I’ve gone through a phase over the life cycle of this blog’s existence (which is to say since February of 2011) where I’ve been really into art-house movies. Specifically, I’ve found myself enamored with the films that put a premium on utilizing the visual possibilities of the cinematic medium. Whether they’re going for a near sensory overload in natural beauty (Tree of Life), jamming the film chock-full of psycho-sexual Freudian symbolism (Persona), or turning the camera inward on the illusions of cinema itself (8 1/2), the best films that I’ve watched this last year and a half worked as much as visual poems as they did as stories (and if your name is Terrence Malick, nothing will ever match the sheer visual beauty of your films). So, when I watch a movie that I consider to be one of the most gorgeously shot films I’ve ever seen but I can’t generate the same kind of excitement I can for a Fellini or Malick feature, there’s possibly a problem here. The 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan is simply put, a gorgeous amalgamation of stunning color cinematography alongside brilliant implementation of classical music. Yet, the tragic love story at the heart of the film feels so slight and hurried that I can’t find it in my heart to give this film a full-hearted recommendation.
ElviraMadigan is the true story of two tragic lovers on the run in Sweden. The film begins with text explaining that this is the story of two young adults in love who commit suicide in the woods, and the film is the story of their flight and their ultimate decision to take their own lives (since the movie starts off telling you they’re going to die, it can’t really be a spoiler revealing it). Count Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) is a lieutenant in the Swedish army who goes AWOL and abandons his wife and two children to run away with Elvira Madigan (the hauntingly beautiful Pia Degermark), a tightrope walker from the circus. Hunted by the authorities and unable to stay in one place for very long, Elvira and Sixten’s romance is doomed from its inception. Sixten is unable to work at all (for fear of being recognized) and tragedy strikes every job that Elvira tries to hold. It isn’t very long before Elivra and Sixten realize that taking their own lives is the only way out of their miserable situation.
As I said, the film’s biggest selling point is its astounding cinematography (especially by the standards of the mid-1960s). Whether it’s the endless shots of the stunning Swedish (and also at times Danish I believe) countryside or the way that director Bo Widerberg is able to perfectly frame Pia Degermark’s angelic face, this film might not quite be at a “Malick”-ian level of beauty, but it comes pretty god damn close. Perhaps I have to give credit to the film’s clever implementation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and some Mozart, but this film is just a striking visual poem (even if the substance of the poem is less than substantive but more on that later). It’s easy to forget just how sad and devastated Sixten and Elvira’s lives have become over the course of the film. This movie can make scavenging through the underbrush of a forest for any roots or mushrooms you can eat look like a beautiful ode to life. The film might actually be to beautiful for its own good because the story itself is just so heartbreaking. One last note about the film’s cinematography. The movie’s color palette is astounding. Seriously, for a film from the 1960s, the colors in this film are almost absurdly vibrant and saturated. Okay, that wasn’t the last note. There were also serious elements of the French New Wave where Elvira Madigan was ahead of the pack (alongside its French peers) in the use of handheld shots.
However, the film itself doesn’t have the post-modernist magic (in terms of plot) that describes the works of Lynch, Fellini, or Bergman who marry their fanciful images and symbolism with engaging stories. Elvira Madigan is certainly a tragic love story, but to say that I didn’t find myself invested in the romance between Elvira and Sixten would be the understatement of the century. You never see any of the romance that led up to their decision to risk everything to be together (not even in flashback) so there’s little to no context to why these two are so madly in love with each other. Their romance simply is, and while that has its own beauty, the entire film hinges on their being so desperately in love with each other that they were willing to die for one another. I couldn’t buy it. I bought the romantic chemistry between Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren and so I was able to believe their characters were in love with each other, but I couldn’t buy the giant leap of faith their tragic fates required. It also didn’t help that the film almost moved at a dreamlike pace (and not especially in a good way) where these two lovers would be whisked away from one predicament or another without an especially large amount of closure being given to any one action they undertake (although they never undertake the intelligent action). I love a great romance done well, and unfortunately, I couldn’t invest myself emotionally in their love story.
Despite those complaints, the sheer beauty of Elvira Madigan makes it worth watching for all real cinema fans. As I understand it (and is obvious from the oft-copied imagery of the film), this is one of the more influential romances of all time. However, it’s simply been lost to the ages because of all of the films that took it as influence and then added an actual compelling story to the mix. I may not have cared about the fates of our heroes (though the film’s final moments were truly haunting), but I think I’m always going to look back on this film fondly simply because of how engrossing its imagery was. If you’re not the kind of cinema nerd that doesn’t geek out over cinematography and the visual arts aspect of cinema, you should avoid Elvira Madigan like the plague. You will find nothing of value here. However, I, for one, am glad that this beautiful film has survived the ages.
Final Score: B-