Port of Call

by mikeyzjames

Bergman #2: Port of Call (1948)

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This is a real mess of a film. Generally, the film follows Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson), a depressed young girl who falls in love with Gösta (Bengt Eklund) after a one night stand. She has some baggage and his spent most her teens living in a reformatory school. The film follows the couple as they try to deal with her history.

Bergman is throwing a lot of strands on the screen, but none of them are really followed through in a meaningful way. It is at turns a film about suicide and depression, masculinity, sexism, abortion, parenting, and governmental control. Some of these ideas seem quite progressive for the time, particularly the ways Bergman approaches the role of women in contemporary society and abortion. These are probably the strongest elements in the film [and the sequence dealing with Gertrud’s (Mimi Nelson) botched abortion is easily the most compelling in the film].

One issue is perhaps cultural. The root of Berit’s problems stem from her time in reformatory school. Even though she’s no longer there, it seems like the school still has some legal control over her (sort of like she’s on parole), and things like sleeping around are grounds to getting sent back. I have no real concept of how this system works, so I was confused on the narrative problems she runs into. It also makes it very difficult to gauge how old this character is supposed to be. More than likely, someone over the age of 18 couldn’t still be restricted by the state in this way, yet she’s in love with a 29 year-old, which would raise all kinds of other issues. For a 1948 Swedish audience, this probably wasn’t a confusing thing, so the baggage here is mine.

The other issue is a lack of subtlety. The film begins with Berit attempting suicide, which should be enough to cue us in. But in one particularly eye-rolling sequence, she stares mournfully at a mirror. She picks up a tube of lipstick and draws a sad face with the word “lonely” under it on the mirror. In another sequences, Gösta gets really drunk and throws himself around a hotel room melodramatically in a way that goes against everything we’ve seen from the man thus far. Kudos to Bergman for tackling such huge issues, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

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There are some themes that seem to carry over from Crisis, particularly the way Bergman navigates parent-child relationships. Here, the root of Berit’s pain stems from her parents’ quarrelsome marriage and the relationship between Berit and her mother. In particular, Berit’s mother is completely incapable of empathizing with her daughter and resorts to caustic remarks and threats of turning her in to the reform school. In Crisis, the root of the “crisis” was whether Nelly was going to choose to live with her real mother Jenny or her adopted mother Ingeborg. Although the choice seemed clear, Jenny’s promise of luxury and excitement held more sway than Ingeborg’s simple love and affection. With these two films, Bergman seems particularly interested in parental duty and even the responsibility of children to their parents.

Bergman is also very interested in relationships. In one of the film’s stronger sequences, Berit opens herself up to Gösta about her past. He initially says it doesn’t matter, but she is adament that there be no surprises between them. Although he thought it wouldn’t matter, hearing about her past really troubles him, and for the rest of the film, he struggles with why he can’t accept her flaws when he expects her to accept his own. This is one of the more honest, thoughtful plotlines in the film. This is very similar to the way Crisis deals with its familial conflicts: as flawed human beings, how do we enter into relationships in an honest, accepting way. Certainly, this is a theme that I hope Bergman explores throughout his career, especially with the expectation that his approach becomes more nuanced and focused with time.