By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s Egg was a box-office flop in Sweden, a critical and commercial failure internationally, and most of all a big artistic disappointment for Bergman himself–a decided stumble for a director riding high on the success of 1970s titles like the harrowing Cries and Whispers, which enjoyed huge success in the U.S. in the unlikely care of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and the audience-friendly The Magic Flute. At the same time, Bergman was embarking on what would prove to be an unhappy tenure at Munich’s Residenztheater, where he managed to mount eleven productions before being fired in 1981. In this turbulent context, the very Bergmanesque Autumn Sonata can be seen as a kind of comfort film–a deliberate return to roots. Someone once described it as “Bergman does Bergman,” and the gag stuck. Bergman himself eventually quoted the remark, calling it “witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.”
Though he wrote one of the more harrowing rape scenes in popular fiction, Stieg Larsson clearly had more on his mind than sensationalism. It’s a little jarring to learn, for instance, that the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translates unambiguously from the Swedish as Men Who Hate Women. It’s a confrontational (and, you’d think, curiously uncommercial) phrase, but it’s a clear signal of the seriousness of Larsson’s intent. Violence against women is neither titillating or simply a convenient fear factor to work some urgency and shock value into a story that’s primarily about Swedish industry, Nazis, 40-year-old crimes, and who gives a shit. (It does serve that function, of course.) In this book, and in the two that followed it, Larsson means to indict his own nation for its attitudes toward women.
Set in a neighborhood outside Stockholm, largely in and around a nondescript apartment complex, Let the Right One In is, first, a coming-of-age tale about Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a slight, pale boy with a shock of blond hair and good humor that belies his general beat-down wariness and barely contained anger. He’s the target of menacing schoolyard bullies and, as the film begins, we see him practicing with a knife, imagining that he’s jabbing it into the flesh of one of his tormenters. Oskar has a new neighbor, the similarly tiny and wary Eli (Lina Leandersson), who has moved into the flat next door with Hakan (Per Ragnar), an older man who seems to be her father. Hakan covers the windows with cardboard — perhaps to block out the sunlight. At one point, we hear Eli snarling, “You’re supposed to help me!” Horror-movie fans will no doubt suspect something sinister is going on, and they will be correct. Let the Right One In is certainly a horror movie, and it brings the pain in genre fashion. But it’s also a kind of Scandinavian gothic — a love story between 12-year-olds, one of whom has been 12 for a very long time.
Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s ostensible valedictory film, is most clearly and obviously about the pleasures of family — even the farting, adulterous and shame-faced family that’s so often exposed here. In that respect, I suppose, it’s an old man’s film. Bergman may identify, to some degree, with the matriarch of the Ekdahls, who is seen early on gazing out her window as her relatives stumbling noisily through the snow outside toward home. She murmurs happily, “Here comes my family.” What surprises, then, is the way the story becomes a sort of fairy-tale-cum-horror-movie – this is a ghost story whose subjects are the living and the dead, magic and imagination and the nature of God.