In 1958 in the United States, Dick Van Dyke was four years away from sleeping in a separate bed from his wife. American sensibilities were too tender to the notion that a husband and wife might share a bed. Meanwhile, in Sweden, Ingmar Bergman was busy making a movie about miscarriage, Brink of Life. Ah, those wacky Europeans. Watching Bergman work is really breathtaking at times. This is one of those times. Fresh off of the success of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, Bergman took to the maternity ward for his next topic. The subject matter is pure Bergman- a trio of independent women, void of solace from their husbands, deal with pregnancy and miscarriage.
The three actresses- Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson- weave magic by giving life to their characters’ individual plights. In fact, all three (plus Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, the maternity ward nurse) won the Best Actress award at Cannes that year. Thulin’s character gives an excruciating and painful monologue early in the film, rationalizing her miscarriage away as being caused by her husband’s lack of love for her. It’s really quite powerful. Later, Dahlbeck illustrates her character’s own miscarriage by mimicking a newborn, crying out with a shrill mournful wail and clenching her fists. Her performance is every bit as stirring as Thulin’s.
Bergman punctuates the film with his own flair. Characters cry out to a silent God to explain their tragedies. The otherwise banal cries of newborns are used to horrific effect shortly before Andersson’s character proclaims that children are “detestable and loathsome”. Plastic, lifeless infant dolls early in the film foreshadow the coming plot.
Moreover, the dialogue is precisely what turns “Ingmar Bergman, Swedish Director” into “INGMAR BERGMAN!”. As you can imagine in a film with such weighty subject matter, the dialogue chills right to the bone. There’s such an economy and grace to it. There are no wasted lines. Similarly, Bergman’s use of the camera- with slow pans and incredible close-ups- is equally economical. The film’s plot is the story of three women in a maternity ward, dealing with their pregnancies, their miscarriages, and their loveless marriages. You witness the story of all three of these women completely. Their character arcs are full, complete. It took Bergman 88 minutes to weave the tale, and you don’t feel robbed in the least.
With any luck, one day Criterion will pick up this film. It deserves a better release, with extras. It came right as Bergman was reaching his prime. Obviously, it never made it “big”, so to speak, in the U.S. because the subject matter would’ve scared off a skittish film-going public. But we’re well beyond the time to fix that.