as a bit of a scramble – on the one hand, we have these directors making pilgrimages to Bergman’s house (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu says that “if cinema is a religion, this is Mecca or the Vatican”) combined with a roughshod overview of Bergman’s “career”, which has been made into a crib note series of highlights of his ten or so most known films (one of the many unhelpful moments is that to the average viewer, the film implies that Fanny and Alexander was the last thing he ever made) that ends up being a fairly ineffective combination of both.
In lieu of narration, we are presented with large text to cover Bergman’s career, which are at best Wikipedia level facts, and at worst an absolutely banal mess, with terrible diction and frequent mistakes in grammar. One says that in one decade “Bergman’s work pace was insane” which reads as inappropriately casual, but worse still are paragraphs that will say “The Silence is one of his most analysed films” and the proceeding to offer zero analysis, and vague buzzwords like “his demons” are thrown around with no further information or context. One of the early paragraphs tells us that Bergman’s films are so great that they are often hard to talk about – I understand that sentiment on one level, but was shocked that it ends up being a disclaimer, as the film proceeds to not attempt to give any insight on his body of work. It’s a tribute to Bergman by people who don’t seem to know much about Bergman.
What the film banks on instead are its many, many special guests. The sheer variety of filmmakers who participate is testament to how wide Bergman’s astronomical influence really was – aside from the clear disciples like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, you have household names like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, and directors as idiosyncratic and varying as Wes Anderson, Wes Craven and Takeshi Kitano. You wonder why so many agreed to feature in such a low-rent, insufficient tribute to the master – Scorsese would talk at the opening of an envelope, but to see so many auteurs like this in one place does boggle the mind. Seeing them all talk about their experiences with his films does have a cumulative effect, however, most aren’t that revealing – it’s interesting seeing these artists talk about something they’re so passionate about, but there’s only so many times someone can say Bergman was their entry point into World Cinema without becoming tired, and unfortunately most are quite generic, rapturous reactions that don’t offer insight into Bergman’s work. The film seems to think that if it has enough people call Bergman a genius, and loudly enough, that it will end up convincing us of something. However, Bergman’s greatness isn’t seriously up for debate for most film buffs, and at a Film Festival especially it becomes a case of preaching to the choir – there’s just about nothing here that the average cinephile wouldn’t be able to rattle off the top of her head.
I’ve been harsh, if only because the film did have promise, and there are some moments that make the experience of watching it worthwhile. The filmmakers were smart enough to know that if they got enough of these fascinating directors into Bergman’s house and rolled the camera, moments of magic would appear. And they are there. Lars von Trier’s comments are worth the price of admission alone, and he has an early obscene monologue that needs to be heard to be believed. Similarly, directors going through Bergman’s enormous video collection is fascinating to watch, and unfortunately only a small part of the film – I could watch that for hours upon hours; and one of the lasting disappointments from the film is that I get the unshakeable feeling that there are many great scenes left on the cutting room floor in this vein which are better than most of what made the final edit. In any case, once these highlights are cut out of the film and put up as clips on YouTube with titles like “Lars von Trier discusses Bergman’s cock” or “Claire Denis freaked out by ghost of Bergman” we can move on and forget this film existed.
One of the film’s closing comments is by John Landis, who says that the greatness of films lies not in the ideas, but in the execution. This forms a particular irony for Trespassing Bergman, a film continually talking about how Bergman tackled the “big questions”, but with no interpretation or explanation of how, or even what that really means. This film has ideas – Bergman was great, influential, a genius, introduced concepts that had never been dealt with on film before – and never adequately executes them. Alongside Che strano chiamarsi Federico (which at least had charm in parts), it’s disappointing that an emerging sub-theme of the Festival is woefully inadequate tributes to legendary directors who defined world cinema over the last century. Here’s hoping Rohmer in Paris bucks the trend on Sunday.