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Crisis (1946) May 22nd, 2020

Crisis is a film about learning harsh lessons firsthand. A young woman raised in a provincial town by a surrogate mother moves to the city to work in a shop with her birth mother. Attracted by the excitement of city living she leaves the ordinary comforts of home behind, causing her surrogate mother great heartache.

Director Ingmar Bergman transported me from my couch into this small town I quickly grew to hate. The first half of this movie is insufferably boring. It’s the mellowest of dramas where the young lead Nelly (played by Inga Landgré) tries on new dresses, dances at dinner parties and has a picnic on the perfectly lit banks of a nearby river. Halfway through Crisis I wanted to turn it off. I wanted to leave this boring hamlet and go somewhere more interesting. Maybe a comparative action movie like Little Women, anything more exciting. It was only after finishing Crisis that I began to think the film was designed for me to feel this way halfway through. It’s how Nelly feels. It’s why she took the job in the city, to be somewhere more exciting.

Accompanying her mother is a young man named Jack who spends his time in the village wooing Nelly. Just as Nelly’s becoming a woman, she’s being whisked off to the big city by her rich mother and a handsome young suitor. It’s like the beginning of a romance novel. Alas it is as it seems, too good to be true, because we, the audience, know what Nelly doesn’t. Jack is a kept man, her mother’s lover.

Time passes and Nelly moves to the city with her mother and eventually finds herself at the film’s climax. Jack has cornered her in her mother’s shop. He tells her about his tortured soul, how he longs to gaze up at the stars and that he plans to kill himself tonight with the gun in his pocket. Nelly succumbs to his wiles but they’re interrupted halfway through by her mother who’s caught them in her shop. Jack gets dressed and Nelly’s mother walks over to her naked daughter and asks her if Jack told her about the stars, did he show you the gun in his pocket? Did he promise to kill himself tonight? It’s what he does. He manipulates, he gets what he wants. She understands Nelly’s attraction, it’s why Jack hangs around all the time. She wants to feel young, and he wants to be spoiled. At some point during this resolution, Jack walks out of the shop and down the street while Nelly gets dressed. Then we hear the gunshot. Nelly’s mother runs out of the shop in the direction of the sound, the same direction Jack left. Nelly races out behind her and finds Jack face up in the gutter, dead. A man walks up to him and places a newspaper over his head. Another man in the crowd says to himself and to no-one “He was just standing there for a moment, then he pulled out the gun and put it to his head” (this is from memory, not verbatim).

Nelly stands in observance, frozen in preflight. If this is what the city has to offer then she’s seen enough. More significantly, so have I. I can’t recall experiencing a film that successfully and secretly put me in the exact mood of the protagonist more than Crisis. I was ready to turn off the film halfway through, just as Nelly was ready to leave her boring hometown behind. I was finally getting interested when Jack began seducing the daughter of his older lover. “How scandalous” thought I until he took his own life, then Nelly and I couldn’t return to the safe and secure life of her village quick enough. Her surrogate mother was glad to see us, and we settled down with an older but more stable man by the perfectly lit banks of the river.

Nelly couldn’t understand these lessons without experiencing them, just like I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate Crisis without experiencing it. Crisis explores the power of storytelling. It accepts the notion that sometimes listening to a story isn’t enough to gain wisdom, sometimes you need to suffer through a crisis to learn the lesson. Bergman’s triumph in Crisis is acknowledging this storytelling deficit, only for his film to overcome and become an exception to it. Does proving that storytelling isn’t a substitute for first hand experience by telling a story that helps you understand you must learn your own lesson qualify as meta?

This is the first Bergman film I’ve watched and it’s the earliest of his works collected in the Criterion Collection’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema boxset. I heard a podcast where a Bergman fan advised against watching Crisis first, I guess it’s not representative of his skill as a filmmaker. I’ll accept that for now, but regardless it’s an impressive work of art.

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