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Posted by martinteller on May 26, 2013

Arnolphe (Allan Edwall) is a cynical old misogynist.  He mocks the husbands whose wives cheat on them, and believes that a stupid woman makes the ideal mate, since she is too dumb to know about deception.  With this in mind, he’s taken Agnes (Lena Nyman) under his wing.  When she was just 5 years old, he took her as his ward and had her placed in a convent school where her ignorance and innocence would be maintained.  Now she’s of age and he’s ready to marry her.  However, he learns that she’s been visited by Horace (Stellan Skarsgård), the dashing young son of an old friend of Arnolphe’s.  Horace is madly in love with her, and she would rather marry him instead of Arnolphe.  Now Arnolphe has to keep Agnes under strict control and learn what he can from Horace about his intentions… without tipping the fact that he’s the one keeping them apart.

The director Alf Sjöberg was in the middle of rehearsals of his production of Molière’s “School for Wives” when he unfortunately suffered a heart attack and perished.  Ingmar Bergman — whose first screenplay (Torment) was directed by Sjöberg — took up the reins, and also produced this televised version.  So although it’s listed as a Bergman film on IMDb, I reckon much of the credit actually belongs to Sjöberg.  I know Bergman praised his work on it (calling it “playful, composed, dark, unsentimental”) so I imagine he remained very true to the intentions of the original director.

It is indeed “playful, composed, dark, unsentimental”… a wickedly funny farce.  Arnolphe never learns any lessons, he remains a cad until the very end.  It’s a marvelous performance by Edwall, a frequent player in Bergman’s films and plays.  He’s very amusing.  Whether it’s verbal or physical comedy, he gives it his all.  Nyman is a delight as well, playing a girl half her age very convincingly.  Agnes starts out as a dimbulb, but love teaches her a few things.  She learns to deceive out of necessity, but it’s not something she relishes doing.  She remains as guileless as she can afford to be.  Skarsgård is a lot of fun too, as are Björn Gustafson and Ulla Sjölbom as Arnolphe’s servants, who learn to bully him as much as he bullies them.  It’s a marvelous cast, and I can’t think of anything wrong with their performances.

The production is very true to the theater… Arnolphe frequently makes asides to the audience, there are only three sets and there’s little attempt to make them look “convincing”.  But it’s not really a distraction or detriment.  Perhaps I’m losing my prejudice against “stagey” productions… but I think it’s more that I was just so charmed by the actors and the comedy that I wasn’t at all concerned with how “cinematic” it was.

Sjöberg deserves at least some of the credit and Molière probably deserves most of it, so I’ll give my kudos to them as well as Bergman and the fine group of actors for such a witty and fun experience.  A little overlong, perhaps, but the bulk of it is quite enjoyable (and the few ribald sight gags never come off as either too juvenile or too mannered).  Rating: Very Good (82)


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