In 1963, Ingmar Bergman was hip deep in an attempt to translate the theatrical devices of August Strindberg's chamber plays into a cinematic idiom, with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light already behind him, and The Silence right around the corner. In this middle of this unusually intense period of producing some of the most unpleasant films of his career (and in the wake of the hideously grueling Winter Light shoot) he took a little vacation, though I cannot fathom it was a relaxing one, trading in his own Strindberg riffs to make a filmed version of actual Strindberg. Or a videotaped version of Strindberg, technically, and I definitely think the distinction mattes, but we'll get there in a minute. The point is, we are come to the director's fifth made-for-television version of a theater piece in six years, his last for over a decade, and surely the one with the greatest personal importance. For this was his first attempt to grapple with the author's late masterpiece A Dream Play, written in 1901 and first staged in 1907. It is a play that would loom over the rest of Bergman's professional life: he would return to it three more times onstage, in 1970, 1977, and1986, and references to it pop up in his films.

This was the second and last time that Bergman filmed Strindberg, surely his most immediate artistic inspiration: in 1960, he staged a television version of The Storm that provided, in my estimation, a very exciting cinematic embodiment of Strindberg's theatrical devices. That's the most successful and enjoyable of the two telefilms, considered solely on its own merits, but the stakes were lower: The Storm is a comparatively obscure play, and despite its innovations, it's telling a fairly concrete human story with easily-identified emotional cues; effectively translating it into a filmed format consisted largely of cleverly understanding where the place the camera and the actors relative to each other. A Dream Play was one of Strindberg's most significant and most radical works, and far more obscure in its meaning and its psychology. The play emerged from a paranoid psychotic episode which ended in Strindberg's third divorce; he conceived the main character around his newest ex-wife, Harriet Bosse, who created the role in the play's premiere production.

Whatever demons of his own Strindberg was grappling with, however, they are obscured by the main thrust of the piece, which is right there in the title: how to evoke the physical instability of a dream space, and the fluid narrative logic that guides dreaming, on a stage. The verdict at the time of the original production was "well, maybe you can't", which is perhaps what makes film a good medium for the story: it already has more tools of unreality at its disposal than live theater. And this is primarily what Bergman himself appears to be exploring with his adaptation of the play.

Bergman would later express dissatisfaction with how this turned out, and I can't argue against that. A Dream Play is a densely packed catalogue of symbolism and mysticism, and I won't be so arrogant as to pretend that I did more than scrape the surface of all the things swirling around in this chain of encounters largely untethered to a clear narrative. The thing is, I don't much feel like Bergman was helping me get there. The "what happens in the play?" question is simply enough: Agnes (Ingrid Thulin), daughter of the god Indra, is invited by that being to descend to the plane of mortal humanity to learn about the suffering of humans. She does this through conversations with various figures representing all forms of human attainment, from artisan to scholars to every day people. Once she has experience enough of this - and there's quite a lot of experiencing here, with more than 40 actors with speaking parts and some 75 extras - she either dies or wakes up.

Bergman is not looking to make this whirlwind of humanity any easier on us, and in fairness, I don't suppose there's any reason he's obliged to. It's clear that A Dream Play doesn't have a simple key, but is a dense collection of ideas designed to be pondered at great length and from many angles, and this is maybe why the director kept returning over the years. Still, even if Bergman wasn't going to guide his audience to a solution, I think he owed it to the actors to give them a bit more structure. Most of those 40+ performers aren't really playing concrete human psychologies, of course, but ideas of human beings, collections of types and tics. There's not much for them to do other than inhabit Strindberg's words as best they can. Still, Thulin evidently could have done with some more specific details about what kind of person she was meant to be playing: whether by design or not, she's not really able to make a fixed character of the opaque, mystical Agnes, and while she aces the opening scenes, when Agnes is mostly a dazzled observer, and largely recovers for the final scenes, when she bears the scars of all the pain she's witnessed, she's much too empty and passive in the middle of the film. I don't know else could have been done: at any rate, Thulin is the only member of Bergman's stock company that I think possibly could have handled this role, which benefits from the disembodied intellectualism that was Thulin's main characteristic compared to Harriet Andersson's  casual physicality or Bibi Andersson's bright innocence, to name two. But even so, she obviously hasn't cracked the part, and since Agnes is the only thing remotely like an anchor that the script provides, that means that we're largely skimming along the surface of the material with her.

Granting all of this - and granting as well the possibility that I'll very very different about this after a second viewing, when I have a better handle on whatever the hell Strindberg was up to in the first place - A Dream Play is still an extraordinarily ambitious and sprawling work (it was quite costly, by the standards of plays for television, and very well-received by contemporary critics). The film's main focus seems not to be the ideas at play, but the delivery system of dreamlike fluidity: even its opening title cards, summarising Strindberg's vision of this as a form theatricalised dream logic, push us to think of it more in those terms than anything else. And maybe that's even enough, particularly given how excellent the film is at capturing that detached, surreal vibe. It starts, as I've implied, with the videography: this was Bergman's first dalliance with that medium, and whether he intended it or not, the videotaped parts of A Dream Play end up having an eerie slickness, taking full advantage of the artificial crumminess of '60s video technology to create a feeling of weightless floating, just in terms of how the characters move, and how the greys that emerge from the generally pitch-black cinematography seem to shimmer a little bit (like all of Bergman's televised theater, no camera operator or cinematographer is credited).

So the thing already has an unreal, dreamy feeling just to look at any randomly-selected shot, with their void-like black emptiness and hollow video shine; and this isn't even the main strategy the film uses to instill a dreamlike state. There's also some of Bergman's new favorite trick, direct-address of faces in medium close-up, but what's really driving A Dream Play is its hazy series of dissolves. This film is absolutely head-over-heels in love with dissolves; dissolves between scenes almost always, but also dissolves within parts of scenes that have the effect of making those parts feel disconnected from each other. And the dissolves increase as it goes along, perhaps suggesting the move towards waking and the dissolution of the dream world, but definitely making it feel less coherent the more time we spend with it. In other words, the film's editing has the effect of making an already diffuse and obscure play feel even more diffuse, by letting its individual pieces fuzz out into detached molecules. Moreover, since the whole piece takes place in the blackened shells of set pieces, dominated by empty dark space, those dissolves make it very hard for us to situate ourselves relative to the locations, deliberately and effectively confounding our ability to to conceive of a real space where this is all taking place.

A Dream Play is "about" dissolves so much, in fact, that it's almost impossible for me to see the theatrical production behind it all. Bergman has found an outstanding cinematic equivalent for Strindberg's experiments in staging dreams, and the result is a film that gets right to the heart of the organically incoherent flow of dreaming. Whether he has successfully done more with the material, I am uncomfortable saying - it's not hard for me to imagine finding depths in here that I've missed, nor is it hard for me to suspect that this really is all about the surface affect. Whatever is going on, though, it's a worthy experiment and almost certainly the weirdest single entry in Bergman's filmography up to that -  maybe not productively weird, but certainly a fascinating thing to be blindsided by.