a lesson in love (1954)
Bergman’s lesson holds the three phases of love in a man’s life: the wife, the daughter and the mistress. A Lesson in Love is a perfect farce, succeeding in lampooning all of our deep desires and regrets in love, the relations we hold, the relations we held, and the ones we never should have given up. As the film progresses, we see our lead in various remembrances of the women in his life. Bergman holds the reveal of his wife for late in the picture’s runtime and only after we have seen her introduced unbeknownst to us as the conquest of prize between two competing males. Much in the same way did their relationship form and evolve, and as they go in so do they go out. The wife returns to her former lover and our good doctor moves into conquests of patients and admirers. Bergman’s penchant for the chamber is in full effect in the film’s structure as we’re whisked form one chamber to another be it the doctor’s office quarters or the car he departs in to the train car. In one-on-one scenarios with the women of his world he encounters challenges of the heart as those around him go through their own dilemmas. It is Bergman’s narrative unfolding that provide the comedy and the effectiveness here, as we are slowly introduced to each scenario we are given a deeper picture, and the deeper we see the more amusing it all becomes until the film’s final moments when all farce is realized. In A Lesson in Love, Bergman does well to place us amongst the dance of love, our two lovers locked in eternal devotion, and the only ones in the film who do so.
The wry wit of Bergman’s execution here is the true centerpiece of the film, the movements of parry and joust on the part of our central couple and the unsatisfied desires of the lustful they encounter in life, at work, on the train. For our lesson in love, we see love as a complete devotion of the soul for some, others as sport, something to bet money on the conquest and victory of. The grandiosity of Bergman’s play here is the complete nature of the relationship he presents. The lovers are obsessed with one another after all these years, preoccupied by the other, entranced by the other and yet their physical ties to the other wear thin. They desire more, some new excitement in love, all the while realizing that a vacation from the relationship could result in disaster, yet pursing the impulse anyhow. In their questioning of love itself and who to spend life with, they bite at one another in a series of quarrels and dialogues that are at once the delicious culmination of so much pent up romance in the characterization. How much of our lesson in love is chemical? As Nix, the daughter of our main character expresses dissatisfaction and anger toward a friend whom she regards as against her. We later find out that the extent of the betrayal is only that the friend has gone through puberty faster and earlier than Nix and is now worried only about showing her skin and attracting a man. In a nod to the complexity of the human desire to not be shut out, Nix expresses her desires to become a man as a response. This is where Bergman’s film hits its stride, as we see that the people involved simply do not want to lose their connections in life, and when they do, they resort either backward to old connections or onward to whatever new face comes their way.
Bergman’s comedy of emotion is light and life-affirming, it is gorgeous in its intimacy and devilish in its comedy. Bergman’s visuals eventually give way to a dreamscape, our lovers in flashback wandering the woods near his parents house sharing a cigarette that she is in charge of, perhaps these were woods he played in as a boy, and now they are committing their life to one another all over again in them. Love as a series of renewals, of rebirths and moments that reactivate the lust one felt when all was new. How is it that we can be loyal, possessive and absolutely devoted to one while in their arms, and moments later, out of sight, they have vanished from our thoughts as we pursue another? The ebb and flow of life, as we reach old age, and on into the necessary trivial white lies of keeping a relationship intact. Could it be that the short-term desires of men and women can oft overlap and yet it’s the long-term desires that always come to odds? Bergman takes us through a journey that is as comedic as it is poignant and filled with an incredible assortment of moments that connect with an audience. It is made up almost entirely of these moments, and the screenplay speaks to the joys and jealousies of our trysts. One of the most effective films of his early career, A Lesson in Love sets the stage for what’s to come, and brings us a welcome dose of comedy in Bergman’s career. As husband and wife play cat and mouse, we are amused, and when the film unites them, we find an affirmation of the necessity of life’s partners in all their ups and downs.