Sunday, 7 February 2010

Bris - Bergman's soap commercials

That famous directors do commercials is (maybe) surprisingly not that uncommon. Martin Scorsese, John Woo, Ridley Scott, Ang Lee and Roy Andersson are a few that springs to mind. Belonging to that illustrious club is also Ingmar Bergman, who did nine commercials in the early 1950s.

With three families to support, with the Swedish film industry in a lockout, and with his contract with Gothenburg City Theatre not prolonged, Bergman needed money, and they only way to get it seemed to be by signing a contract with Unilever to help them sell their new soap bar, Bris (Breeze). But Bergman wasn’t ashamed. When the head of advertising at Unilever put the question to Bergman, he said yes without hesitating. He was happy to do it, and he got a more or less free hand to do as he pleased on the set, together with his favourite cinematographer Gunnar Fischer.

These commercials are seldom shown and that’s a shame because they are clever and funny and, for Bergman scholars, there’s a lot to explore and discover. And as it happens, Bibi Andersson, star of many later Bergman films, does her first appearances in one of the commercials. Although they all, obviously, have the exact same message, “Buy Bris, the anti-Bacterial soap, free, healthy and fresh”, they all have different settings, and all the different settings are settings dear to Bergman. In fact, these nine commercials constitute a remarkable collection of Bergman’s themes and visual motifs.

One opens at the court of an 18th century king, and then suddenly it’s revealed that that was just a movie, shown on the wall of the studio making the commercial, and we see the woman doing to voice over for that commercial. There’s one that begins as a silent movie and then turns into a dream and there’s another one that’s a fake 3D movie. Another one involves a puppet theatre, which is a recurring motif in Bergman’s work. (One might say that that's where Bergman begun his artistic career, ever since he was a little child, with his own theatre.) There are also many mirrors and trompe l’œil effects.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the commercials is one that begins at a hospital, which turns out to be a film set, where the next thing to be shot is a commercial for the Bris soap. Here again is also a play with mirrors. In this one and several others Bergman is deconstructing the whole business of filmmaking, using all the tricks of his disposal to trick and treat us.

Another begins like a nightmare from Bergman's later Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries 1957) and then proceeds with weird shots edited together with no apparent logic, until it’s all revealed in the last scene. It could be from Persona (1966), but it’s not, it’s just a commercial, although made by a master craftsman having fun.

Indeed, the operative word here is fun, because what’s most striking with these commercials is how playful they all are. That Bergman had a great sense of humour, and also had the ability to laugh at himself, is not often remembered, even though he made several comedies. Here he’s obviously having a lot of fun, and so has the audience. And since the soap in question is no longer for sale we can look at the short films free from any danger of doing an impulse purchase we might later regret.

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