“Exquisite” is only the first word that surges in my mind as an appropriate description of Elvira Madigan, a Swedish film by Bo Widerberg that was put on at the late show in Philharmonic Hall last night. For exquisite it is in all the lovely and delicate sense of the word as used to define the felicities of sensuous experience.
Its color is absolutely gorgeous — as gorgeous as any color photography I’ve ever seen — and beautifully used to fashion and convey the atmosphere of its theme. Its countryside scenes in Denmark, its shots of faces and furnishings of Old World farms, its sheer compositions of food and flora are immediately recollective of Renoir—and I mean not only Augustin, but also his cinema-artist son, Jean.
Likewise, the use of music and, equally eloquent, of silences and sounds, such as bird songs and bee hums and chicken cackles that convey the countryside, is beyond verbal description. It must be heard—or not heard—to be enjoyed.
Exquisite is only the first word to describe this exceptional film. There are others—poetic and sensitive, compassionate and humane, poignant and eventually heartbreaking in its resolution of a universal dilemma of star-crossed lovers. For its story is that of a couple having a runaway love affair. He’s a Swedish cavalry lieutenant who has left his wife and two children to go off with a beautiful young circus performer—a tightrope walker. The time is long ago—back in the eighteen-eighties. And the issue is simply that of abandonment of social responsibility and defiance of moral convention, all for intoxicating love.
Memorial stone in the Neorreskov (forest) at Taasinge, placed on the alleged spot where Elvira Madigan and Sixten Sparre ended their lives
This is compellingly intruded as the picture goes along, moving from moods of carefree rapture, as the runaways sport in open fields, chase butterflies and lightly cut the military buttons off the young man’s coat, to more somber moods as they are accidentally discovered and have to flee farther and farther on, wilting under economic pressure and the necessity of abandoning their identities. And it is ultimately presented as the crucial and determining issue of their lives.
To be sure, it is an old-fashioned story, romantic and filled with sentiment of the sort that is aptly expressed in the eloquence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, which is used as the major musical theme. But so brash and immature are the lovers, so confident and gay are they at first, and then so shaken and helpless are they as their idyll is remorselessly dissolved, that they do bear a wistful resemblance to some of the florid young people of today who might hold with the young man in this story that “a blade of grass is all the world.”
Pia Degermark, Bo Widerberg, and Thommy Berggren at a press conference in Stockholm on April 20, 1967
The performances are perfect—that is the only word. Thommy Berggren, who played the poignant hero in Mr. Widerberg’s Raven’s End, which was shown at the New York Film Festival two years ago, is reflective of all the subtle changes in the charming but weak young man who has to come to a decision. And Pia Degermark, a breathtakingly beautiful blonde, captures all the adoration and dignity of the girl.
Mr. Widerberg fulfills his promise as a director of great sensitivity and skill in this beautiful film…
— Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (link)
Bo Widerberg on location
The first time I saw Elvira Madigan when it came out in 1967 I actually didn’t think it was anything special. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Bo Widerberg at that time couldn’t open his mouth without saying something disparaging about me. We had practically never met. But he wrote a book where he aggressively attacked me and I could never understand why. I actually thought he was an extremely good director, not for theatre but for film. I sawElvira Madigan again last summer when the newly restored version was ready and I saw it was a masterpiece. It is a film that is alive at each moment.
— Ingmar Bergman (link)
Interview with Bo Widerberg
Roger Ebert / December 17, 1967
STOCKHOLM – Even when he is not behind a camera, Bo Widerberg is a director, concerned with the arrangements of things. He takes a dinner knife and draws boundaries on the table cloth, and then he divides the wine glasses and bread plates into groups related somehow to the lines he has drawn.
There is no pattern to this. But that does not matter because dinner is over anyway, and Widerberg does not notice that his hands are occupied. He is talking with great energy and in rapid English about his new film, Elvira Madigan.
Widerberg, at 37, has directed four other films, but this is the first to have success overseas. Within Sweden, he is considered the best of the young directors, but outside he has always had to labor in the shadow of Ingmar Bergman’s international reputation.
Widerberg’s Raven’s End (1965), a success at the New York Film Festival and even an Oscar nominee, was never distributed nationally in the U.S. But Elvira Madigan has changed the pattern and may establish Widerberg as a hero of younger filmgoers, who identify more quickly with Godard’s brisk irreverence than with Bergman’s theology. After great success in New York, it will open its second U.S. engagement at the Playboy Theater on Friday.
Elvira Madigan, as every Swedish school child can tell you, was a beautiful young tightrope performer who, in the summer of 1899, abandoned her family circus to run away with Count Sixten Sparre. He, in turn, deserted from the Army and left behind a wife and two children. For a summer they lived happily, and when their funds were exhausted in the autumn, they went on a final picnic and committed suicide.
