Gunnar Björnstrand as David and Eva Dahlbeck as Marianne on the train together

MUBI promoted this film as a Bergman comedy. I might have managed the occasional wry smile, but no laughs I’m afraid. But that isn’t to say that the film is of no interest. It has many of the elements that became familiar for me in watching Bergman’s early work. The narrative features another train journey during which there are several flashbacks to earlier in the marriage of David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck). Interior scenes are generally studio-bound but there are several location-shot sequences, mostly in Scania and Copenhagen. During the train journey, Bergman himself, wearing a beret, is seen reading a newspaper. So far, so good, but not so good from my point of view is a shift to the lives of the moneyed middle-classes. However, the two leads are strong and this film sees a third role for Harriet Andersson in a Bergman film. Bizarrely, this film comes after Summer With Monika (1953) in which Andersson plays slightly younger than her real age (she was born in 1932). In A Lesson in Love the 21 year-old Andersson played the 14 year-old daughter of the central couple. Somehow she is believable in the role.

Marianne shows her bruises in the flashback scenes covering her marriage to David

The set-up is simple. David and Marianne have been married for 15 years and have two children, Nix (the Andersson character) and her younger brother Pelle. They have long since passed the point of the ‘Seven Year Itch’ and David, a gynaecologist, has been having affairs with his patients. Marianne seems aware of this and is arranging to meet an old male friend in Copenhagen. David gets wind of what she is up to and secretly plans to get on the same train and play the game of meeting Marianne for the first time. The flashbacks then show us how the couple first got together and also how they recently compared their marriage to the 50 year marriage of David’s parents during a visit to his parental home on his father’s 73rd birthday. The final section of the narrative is played out in Copenhagen.

Presumably the ‘lesson’ is for both David and Marianne, requiring them to think about how their marriage has developed and whether its problems are universal or caused by the failings of both partners. Certainly the treatment of Pelle (ignored most of the time) and Nix (a tomboy who challenges the couple’s conformity – something they wouldn’t accept) is an issue they need to discuss. The general feeling among Bergman fans, most looking back to an early work by a proven auteur, is that this is a minor but entertaining work. It also bolsters the autobiographical aspects of Bergman as auteur. By this stage he was on his third marriage (out of five) and was having an affair with Harriet Andersson which today makes him seem a little creepy. But I guess it should make him aware of what certain kinds of marriage can be like.

Father and daughter in their own sequence. Gunnar Björnstrand is wearing a Bergman beret

As part of my attempt to understand Bergman, his body of work and his critical status, I’ve acquired a copy of Robin Wood’s Movie/Studio Vista book simply titled Ingmar Bergman and published in 1969. I wanted to get a feel of how a respected film scholar viewed Bergman in the 1960s. Wood places the film in the context of two later films, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Wild Strawberries (1957)which feature some of the same lead actors. He pointed out in 1969 that A Lesson in Love was under-rated and deemed lightweight by many critics. Wood makes several interesting points. First, following what was then a standard approach, he suggests that the narrative lacks coherence and ‘stylistic unity’ and that the various flashbacks are hung on what he perceives as a ‘trivial’ central narrative line, the rail journey. Later he also points out that the film begins and ends with figures moving on a music box – a perhaps clumsy reference to the main characters and their ‘dances of love’? He argues that the chronology of the marriage is very hard to follow, even after several viewings. A further weakness he suggests is that the Ernemann family is never seen together in their own home and that apart from the parents’ relationship, the only other relationship shown in the family is that of father and daughter. Poor Pelle barely features and Marianne doesn’t come across (to Wood) as the mother of her daughter. Yet despite all this, Wood suggests:

Its air of relaxation, of not taking itself seriously, though it helps to account for the weaknesses, brings with it compensating strengths. It is notable among Bergman’s works for its freedom and spontaneity of invention, its emotional richness, warmth and generosity, its effortless flexibility of tone. (Wood 1969: 62-3)

These strengths, Wood suggests are a good corrective to the view that Bergman is best represented by films like Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) or The Seventh Seal 1956. This certainly seems valid to me. My problem with Bergman’s films from the 1960s onwards is that they seem cold and emotionless. I would add to Wood’s analysis that there is a sense here that Bergman is following or borrowing from the romantic comedies of both the UK and Hollywood. I suspect that Bergman’s auteurist followers have never given much credence to the importance of genre (unless it is via references to Woody Allen’s takes on Bergman) and especially the ‘rom-com’ which, in its various guises, including the screwball comedies of the late 1930s and 1940s, includes many of the devices that Bergman includes here. I think you can argue that this film is a narrative of ‘re-marriage’ in which the two leads have to discover why they married in the first place. Most of my enjoyment in the film comes from the two performances by Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand. It occurs to me that they have something of the chemistry of a couple like Irene Dunn and Cary Grant in My Favourite Wife (1940). What A Lesson in Love doesn’t have is the ‘coherence’ of a Garson Kanin film with a script idea from Leo McCarey. The suggestion by Wood is that the workaholic Bergman produced a script during a rare period of relaxation with Andersson – a script in which various ideas were linked together without too much concern for narrative structure. That seems about right and confirms for me the idea that studio control and being asked to direct someone else’s script isn’t always a bad idea.