Movie Night with Urbaniak: Thirst

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The extended Eastwood binge I’ve been on, not to mention the recent Bollywood adventures I’ve had, have, for some reason, given me a hankering for Bergman. 

Now, there are the Bergman movies everyone knows (The Seventh Seal, Persona, Wild Strawberries) and then there are the movies that are just as good that nobody ever seems to talk about.  1949’s Thirst is close to the top of my list of my Favorite Bergman Movies Nobody Talks About. (My number 1 Favorite Bergman Movie Nobody Talks About is the flabbergasting masterpiece Shame, which I had never even heard of before I popped it in my DVD player a few years back.  It seared off my eyelids.)  Honestly, Thirst is just really pretty freaking amazing, and if it weren’t for the fact that Bergman went on to make 20 or 30 movies that happen to be better than it, it would stand as a triumph in just about anyone else’s career.

The first time I watched it, I was watching the first scene, the first shot, really, which shows a restless woman unable to sleep in a foreign hotel room in the middle of the night while her husband sleeps in the next bed.  And the woman lights a cigarette, gets up, turns the light on, turns it off again, goes to her luggage, gets something out, knocks something over, on and on, for five minutes of screen time.  That would be extraordinary enough for any movie shot in 1949, but Bergman pushes it even further — he has all this happen in one sustained five-minute take.  Hitchcock in 1949 might have sustained a five-minute take (Rope was 1948), but Bergman gives us a five-minute take, right at the top of his movie, in which nothing in particular happens.  A real Jim Jarmusch kind of moment, this woman restlessly pacing her hotel room, pestering her sleeping husband, rummaging for snacks.  The first time Iwatched it, I had to go back and watch the first shot again.  With no greater point to make than to establish the character of his female lead and the rather troubled relationship she has with her husband, Bergman just goes for it and gives us an opening shot that most other directors would have crowed about for the rest of their careers.

Thirst is full of elegant long takes like that.  Not all of them involve people aimlessly venting quiet frustration, but all of them are confidently staged, dynamic and elegant in their execution.  Generally, the camera will follow a couple of actors as they move around the set, arguing or evading (a lot of arguing and evading in Thirst) moving to and fro, from one room to another, the camera gliding and dollying, tracking and tilting in a dozen different ways, showing the performers in a two-shot, then a distant shot, then a sudden, dramatic close-up, on and on.  Thirst pulls all this off without ever feeling self-conscious or show-offy.  I’ve watched it three times now and only this last time did I even become aware of the sophistication of the camera movement throughout — I would have been willing to bet that Bergman had blown it all on his first shot.

But all these words about the camera work makes Thirst sound like some kind of cinema-geeky kind of movie about flashy technique.  Which is hardly the case, because the writing is just as startling, if not more so, than the direction.  Thirst is about a young couple, Ruth and Bertil, who are traveling through Europe on their summer vacation.  Ruth is jittery and kind of annoying, and Bertil is didactic, snippy and kind of a dick.  The first third of the movie takes place in their hotel room in Basel and the rest of the movie takes place on a train as they make their way back to Sweden.  So as confined as the first act feels, in its tiny hotel room, it’s positively expansive compared to the tiny stateroom of acts II and III, where Ruth and Bertil hammer away at each other until something ugly happens, or almost happens anyway. 

That’s a daring enough scenario to toss up onscreen in 1949, but the script has other tricks up its sleeve.  Early in Act I, Ruth pauses to reminisce about an affair she had with a married army officer, back when she was a young, promising ballerina.  Her reminiscences take up a healthy chunk of Act I and are flown in when we know little about Ruth and nothing at all about Bertil, and for a while we think maybe the whole movie is going to be about Ruth and the army officer and their doomed affair.

About 20 minutes into the movie, Bertil finally wakes up and the two of them (he and Ruth, that is) bicker and argue and push each other’s buttons until it’s time to go to the train.  One thing they talk about is Bertil’s ex, Viola.

Then, apropos of nothing, we leave Ruth and Bertil and go spend some time with Viola, as she visits her dead husband’s grave and goes to see her psychiatrist, who is one of the creepiest, most sadistic psychiatrists ever presented onscreen.  And we’re assuming that soon Bertil is going to come along, because this must be a flashback, just like Ruth’s flashback in Act I.  But no, Viola’s story isn’t a flashback, it’s a "meanwhile."  A half-hour into the movie, Thirst suddenly introduces a third major character, whose story runs on a parallel track.

So, check this out.  Ruth and Bertil bicker and argue and get on each others’ nerves on the train while the ruins of postwar Europe silently glide past their train window, and meanwhile Viola, back in Sweden, gets abused by her creepy psychiatrist, then staggers around town at a loose end.  Now then, Ruth reminisces, again,not about her affair with the army officer but about the early days of her career as a ballerina, and about the brave young diva, Valborg, who came to her aid when the stern dancemaster was giving her a hard time.  Then, after Ruth’s second flashback, Viola, in a twist worthy of Tarantino, runs into Valborg, Ruth’s old ballet pal, on the street.

Then, in one of the most startling sequences in 1940s moviemaking, Viola goes home with Valborg (it turns out they were, coincidentally, classmates back in college), gets drunk and, after a night of mis-reading every sign Valborg has been putting forth, is horrified when the ex-ballet-diva makes a pass at her.

It’s shocking enough that Bergman has a lesbian seduction scene in a movie in 1949, but what makes it really startling is how real it feels.  The acting throughout Thirst is bracingly contemporary and naturalistic, there’s barely a "1949 acting moment" in it (the creepy psychiatrist does tip his hand a little bit, in the name of creepiness).  The characters of Thirst could have stumbled out of the East Village, or Wicker Park or Silverlake, yesterday morning.

(Viewers take note — the "lesbian seduction sequence" of Thirst ends at the moment of seduction and includes no nudity or lesbian sex.  For that, one must turn to 1963’s The Silence, which goes whole hog with the nudity, lesbian sex and self-gratification — oh, and a lot of stuff about God.)

So, a couple irritating each other on a train, having a lousy last-day-of-vacation, and a loveless woman wandering around a city, that pretty much makes up the subject matter of this movie, and what holds it together, what keeps it fascinating instead of boring or claustrophobic, is Bergman’s consummate skills as a meat-n-potatoes dramatist, his innate sense of how and when to reveal information and his interest in people as conveyors of higher truths.


6 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: Thirst”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Reading this, something occurred to me that didn’t while watching it a few years ago: Thirst is the cinematic equivalent of a novel, revealing and dramatizing ideas and states of mind. It’s one of Bergman’s great achievements that he can turn what’s usually better treated in prose into fully involving, satisfying cinema. And he did this again and again.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I clearly need to see more Bergman. I’ve watched a lot of the obvious ones (Smiles on a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Cries and Whispers) and some that aren’t so obvious (The Silence, Hour of the Wolf), but I haven’t gone out of my way to fill in the blanks of the ones I’ve missed. This is largely due to the fact that there are a lot of blanks, but that really shouldn’t be an excuse.

    • Todd says:

      There are even more blanks than you think — about half of Bergman’s movies aren’t available in any format in the US, and some, like a lot of his work for television, aren’t available anywhere.

      • craigjclark says:

        Oh yes, I know. The trouble is Criterion can only do so much. The pity is Criterion is the only company doing anything.

        • Todd says:

          Startlingly, the MGM set that covers from Persona to Serpent’s Egg has terrific transfers throughout. Otherwise, you need to have an all-region DVD player to see things like All These Women or The Rite or Summer with Monica.

  3. Anonymous says:

    beautiful women paired with goofy-looking men,

    Just like Hollywood!