Can you not like something yet still have affection for it? Contorted as that contradiction may sound, it sums up my attitude toward Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan, arguably one of the most influential films from the 1960s, though nearly forgotten today. Maybe the best way to put it is that while the results leave me pretty cold, I am sympathetic to the effort to make a film in which the look, feel and setting are at least as important as the characters.
The film’s impact is undeniable. Its mimicking of the surfaces of Impressionist painting influenced cinematographic style for years. Even more common was to imitate the film’s means of creating a romantic mood by having lovers frolic in natural settings with musical accompaniment. Here, the second movement of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto is infamously over-used to accompany one exquisite shot of the lovers after another. This technique quickly devolved into cliché in lesser hands, until it was virtually impossible for a movie love story not to have such a “lyrical” sequence, as if this were the only way lovers could be depicted. The film shouldn’t be judged too harshly for what others did with its innovations, of course, although Widerberg is guilty of his own fashionable borrowings. The hand held camerawork and disjointed cutting, or the frozen frame that ends the film were already familiar French New Wave mannerisms when Elvira was new, for example. So if he has been imitated, Widerberg was also imitative.
Successful and influential as the film may have been, there are good reasons it is largely forgotten today. It’s a very slight movie. Based on a true story, the film “dramatizes” (or better, “pictorializes”) the final days of tight rope walker Elvira Madigan and her soldier lover, Tristan Sparre. In order to be with Elvira, Sparre had deserted from the army and abandoned his family. Having to flee the authorities as a result, and unable to support themselves, they eventually reach the point of starvation and kill themselves in order to remain together. There really isn’t much more to it than watching the two of them slowly decline while the sun shines and the leaves dance in the breezes.
Swedish friends tell me that this well known story resonates strongly in Scandinavia. While the story can be taken as a tragic revolt against a stultifying society, the pair’s willful blindness to reality doesn’t travel well. They are not particularly compelling to anyone else because, while young and beautiful, deeply in love, and all that, they are also more than a touch stupid, as Stanley Kauffmann noted when he reviewed the film.
Nonetheless, I watch Elvira Madigan occasionally just to bask in the beauty of it. If the lovers are not especially interesting, the scenery behind them is lovely, almost a fantasy of what a summer day, or indeed, the setting for a love idyll, should be. No doubt that fantasy accounts for the film’s success.