waiting women (1952)
Our indiscretions that we rarely speak of are better aired and spoken of, posits Bergman with Waiting Women. Longing is the ultimate torment and to give in is only natural, it’s the burying of the act that causes all to go awry, and the film opens on a group of sisters-in-law as they begin to process of purging their deeds to one another. Maybe it will be cathartic, maybe it will be embarrassing, maybe it will even give them healing and bond of closeness to last the rest of their days. Maybe. The resulting film is a scattershot mix of storylines that play like short films unto themselves, Waiting Women is more a loosely connected series of short stories and none of which have the merit to stand on their own. Each of the short films (3 in all, plus some connective tissue in the form of a few scenes around a table and a minor subplot taking place in our present), gets progressively more appealing as the film continues, however the film really does flounder for most of the runtime. As in all Bergman, however, we have a master craftsman at the helm to keep things intriguing, and at the very least, cinematically inventive and formally arresting. The film’s final story sequence of an aging couple trapped in an elevator brings out the best in the work, it is at turns humorous and heartfelt, the most mature of the three stories and the most resonant. Above all, the film has a sense of resigned indifference to the melodrama that seeps from the pores of so many of Bergman’s early works.
There is innovation and beauty on the part of the maestro, there are passages of film here that take on an other-worldy quality, hints of what would come later in the more surreal 1960’s work, just rough ideas shown here. In particular is the sequence in the film’s second story piece, Marta’s courtship and subsequent childbirth. Her lover is never fully seen in frame until the moment they connect, instead inhabiting reflections, his hand entering frame, his written notes, etc. When Marta goes to meet him finally in the hall of her apartment , a darkness at the other end, a hand emerges; it is these images that should be used for actual other-worldly encounters and here are used for realist melodrama. The sequences are unique and fascinating in their own right, but not employed to the greatest effect, the film ultimately falls flat in many places. The sense of longing is what lingers on in each of the segments, longing that another human being will care for us, and be devastated by what devastates us, elate with us when we are happy and feel the cold retribution of our punishment and ire when they wrong us. Longing hangs in the air around the entire film, each of the couples long for one another, to be the support and the ‘home’ in one another’s lives, the women desire to find harmony with their men and vice versa. It is the impossibility of keeping their appetites in check when it comes to fidelity that eludes our heroine of the first chapter, drawn back into the arms of a childhood lover. That the relationship survives the affair and the subsequent confession is due, in Bergman’s terms, to a change in their role playing, the wife now seeing her husband as a child she must protect, rather than the man who must protect her. It is with similar role reversal that each couple finds new terms to continue their relationships to their husbands, roles that don’t at all match what they set out for when the romance began.
The most effective episode is also the episode that reveals, once again, Bergman’s mastery of human behavior when in a chamber. It is the private moments that he grasps and spreads across the celluloid like no one else can, and in no place is it more evident than the elevator sequence. In the public space of the party, one interaction, the gloves begin to come off in the car, and suddenly, when the couples life is derailed (as it is for the other two couples in the other stories) they begin to finally be honest with one another. What Waiting Women captures so well is this feeling of keeping a status quo in life, only to have a moment of privacy with a partner result in confession. and closeness. The women, as they wait for their husbands exchange just this type of closeness and only they can understand one another’s private moments in a way that their husbands cannot. Bergman brings us these moments in earnest, though none compels above a brief and momentary interest. Bergman’s film is full of fleeting moment with hints of grand statements, but as the curtain falls we are left without much. Waiting Women is the seeds of something greater just around the corner in the career of the auteur, but this assortment of ideas, is just that, a sampling of tastes that never coalesce into substance.