BAM laudably imported Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish production of Per Olov Enquist’s The Image Makers, a play about the one meeting between the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf and the famous director Viktor Sjöström, whose film from a lesser Lagerlöf work, The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a landmark in silent-movie technique but otherwise, in my view, a bore. We possess only one crumb of information about that meeting in the novelist’s country house. Enquist, himself a distinguished novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, transposes it to Sjöström’s Stockholm workplace, where the director screens some scenes from the unfinished film for the crusty author.
Present, too, are Julius Jaenzon, Sjöström’s imaginative cameraman, and a sexually free-spirited young actress, Tora Teje, later to become a great stage star but now mostly the mistress Sjöström has abandoned to return to his wife. The play concerns (a) Tora’s attempts to reclaim Viktor, (b) Julius’s efforts to seduce Tora, and (c) Selma Lagerlöf’s concealed but haunting youth under the heel of an alcoholic father, and her contempt for film, gradually overcome as she (and we) watch the partial projection.
Enquist, at a pre-premiere Q-and-A session, exhibited wit, charm, and superior intelligence, too little of which comes across in The Image Makers, for which Bergman’s direction does uncharacteristically little. The talky play yields lengthy discussions of life and art and alcoholic fathers (like Selma, Tora had one) and makes a meal of such overworked tropes as the oyster, the grain of sand, and the pearl. Badly needed is an image-breaker. Still, the way the insolent and foul-mouthed Tora and the starchily patronizing Selma go from hostility to sisterhood, while the men are Bergmanesquely pushed into the background, is not without interest.
Lennart Hjulström is a perhaps unavoidably colorless Viktor, Carl-Magnus Dellow a perhaps appropriately brash Jaenzon. The handsome Elin Klinga wiggles her toes dexterously, though she still has a way to go to catch up with Tora Teje. But the great Anita Björk (Alf Sjöberg’s cinematic Miss Julie), as Lagerlöf, invests the bam Majestic’s stage with a majesty and humanity it has not often seen.