Friday, June 15, 2007

Port of Call (1948)

Decent but flawed early work from Ingmar Bergman, back when he was still pushing his way through the structures of Swedish melodrama. In many ways, it's a step forward from Crisis -- his framing and visual storytelling can be seen to gain confidence here. An example is the early dancehall sequence where sailor Gösta first meets troubled young woman Berit; as they join together and begin their vertical flirtation, Bergman has the extras crowd around and frames the shots extra-tight so as to emphasize the sweaty overcloseness and discomfort one feels when waltzing across a floor with a person you met not five minutes earlier, and this physical awkwardness ties in with the themes of sexual angst that pop up later. There's also a fight scene, uncharacteristic for the director, that's really well handled, all clumsy blows and thrashing attempts at wounding nearby adversaries. It's a shame, then, that this burgeoning filmmaker is let down by his material -- Bergman, who also helped to adapt this from a novel by credited writer Olle Länsberg, does what he can to bring intelligence and sensitivity to this stock melodrama, and he almost makes it fly. The first two acts have a looseness that makes it feel like the characters are living lives instead of having life happen to them (the remarkable sexual frankness, honest without being explicit, helps); unfortunately, the third act, hinging as it does around an abortion performed on a minor character, allows the more overblown and less interesting aspects previously held in check to overwhelm the narrative. It's fine to have Berit say, "Books just make things worse," allowing us to mentally fill in the idea that intelligence and knowledge don't stave off loneliness, but to have Berit scrawl "LONELY" on a mirror in lipstick (as she does about fifteen minutes in) is overstating things. That's the level on which the third act is pitched, and it mars an otherwise-fine film. As such, it's an important developmental step, but its imperfections keep it at the level of a curiosity. Self-Reflex Dept.: Certainly there's some perverse humor at work when this most morose of directors has Gösta tell Berit, "Your lack of optimism is fascinating."

Grade: B-


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