Calling 1969's The Passion of Anna by that name is already doing too much work in tidying up a film that's almost perversely happy at how messy it is. Certainly, it is the messiest film directed by Ingmar Bergman, a director much more driven to crisp, clean, focused (to some of his critics, focused to the point of lifelessness) storytelling than the kind of "throw it all at the wall" visionary madness we see here. It feels like an unholy attempt by Bergman to synthesise his own work with the formal radicalism of Jean-Luc Godard, a director whose films he openly disliked, and while I cannot begin to explain why that would have been his impulse, the results are striking and exciting. Whether they work to produce anything good, I cannot say. But they're striking.

I was, though, speaking of the title. The film has almost always been known in English as The Passion of Anna, but it was briefly, at the start, marketed as A Passion, which is the direct translation of the original Swedish En passion. I assume it was a choice made to exploit Bergman's celebrated ability to work with actresses, and actresses named Liv Ullmann in particular (she plays Anna), but it also tells us before we even start that the film is doing something smaller; in fact, The Passion of Anna has four main characters, and while Elis Vergérus, played by Erland Josephson, is somewhat less main than the other three, it does the film a disserve to pretend that it is primarily the story of one woman rather than a fraught interplay of interpersonal relationships that are all, in their different ways, collapsing.

More to the point, En passion is never once shown onscreen: the closest we get to a title at al.l (in that it is text that appears onscreen directly before the card "En film av Ingmar Bergman") is "L 182", which was the film's production number (I am not sure if it was a number assigned by Svensk Filmindustri, or by Cinematograph AB, Bergman's production company, making its second film after Shame). And this, honestly, feels like the most appropriate title the film could ever have - a crude, practical designation, rather than a statement of intent. This, much more than either A Passion or The Passion of Anna, gets us to the feeling the film exudes as you're watching it: that it is a constructed object, several concepts for scenes that, taken in order, offer the impression of a narrative, but not altogether a narrative per se. It is a movie about the writing, production, and assemblage of a movie from the material provided by a group of actors, all of whom discuss their process in the middle of it.

Without that last part, maybe I'd have had an entirely different experience of the film. But the film has that last part, so it's moot. Four times during the movie, each of the leads is shown in a single take, talking about their conception of the character, and what emotional truth they're trying to get at through their performance, in this order: Max Von Sydow, Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Josephson. Presumably, these are off-the-cuff interviews with the actors, though they speak in such fully-formed declarations of high-minded artistic notions that I can just easily imagine them being scripted at least a little bit. Regardless, the content of these interviews is of less interest than the fact they exist at all: it's a constant, nagging reminder that the film has been constructed, coupled with a (perhaps tongue-in-cheek; it's hard to say) guide for reading the four characters, or at least the four performances. Taken together, these interviews turn The Passion of Anna's focus from the story it tells to the process by which it was created; a produced object, an "L 182".

In between those four moments, the film is the third of Bergman's three films examining how human beings destroy each other by trapping Ullmann and von Sydow together in a cottage on an island. We start on von Sydow's character, Andreas Winkelman, as he meets Anna Fromm for the first time; he's a recent divorcé, she's recently lost her husband - also named Andreas - in car accident, both of them are emotionally broken by loss and isolation. When she comes to his house to use his phone, he impulsively searches in her handbag, finding and reading a letter from her late husband, and in a sense the entire rest of the film is a waiting game until the inevitable fallout from that event. Both Andreas and Anna independently know the Vergéruses, Elis and Eva (Andersson), and spend time with them; Elis is growing more emotionally distant from an already detached marriage, and Eva and Andreas have a brief affair. After this inevitably peters out, he strikes up a romantic relationship with Anna, one that the narrator (Bergman) informs us multiple times is stable and pleasant but largely without any real emotional commitment from either of them. Over the year and change that this all plays out, the island is plagued by an unknown maniac torturing and sometimes killing animals, and suspicion has (obviously unjustly) fallen on Andreas's elderly friend Johan (Erik Hell). This largely hums along in the background, never rising up to the level of a structuring genre, the way that Hour of the Wolf was a horror film and Shame was a war film, but it's impossible to miss how this creates a looming feeling of menace that neatly ties into the film's depiction of how every one of its four leads is a basically cruel and destructive person, to others and to themselves.

