Light

Ingmar Bergman’s death seemed like a good occasion for me to finally watch a movie I’d been saving for a while: Light Keeps Me Company, a documentary about Bergman’s great cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, who died last September. The irony is that the only Bergman film I’ve seen is The Seventh Seal, but that’s one that Nykvist didn’t shoot.

Anyway, following the standard model, the documentary consists of talking head interviews with people he knew professionally and personally, short clips of movies on which he worked, on-set footage, and “present-day” scenes of Nykvist in the Swedish countryside. Within that framework, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist assembles a glorious and sad portrait of his father’s life.

The movie’s a gem, and the array of reminiscences shows how many lives Nykvist touched during his career. Of course, the key moments are the interviews with Bergman, who implies that he and Nykvist were more perfectly attuned to what they were doing than any other two people have ever been:

Nobody, while practicing their profession, during our work on films together, has been as close to me as Sven. However, we have never ever had a private acquaintanceship. But the intimacy between us, our belonging together, the sense of parallel minds, of thinking, of feeling the same way, when it comes to practicing our craft, that feeling was total.

What’s interesting to me is that he doesn’t fall into condescension, doesn’t cast Nykvist as his “eyes” or any other tool to pursue his own vision. Near the end of the movie, there’s footage of the two men walking hand-in-hand through a garden, as Bergman’s voiceover recounts Bibi Andersson‘s plans for the men’s old age: they’ll give Sven an empty camera and reassemble the actors and let the men keep ‘filming’ away.

My introduction to Nykvist’s gorgeous work was Another Woman (1988), one of Woody Allen’s “Bergman-esque” dramas. It’s a movie I’ve gone back to many times over the years, and one that I try to foist off on friends so I’ll have people to discuss it with. Light Keeps Me Company offered a little revelation about his experience on that movie.

Following the heartbreaking segment about his son Johan’s suicide (c. 1977), Nykvist cryptically remarks, “Mia became very important to me. She helped me back to life,” as we see home-movie footage of a beautiful Mia Farrow in a tropical setting, playing peek-a-boo with a straw hat. (Okay, so maybe it’s not so cryptic. Still, it does come out of the blue, and doesn’t get mentioned again.)

Shortly, there’s a segment about working with Woody Allen, who says

All the crew love working with him. . . They’re never happier than when I tell ’em that Sven is going to be the cinematographer on the picture, because they know that he’s sensitive, and sweet, and they’re going to be able to do a high-quality visual picture, but without any personal or emotional cost.

Soon, we see various New York settings at night, and Nykvist says,

Despite the fun of working with Woody, I wanted to get away from New York. I was disturbed by Mia and Woody’s marital co-existence, even if my relationship with her had ended long ago. It was the first time that I’d felt really lonely on a shoot.

Woody Allen: king of missing the obvious.

It’s good to see, throughout the film, that Nykvist was regarded so highly within the industry. Stellan Skarsgard has a wonderful moment explaining how, whenever he tells anyone in movies that he’s from Sweden, they always ask him about working with Nykvist. They all want to know ‘how he does it.’ “Except for actors,” he says. “They want to know what Bergman’s like.” But the crews are more interested in Sven, because he’s the bringer of light.

It’s a wonderful film, even as it must portray Nykvist’s descent into dementia characterized as aphasia. Mercifully, the son doesn’t expose too much of the father’s decline, instead choosing a wonderful progression of scenes that illustrate Nykvist’s bonds with his family. (Given that they’re Swedish, there’s a certain distance/coldness by our standards, but it remains poignant.)

So do me a favor and put this in your Netflix queue. It’s an amazing portrait of a man who saw light as beautifully as Rembrandt did and brought some wonderful visions to the screen.

(He also shot Sleepless in Seattle.)

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