By the time Ingmar Bergman directed Waiting Women, released in the autumn of 1952, it had been almost two years since he'd made a movie. I don't want to go all the way as far saying "and you can tell", because there are ample strengths here. But there's also a bit of stiffness in the screenplay, which Bergman wrote after an idea from his wife at the time, Gun (who was by profession a journalist), a bit too much visible work in setting up a framework narrative for what amounts to an anthology film: three short stories, in three genres, with three different stylistic approaches, and there's no real overlap between them, though characters from one story might pop up for cameos in one of the others. And there's a bit of stiffness in each of these stories, as well.

The hook is irresistibly similar to the1949 Hollywood film A Letter to Three Wives, so much so that I have a hard time believing it wasn't deliberate, though to my knowledge Bergman never acknowledged as much (he openly cited other films that he drew from here). Five women are - get this - waiting. Four of them are all sisters-in-law: Rakel (Anita Björk), Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson), Karin (Eva Dahlbeck) and Annette (Aino Taube) are married to the Lobelius brothers. The fifth and youngest, Maj (Gerd Andersson) is Marta's sister. They're waiting for the brothers to return - it seems like the whole clan has gone to a summer home for vacation, but the frame is really not the point here at all. The point is that to while away the hours, the women swap stories about their love lives; Rakel, Marta, and Karin do, at least. In the little gaps between the stories, we see that Maj is currently in the act of writing her own story with Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), Annette's son, who has sneaked home early so that the two young lovers can prepare to run away together.

The three stories aren't precisely self-contained: the family connection means that characters show up in tiny appearances in each other's stories. But outside of that, there's not much that ties the segments together. The result feels like a showcase for the talents of all the filmmakers and actors involved, letting them go in three wildly different directions. Including, for Bergman himself, a deliberate effort to prove that his already-emergent reputation as Sweden's foremost joyless moralist and expert on human suffering was unfairly limiting: this was to be the first big-screen demonstration that he could direct a comedy.

We'll get there eventually. but there are two other stories to be told first, much more in Bergman's wheelhouse. Rakel's story is the most characteristic: she reminisces about the time that she had an affair with Kaj (Jarl Kulle), a young man she grew up with, spending much time on their languid assignation in a small bathing house on a lake. It's a perfectly fine version of the same relaxed, casually carnal naturalism that Bergman had recently trotted out to such excellent effect in Summer Interlude; it helps that cinematographer Gunnar Fischer is on hand to capture the glistening, filtered light on the water with all the pictorial beauty one could ask for, setting the relaxed sensuality of the affair off by wrapping it in the warm glimmer of sunlight.

The twist her is that at a certain point, Rakel gets annoyed enough with both Kaj and her husband, Eugen (Karl-Arne Holmsten), the first of the Lobelius boys we'll be meeting, that she decides to tell Eugen all about the affair, apparently just to shake things up in this stultifying status quo. He takes it badly, of course, in a sniping, childish way that introduces a tiny thread of the first thing that in any way resembles comedy in the film.

No comedy in the second, longest segment, Marta's early experience with the youngest Lobelius, Martin (Birger Malmsten, making his final film with Bergman for many years, thus ending the first persistent acting collaboration of the director's career). If Rakel's thread finds Bergman making a Bergman film, this is Bergman making an expressionistic art film. His goal here was, in part, to see how far he could take a narrative if he didn't use any dialogue, but it goes well beyond that: Fischer drops his studiously naturalistic greyscale for a high-contrast world of hard blacks, and Oscar Rosander's editing takes a dramatic turn towards expressive, high-speed montage (high-speed by the standards of a direct with a noted love of long takes, at any rate). It also turns substantially into a game of strong facial expressions; in this regard, it is fortunate to be anchored by Nilsson, in her third and final Bergman movie; by no means is this the most famous of his artistic partnerships, but I will be extremely sorry to see her go. All of their projects together find her doing exemplary, small-scale work with her face and voice, and Waiting Women is maybe the most impressive of them all, given how completely this leg of the narrative relies on her ability to communicate an entire character arc non-verbally.

Eventually, Marta's story breaks for a more conventional storytelling approach, not to its benefit; it becomes a rather plain story of Martin's shabby behavior after learning that Marta is pregnant, and this is becoming tired ground for Bergman to retread. Especially after the exciting invention of the earlier part, showing their infatuation in such strikingly visual, expressionistic terms. With Nilsson and Malmsten anchoring it, it never stops working, but it does mean that this sequence abruptly shifts from the most interesting part of Waiting Women to the least.

When it comes time for Karin's story, she openly admits that it's not really anything other than a ridiculous anecdote. Once upon a time, she and her husband Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand, one of Bergman's most celebrated and important ongoing collaborators, with his first proper, named, credited role for the director) got stuck in an elevator, and had a very frank conversation about their respective infidelities; this serves to reinforce their marital bonds, and also leads to elevator sex. This was the sequence that Bergman included to show the world that he could do comedy, and he wrote happily about the experience of hearing full audiences laugh at his movie. This suggests one of two things: either it was a mistake to watch Waiting Women alone in my living room, or I just don't "get" Swedish humor. Because it's perfectly wry, no doubt, and Dahlbeck and Björnstrand (both cast specifically due to Bergman's admiration for their comedy skills) keep the tone of the conversation light, but funny? I don't see it. There's one pretty funny line when one of the rubberneckers watching as the elevator finally gets unstuck and arrives at its floor expresses surprise and tangible disappointment that they didn't die. But I would be lying if I said I found this mirthful enough to overcome how simple it is.

Then we're back to the framework narrative, the arrival of the men, the discovery of Maj and Henrik's plans, and eldest Lobelius brother Paul (Håkan Westergren) offers some easygoing, pragmatic wisdom that allows the film to end on a pleasant, optimistic note. And as much as the cuts back to the women talking in the middle of the film feel forced and artificial, this extended final sequence has a warm, busy quality, full of people milling about and getting in each others' way, that I found greatly appealing. It suffers from the larger scale problem that every portion of Waiting Women suffers from: these stories are all sketches, really, little incidents involving people pinging against each other without enough development or depth. Every story is underdeveloped, and the cast has to do disproportionate work to put across the relationships between characters, or even just their individual personalities. And sure, when a film has a cast this strong, it can get away with that. But it doesn't remove the feeling that this whole project was a bit of a stretching exercise, tossed off without too much fuss or thought so that Bergman could remind himself how to make a movie that wasn't going to demand too much of him or anyone else. No doubt, Waiting Women is pleasant enough, and it does enough things that it remains exceptionally watchable, but it's distinctly minor, and it fairly obviously never had designs on being otherwise.