This isn't new territory for Bergman to explore, by any means, and I'm more than slightly tempted to suppose that this is what explains the Godardian breakdown of the actor/character relationship, as well as the overall sense that we're watching some sort of a nonspecific "fictional object" rather than the specific story of Andreas and Anna: he was trying to do something to keep the material fresh, for him and for his audience. Creating the film was an unusually painful process: it took Bergman a false start before he was able to come up with a script he liked (the first draft he handed off to Jan Molander, who directed it as a television film titled The Lie in 1970), and even then, the film did not have a finished screenplay, but left much of its material to be devised by the director and actors during production. Bergman later wrote that this was largely the result of running out of time to write, but that he felt that it was a gratifying thing to have had to work through (one wonders if this is why the film ended up taking the form it does of foregrounding artifice; perhaps that's just a natural side-effect of having the creative process take over production).

Even once on set, though, the film remained a difficult problem; Bergman claimed in his memoirs that it was one of the most memorably awful productions of his career. The largest reason for this was apparently the cinematography: this was the director's second color film, after 1964's All These Women, and the first one that he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist actually wanted to make that way. It also marks the end of their black-and-white period, I am sad to say; while at least two of their collaborations in color have unabashedly brilliant cinematography (I am here thinking of Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage), their black-and-white films include some of my favorite piece of cinematography in existence, and even their best color work simply can't compare.

Certainly The Passion of Anna doesn't start things off on a strong note. Fairly early on, the two men learned that they hadn't really figured out how shooting in color was practically different from shooting in black-and-white, and much of the film's production involved learning by doing. This process left behind some extremely visible scars: The Passion of Anna is an extraordinarily rare example of a Bergman film that is actively ugly, I think. Not ugly in an damaging way, at least: it matches the overall sense the film offers of being a kind of strange non-movie built around an anti-drama. And even if we take the story at face value, the blown-out graininess and pallid saturation of the film, stretching all the way to its very last shot (a preposterously fuzzy, murky shot that ends with the iris opening up to bleach all the detail out), match the aura of random, petty cruelty that inform all of the events we see. The harsh, filthy-looking cinematography is an appropriate match for who the characters are, and the sheen of messy noise that coats the colors feels correctly unromantic and unlovely for a movie with a narrative throughline of animals suffering.

The whole film is a bit of a mess, basically; I think a productive mess, though less productive than when the same filmmaking team worked with laser-like focus on marrying character, narrative, and image. There is something extremely energetic here, though, a sense of unpredictable liveliness. The actors benefit the most from this; nobody is doing their best work for Bergman (and Ullmann is almost certainly the least-interesting she had been in her four films with him to that point), but there's a rawness that one doesn't always see in the acting in his films. That none of the characters are, or are meant to be sympathetic encourages the performers to make some very aggressive choices in letting the small meanness of these people bleed out - Andersson, in the most atypical role she got in a Bergman film, seems particularly freed up to let her character smirk and snarl her way through the story.

The filmmaking itself, though, also has its own kind of vitality, a feeling that we're watching it find itself in real time. I do not pretend to prefer this to the immaculately worked-out stateliness of basically everything else Bergman had directed in the 1960s; for the risk of trying to figure things out in the middle of making a movie is that one won't, and The Passion of Anna has so many different ideas to try out that it's not surprising that they don't end up working together all the time (a late dream sequence in black and white is notably out of place; it is, taken on its own terms, perhaps the most elegant piece of filmmaking in the movie, but it also feels redundant). And while I don't imagine this was the point, the narration and the cast interviews end up feeling at least slightly like a last-ditch attempt to help move us through a story in the absence of footage that was able to do the same thing on its own two feet. My overall feeling, then, is that this is an exciting, ambitious experiment that has largely ended inconclusively; everything that's best here had either already been done better in a Bergman film (notably Persona), or would be done better in a later one (notably Scenes from a Marriage). Still, experiments matter, and it very much feels like we would never have gotten to the second wave of Bergman masterpieces without this strange little outlier bringing such an uncertain end to the decade of the first wave.