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.”
Count me among the great admirers of Todd Solondz’ Happiness. Some viewers complained that Solondz mocked his characters, but I never got that. As far as I could see, that was his achievement. Without passing judgment, he investigated the failures of some of the least among us — the failed songwriter, the unlucky in love — and dug out the humanity among the worst of us — the obscene phone caller, the pedophile. The result was an uneasy mix of tone. It wasn’t quite comedy and it wasn’t quite melodrama. You weren’t sure whether to be amused or appalled, and the fact that Solondz could elicit a horrified titter of recognition at some of the most base material showed that he kept the human in human behavior.