I recently gushed over Harriet Andersson for her career-defining performance in Summer with Monika. A catapult, too, for her director Ingmar Bergman. I fell in love (again) with Andersson the actress, her character, the whole persona. The Swedish actress would mesmerize me when I first came to see her work, from a film eight years later – Through a Glass Darkly – also from Bergman.
The calm waters we get to admire as the opening titles drift away, may or may not tell us the ambiance of this 1961 Bergman tale. A father, a son, a husband, reunited with Karin (Andersson), they appear to be humoring her in the early exchanges as she come ashore from a swim. They likely didn’t want to rock the boat, so to speak. “Are you afraid of thunder?” one character utters, “look at the clouds”. We soon realize Karin has returned from a bout of mental health treatment.
The details are never fully disclosed, nor are they particularly relevant. There is a happy-go-lucky aura about Karin. Her spirit is strong, it seems, or she puts on a brave face. Either way, its the men in her life that do much of the fretting and fussing. And mostly in her absence I might add. Gossiping about her like concerned old folk. Her husband Martin (Max von Sydow) wrote to her father (Gunnar Björnstrand) about Karin, unable to do so in person, such delicate matters.
Her brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), also a troubled soul, is more forthcoming. A little imbalanced himself, his outward communication is more so about her provocative behavior, as well as his own insecurities. Andersson is tactile as Karin, giving her the girlish charm of a beloved family member, all the while there’s an evading eye carefully surveying the dynamics. She is afforded the moments, split second at times, to pause and take in the reactions of the men around her. Karin’s ailment has not necessarily made her any less smarter.
Martin, who seems the most helpless yet the calmest of the males, claims himself as “the anchor of her existence”. The father is on the verge of his own emotional and physical episode, struggling to hide it, having to scuttle into the house to sob alone. And then Minus’ play, with Karin playing a notable part, is imaginative, elaborate, and well performed – but does little to mend the cracks.
When faced with intimacy, Karin describes herself as horrid, undeserving of such affection. Andersson pulls at the young woman’s seams so gradually, like a flower blooming the signs of madness. On multiple viewings of Through a Glass Darkly it’s not so much Andersson’s bravura final act you remember vividly, but you pay attention to the sedated Karin, forced to experience her unfortunate transition all over agai n.
Karin appears to be in more danger when alone, wandering the house, eyeing the view and the interiors as though suspicious, curious. And afraid to sleep. In the company of her father she turns back into a child almost, his little girl. That is, until she sees what he’s written in his journal that “her disease is incurable”. Andersson transforms her emotional weight as she reads the words, Karin’s face dropping ever so sadly.
Karin speaks so casually of the voices from behind the wallpaper, beyond the realm of belief, feeling of safety instead of fear. Part of you buys thst mental illness is not a bad thing after all. Ultimately, the sadness and longing overwhelms Karin, and Andersson nails every little discomfort, realisation, panic. The actress demonstrates a face of silmultaneous abscence and wonder – as she did so convincingly in Summer with Monika too.
With the mood swings, the predicting that “the rain is coming”, as well as Karin being candid about staying in the hospital next time, her breakdown now seems inevitable. “The hatred can’t go on” she sobs. There is so much sorrow, vulnerability, and even hope, in Andersson’s breathtaking turn, I longed to embrace her all to myself. Protect her. As a lover, a father, a brother, it really doesn’t matter.
The strong outdoor light in the final act lures us to the film’s closing moments. Karin alone in the empty room, talking back to what we can only assume is her perceived voices. The breakdown is in motion, not much the three men can do about this now. When Martin tries to console her (or rather, himself), Karin just brushes him off with a look of detest. Andersson is so deep into the character it’s nothing short of remarkable. When the door creaks open seemingly by itself, there’s a genuine flutter of horror in your heart. Especially as Bergman frames Andersson from a lower angle, half-turning her head with a stern look on her face.
The ensuing outburst, screaming, dashing to the corner of the room, is like Karin is possessed. Perhaps we too, like those three men in her life, have underestimated her condition. Harriet Andersson is scene-for-scene outstanding, portraying every nuance of such a mental illness, while clearly showing Karin as a human being. Just like us.