Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan has invited such contrary views as to what it is saying, what it is about, that one might be forgiven for thinking that opposing camps of commentators are discussing two entirely different films. (In a way, perhaps they are.) Depending on one’s viewpoint, the Swedish film, based on an actual pair of suicidal illicit lovers in the late nineteenth century, is either lamenting their fate in a world inhospitable to their love or, witheringly ironic, decrying their withdrawal from responsibility. When Hedvig Jensen, the circus tightrope walker publicly known as Elvira Madigan, tells Count Sixten Sparre, the officer who has deserted the army and abandoned wife and children, “We have no other choice,” how one responds to that remark will probably determine how one processes the film. “They do have another choice,” some will insist; “they can return home and accept the consequences of their radical behavior.” Then why does the closing freeze-frame of Hedvig as she attempts to catch a butterfly, accompanied by the sound of two pistol shots, pierce? The plain fact is, in a world of arranged marriages among the nobility, military restrictions, public claims of ownership of a popular performer’s persona, and other restrictive elements that the film touches upon, “choices” dwindle and disintegrate into nothingness. Widerberg’s film devastates.
And yet—and yet—. Each spurt of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 does seem to be ironic undercutting. (If it isn’t that, it is excessive.) Moreover, the spilt wine at a picnic, at which Hedvig stares with such foreboding: surely this exemplifies Hedvig’s tendency to manufacture tragedy. Indeed, throughout there are glimmers of ironical intent.
We thus have a divided film here—one that is beautifully acted by Thommy Berggren as Sixten and gorgeously photographed by Jörgen Persson.
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