Their story has been close to the hearts of the Swedes ever since and there is a famous ballad about Elvira:
She was dainty, sweet and tender,
She was pretty as a jewel;
Neat her foot, her waist was slender,
But, alas, her fate was cruel.
The story of the young lovers was first made into a Swedish movie 20 years ago. But Widerberg wanted to tell it in modem terms, and he has. Like Bonnie and Clyde (which, curiously enough, it resembles very much), Elvira Madiganworks by juxtaposing visual beauty and temporary happiness with a strong sense of approaching tragedy.
For Elvira, Widerberg wanted an unknown actress, and discovered Pia Degermark, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, in a newspaper picture showing her dancing with Sweden’s crown prince. (“Traditionally it’s supposed to work the other way around,” Widerberg observed, “and it’s the crown prince who’s supposed to discover the girl in the paper.”)
Miss Degermark is a fragile blond who looks both worldly enough to have a love affair and naive enough to have an impossibly idealistic one. Widerberg directed her mostly by talking over each scene thoroughly and then shooting it without rehearsal, and for her first film role, Miss Degermark won this year’s Best Actress Award at Cannes.
For Sixten, Widerberg choose Thommy Berggren, a well known Stockholm stage actor who has appeared in all his films. Since the cast for almost all the scenes consisted only of the two lovers, and since the legend was so well established that a script seemed unnecessary, Widerberg decided to use a small production crew and simply go out on location into Sweden and Denmark, improvising the scenes more or less in order as locations suggested themselves and shooting only with natural light.
His method works beautifully. We first see the lovers through the eyes of a little girl (Widerberg’s daughter) who is chasing butterflies through a meadow when she stops, astonished by the sight of the couple. Elvira takes Sixten’s jacket and removes the brass Army buttons and gold braid from it, and not a word is necessary.
In other scenes, the lovers dip wild berries into a bucket of cream, drift slowly in a rowboat, make love in the afternoon and resolutely ignore the reality of their situation. When one of Sixten’s friends tracks the couple down and reminds him of his family, the lovers argue that there are times at which love is really the only thing that matters. The only thing. When the suicide comes at the end, it is consistent with their romantic monomania.
“My method was to allow Pia and Thommy all the time they wanted for each scene,” Widerberg said. “They could take long pauses before each line. Then I edited the pauses out of the film without losing the clear sense that each scene was played as a whole. I also wanted them to experience personally some of the things that were happening to the characters they were playing.”
Miss Degermark, who was also interviewed, remembered with a smile her introduction to Widerberg’s theory. “On the first day of shooting, we were to do the love scene,” she said. “I had not acted before, of course, and I was nervous. More importantly, Bo believed we could not do a convincing love scene if we, as actors, were complete strangers. So he told Thommy and me to go off into the woods and kiss for half an hour, to develop a certain intimacy.”
Widerberg smiled and said, “The story is true, but perhaps it should not be told. Stories like that never sound just right. But how could I expect them to kiss in front of the cameras if they were completely unknown to each other?”
At a time when most Hollywood movies require a production crew of more than 150 persons, Widerberg made his entire film with only eight people: the two actors, himself and five technicians.
“We used a hand-held camera a great deal of the time, trying for an effect of realism,” he said. “In fact, I was trying to pretend, in a way, that we were a television crew and that we were ‘covering’ the love story as if it were a news event. I know that sounds ridiculous.”
Despite its low production cost, Elvira Madigan is a film of great beauty. Newsweek called it the most beautiful film ever made, and so taken was Bosley Crowther of the New York Times that he has allowed his review to be read, in toto, as the film’s “coming attraction.”
Emily Genauer of Newsday has discovered that many of Widerberg’s scenes are composed as copies of familiar paintings by the French impressionists. Among the paintings she has “found” in the film are Seurat’s Sunday at the Grand Jatte, Renoir’s Boating Party at Chatou and in one of the picnic scenes, Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. The musical score is also immediately familiar; it is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.
“We did all that deliberately,” Widerberg said. “We had a very stiff surface created by the costumes, the nostalgia and a plot told in a ballad every child can sing by heart. So we began by emphasizing the surface and playing up the romance. Here is the story of two young people who abandon all responsibility and live entirely for the moment. And they are happy, for the moment. But gradually the surface begins to break, and underneath it the audience begins to sense a cold wind blowing.”
Although he had not seen Bonnie and Clyde when he was filming, Widerberg agreed that his film shares its irony. “It is an irony based on time,” he said. “To begin with, the audience must know the story. It is important that American audiences know who Bonnie and Clyde were, and what end they came to, just as Swedes know of Elvira and Sixten. Then, while the characters live entirely in the moment, the story itself rushes to a tragic conclusion. Death is waiting there at the end, and its presence colors all the happy moments that come before.”