Secrets of Women
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Waiting Women Ingmar Bergman is such an icon of international cinema that it's easy to forget the difficulties he went through at some stages in his career. One low point took place in the early 1950s, when he was reduced to directing TV commercials after the failure of his unconvincing 1950 thriller This Can't Happen Here at the box office. Then the Swedish film industry went on a 10-month strike, protesting a new government tax on motion pictures.
When the strike ended, Bergman signed a new studio contract and decided to revive his fortunes by making a comedy. Since he had never tried this genre before, he hedged his bet by writing a screenplay with multiple episodes, based on his wife's account of a memorable conversation she once had with female relatives during a summer vacation. "With great openness, [the women] spoke of their marriages and their loves," Bergman wrote in his 1994 memoir Images. "I thought this an excellent framework for a film consisting of three stories." The result was Secrets of Women, released in the American market as Secrets of Women, a slightly more tantalizing title. While most of the film concentrates on romantic drama, one episode is a smooth romantic comedy, and it's the best of the bunch.
The main characters are sisters-in-law gathered in a country house where their husbands (brothers from the Lobelius clan) are due to join them after returning from a trip. Chatting to pass the time and get better acquainted with one another, the women open up about their lives with surprising candor. Annette is the most discontented, feeling chronically neglected by her emotionally distant spouse. Rakel tells about an extramarital affair she had with an old flame and explains how her husband's reaction ultimately strengthened her marriage instead of wrecking it. Marta tells how her perspective on life and love was affected by her thoughts and memories under anesthesia during childbirth. In the comic segment that ends the main body of the film, Karin describes a night when she and her self-important husband were trapped in a malfunctioning elevator, transitioning from nervous anxiety to good-natured companionship in a space of a few hours. The movie concludes when Maj, the one waiting woman not already married, makes the momentous decision to run off with her lover.
Bergman has credited Alfred Hitchcock for influencing the elevator scene, stating that Hitchcock heightened his interest in filming long sequences in closely confined quarters. On a more personal level, the elevator episode was based on a past experience that Bergman described in his memoir. "My second wife and I decided to be reunited...after a marital row," he wrote. Returning to the apartment they were borrowing from some absent friends, he somehow broke the door key in the lock. As a result, they were "forced to sit up in the stairwell all night.... But the night was not wasted because we suddenly received an unexpected opportunity to really talk to each other. I made note of the fact that...herein lay the basis for a solid comedy situation." He was right. When the film opened, he recalled in the interview book Bergman on Bergman, "It was the first time in my life people had ever laughed at something I'd made." But he gave much of the credit to the stars of the story, Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand, who also appear in numerous other Bergman pictures, including the 1954 release A Lesson in Love, his first full-length comedy, and Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1955 classic that established Bergman as a world-class filmmaker.
Interestingly, the segment of Secrets of Women that Bergman took most pride in was the episode where Marta, played by Maj-Britt Nilsson in the last of her three Bergman appearances, gives birth while heavily anesthetized. The scene is strongly influenced by the work of Czech director Gustav Machatý, whose 1933 drama Ecstasy had made a powerful impression on Bergman as a teenager, and by the silent film expressionism of Victor Sjöström's 1921 fantasy The Phantom Carriage, Bergman's all-time-favorite movie. Bergman is legendary for his fascination with richly developed female characters, and Secrets of Women stands with the best efforts of his early career.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Producer: Allan Ekelund
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematographer: Gunnar Fischer
Film Editing: Oscar Rosander
Production Design: Nils Svenwall
Music: Erik Nordgren
With: Anita Björk (Rakel), Eva Dahlbeck (Karin), Maj-Britt Nilsson (Marta), Birger Malmsten (Martin Lobelius), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Lobelius), Karl-Arne Holmsten (Eugen Lobelius), Jarl Kulle (Kaj), Aino Taube-Henrikson (Annette), Håkan Westergren (Paul Lobelius), Gerd Andersson (Maj), Björn Bjelvenstam (Henrik Lobelius)
By David Sterritt