One thing you quickly notice when perusing retrospective criticism of the early work of Ingmar Bergman is that there is absolutely no consensus when "the early work" ends and "the real work" begins. Almost every feature he made from 1948's Port of Call onward has at least one writer citing it as "here it is, the place where you can see Bergman finally emerge", with some hold-outs waiting all the way until 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night to confirm that yep, Bergman has become Bergman. Beyond the basic fact that film criticism is an art, not a science, I suspect part of this general anti-consensus is that Bergman's early films don't seem to follow a clear trajectory the way we would like the formative years of an major director to be. Bergman, after all, didn't know that he was one day going to become Bergman™. He was just a young man making movies as they came by. And respecting this ought to be the work of anyone digging through the first several years of his career.

Still, it's hard not to want a bit more coherent development from film to film. Here we have, for example, Thirst, his second film from 1949, the immediate follow-up to his first movie that got me genuinely excited by what it was trying (if not, quite, what it was successfully doing), Prison. And it's really hard to say that any of the fascinating developments of that film have continued on here, unless it's that Thirst continues to demonstrate a facility for working with actresses and psychologically complicated female characters (a facility not reflected in his personal life; it was around this time that his second marriage was starting to crumble). The downside is that it's not terribly well-paced and completely fumbles the job of running two stories in parallel, while grappling with questions that are starting to feel pretty stale, the more they come up in Bergman's movies.

The plotline that gets the bulk of the film's attention focuses on a young married couple, Rut (Eva Henning), and Bertil (Birger Malmsten), returning to Sweden from Italy via train through Germany and Switzerland. We start by focusing on Rut, who is very mentally checked-out from her surroundings; she is, in fact, recalling her long-ago affair with Raoul (Bengt Eklund), which occurred in very similarly summery surroundings. The affair went terribly after she discovered he was married, and was quite happy to be an enormous asshole about it, thinking nothing about parading Rut around in front of his wife Astrid (Gaby Stenberg), to both women's mutual disgust. And it went more terribly still after she found herself pregnant with a child that he demanded she have aborted: the surgery went spectacularly awry, leaving her unable to conceive, and unable to continue the physically demanding work of dancing ballet, right at the cusp of what promised to be a great career. So back in the present, she has plenty of reason to hate where her life has ended up, and the obvious tensions between her and Bertil aren't doing a thing to counterbalance that. For his part, Bertil has spent the trip reflecting on a former lover, an older widow named Viola (Birgit Tengroth).

Besides intercutting with Rut and Bertil's insistent memories, the story of their miserable time on the train - which appears to take place over two days and one night - is also run in parallel with Viola's own story: unable to cope with the loneliness of losing her husband, she started seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Rosengren (Hasse Ekman), who turned out to be a control freak; after escaping his violent advances, she stumbles across Valborg (Mimi Nelson), once a fellow dancer of Rut's, who has renounced men and turned towards lesbianism. This plotline isn't without its merits, the most important of which is that Bergman has attested that working with Tengroth - a well-regarded actress turned novelist, who had largely retired from the movies, but came back to appear in this adaptation of her own short stories - led him to understand the extraordinary power of small, focused gestures, as simple as the motion of hands. Certainly a good thing to have learned, and there's no denying that the scenes between Tengroth and Nelson are marked by considerable subtlety and delicacy (which is as much about suggesting same-sex attraction in a way that could satisfy the censors as it is about the purity of the cinematic arts) that's a great pleasure to watch.

Still, if a film is going to pour that much effort into setting up these kinds of interlocked stories - a full half-century before hyperlink narratives had their moment in the sun, no less - it would be swell if that interlocking seemed to do, like, anything. Herbert Grevenius's screenplay (the second time he and his friend Bergman worked together, after It Rains on Our Love) doesn't try at all to draw out connections between Viola's story and Rut's, or Bertil's; the moods are different and so are the ideas. Bergman himself puts absolutely no effort into forcing a shape onto the material either, simply enjoying each scene on its own and not putting any sort of apparent though into any kind of building momentum or pacing.

This does mean that a lot of those scenes end up being very good, especially with Henning's wonderful performance as Rut to anchor that portion of the film. She provides a biting sense of humor that flavors the dour character drama, giving it a darkly cynical spin; she's also just plain good at inhabiting Rut's head, letting us see not just the pain and hurt and regret that are right there in the script, but also the coping methods she uses to make things livable, even amusing to herself. It's a lively, surprisingly playful performance, given the wall-to-wall heaviness of the material; it is difficult to imagine an actor looking at any of this scenario and thinking that they could have "fun" with it, and yet that's just what Henning has done, showing how Rut allows a certain lightness to enter her bitterness and thereby give her leverage over Bertil.

Henning and Tengroth are both fantastic enough that Thirst ends up overcoming its messy, inconclusive structure to still have something interesting to say about humans who have gotten trapped in shitty lives; Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer build off of this with a motif of sweeping camera movements that pull us in and out of close-ups to empahsise when those humans arrive at moments of crisis (it is not, otherwise, nearly as interesting-looking as Fischer's previous film with Bergman, Port of Call - the greyscale is attracive in its silky smoothness, but it doesn't really add anything to the mood or story). It is quite well-built, digs into some tough, unresolvable questions about human happiness and romantic satisfaction (though it does, to its discredit, attempt to resolve them in a very rushed final scene), and it's clearly the work of a stronger director than any of Bergman's first four features. But it also feels substantially less confident in itself as a story and a formal object than