Ingmar Bergman, as we all know, stopped making movies with Fanny and Alexander. His next movie, two years later, was After the Rehearsal, and this was a point of much friction between him and his foreign distributor, Triumph Films. For Bergman, it was extremely important that nothing else he ever made after Fanny and Alexander be given theatrical release, to preserve the sanctity of that film's status as his final statement of cinema; for Triumph, it was extremely important to turn a profit. And Triumph had the language in the contracts to do it, which is why, following After the Rehearsal's premiere on Swedish television in April 1984, it screened out of competition at Cannes, and played theatrically pretty much everywhere outside of Scandinavia, starting with the United States.

Nobody likes to side with the money men over the creators, but in this case, the distributor was on the side of the angels, if maybe for a dubious reason. Fanny and Alexander is a masterpiece of the highest order, but as the final declaration of Ingmar Bergman's cinema career, it's always felt a tiny bit odd to me: stylistically, thematically, and narratively, it's simply not that much like anything he'd done before. After the Rehearsal, though, feels every bit like one last desperate attempt to grapple with ideas that had plagued his career, and in the form of an uncomfortably claustrophobic chamber drama that uses shot scales like nuclear weapons, while two unrealistically erudite people talk art theory at each other. All this, and it's an obvious indictment of Bergman's unattractive vision of himself, making it the most bluntly autobiographical piece he ever made (even casting Bertil Guve, who played the director-as-a-child figure of Alexander, in a one-shot appearance as the young version of this film's main character).

The set-up is as simple as it gets: one set, three actors, 73 minutes in real time. It has routinely been described as, essentially, a one-act play that has somehow found its way onto film, though this isn't giving it nearly the credit it deserves for the thoughtfulness of its editing, and even its sound mix. Still, you can see why people go there, especially since the topic is so pointedly Bergman's views on theater and stage acting. We begin with the words of a theater director, Henrik Vogler (Erland Josephson), the latest bearer of a surname that Bergman first used to another theater artist having severe doubts about his medium, in 1958's The Magician. He informs us, in voiceover, that he is accustomed to spending afternoons after rehearsal relaxing in the empty theater, to let his mind settle (and if there's anything that firmly proves that this isn't just filmed theater, it's the importance of voiceover as a breach in the sonic reality of the movie).

This particular afternoon, he's interrupted in his reflections by Anna Egerman (Lena Olin), the lead in his upcoming production of August Strindberg's A Dream Play - a play of considerably significance in Bergman's professional career. By this time, he had staged it three times, beginning with a 1963 television film, and then onstage in 1970 and 1977, and a fourth and last production was to come in 1986; he had also given it a cameo of great importance in the very last narrative beat of Fanny and Alexander. By his own acknowledgement, it was the most important constant companion of his life as a theater director. And it would be impossible to deny that After the Rehearsal benefits from knowing all of this. Much of Henrik and Anna's conversation, in the early going, focuses on the difficulties of staging such a bizarre piece, and particularly in helping the lead actress who is the audience's only anchor find her way through it. Henrik doesn't believe he's succeeded yet, and he's hopeful that Anna will be the one to help him unlock it, even though they both agree that she's too young for the part (as he notes with an ironic twinkle, the role is always cast either too young or too old). This is why he has built the entire production around her, and this is where she starts to reveal that coming back to the theater was no accident, as she implied when she first poked her head in, looking for her bracelet. Indeed, she has much to say to Henrik, and he's not going to want to hear almost any of it. While their conversation spills out, Henrik finds himself mentally flashing back to similar conversation he once had with Anna's late mother Rakel (Ingrid Thulin), his on-again, off-again lover.

Bergman had entered After the Rehearsal hoping for just a simple little project that could be shot fast, without any fuss, by a skeleton crew and hardly any cast. He found the experience horrible, finding fault with his own handling of the text as well as Thulin's tendency towards overemoting and Josephson's unprecedented memorisation problems; the only kind words he had for the project, when it was over, were for Olin, who held her own against all these heavyweights; he also seems to have had no real complaints about cinematographer Sven Nykvist's handling of the images, in what would prove to be the last movie the two men would make together - the end of one of cinema's all-time greatest professional collaborations (Nykvist, who had already shot several films in Hollywood, would more or less permanently move to America after this, give or take Andrei Tarkovsky's Swedish-made The Sacrifice; he would never come close to matching his heights with Bergman, though I am fond of what he did with Philip Kaufman on The Unbearable Lightness of Being and with Woody Allen on Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors). It's a low-key end to their work together; Nykvist embraces the swimming graininess of his work in Scenes from a Marriage, and he uses soft, but strongly directional lighting to create a feeling of the empty theater space as somewhat spartan and grey. But it's not at all work that's looking to call attention to itself - nor should it! It's the right fit for the script, and for the setting, and for the people.

At any rate, Bergman's misery on set translated to bad-mouthing After the Rehearsal for years. This is perhaps why, despite receiving strong (sometimes even glowing) reviews when it was new, the film has largely disappeared from view, just part of the vast gap between Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, 21 years later. A great pity, because After the Rehearsal strikes me as an essential part of the director's canon, with its slight running time and unambitious production scale only serving to focus and concentrate the swirling battle of psychological forces at the center, by which I mean Henrik against himself as often as Henrik against Anna, or Henrik against the intrusive memory of Rakel. Bergman transparently uses the character of the director as a way of cataloguing his own faults - his habit of drawing his leading ladies from his sexual and romantic partners and his tendency to cast leading ladies in the hope of sleeping with them, obviously. And in this connection it is surely telling that he has cast Thulin as the reminder of all his past sins, she being perhaps the most conspicuous exception to the pattern of Bergman having affairs with his most important actresses, and he having openly voiced jealousy of her husband in the past. But there's also quite a lot of artistic insecurity involved, as Bergman, through Henrik, questions whether he actually knows as much about theater as he thinks he does, or if a director is really there to help his actors at all, or if he's just good at controlling them to work out his petty need to play God.  And the aging process hovers over the entire film, with the central tension - Henrik obviously wants to sleep with Anna, and he's much angrier at himself for wanting that than at her for resisting - heavily inflected by the contrast between a man near the end of his life and career feeling exceptionally run down and decrepit in the face of a young woman just starting out and potentially about to have her first great success. Even the last line and narrative beat are about the failure of the human body with age, tossing out any concerns of theater or sex to focus solely on Henrik's muted terror at losing his physical faculties.

All of these concerns are jam-packed into 73 minutes that cut out the scenes and lines that Bergman hoped would make this into a dark comedy - not even the bitterest humor remains in After the Rehearsal, another reason the director was unhappy with the end result. But if it lacks much tonal variety - and with such a short running time, that's a pretty mild problem anyway - it makes up for it with the sheer force that it pursues the themes that have been left behind. One does not ever go to a Bergman film first and foremost for its top-of-the-line editing (except insofar as long takes fall under the purview of editing, in its negative aspect), but the start of his collaboration with editor Sylvia Ingemarsson (whose first work cutting for the director was with 1978's Autumn Sonata) was good for him in this regard. Her work piecing together After the Rehearsal is certainly unobtrusive, but it's extremely purposeful, especially in the way she hangs onto wide shots; one of the most stunning moments in the film comes when Henrik and Anna have just exchanged a particularly rancorous volley of lines at each other in tight close-up, only for the beat after they've both had their say to revel that they're on opposite sides of a large room. It genuinely startled me to be reminded of this at this point, with the violence of their words suddenly feeling flat and empty, the forced arguments of scared and confused people rather than a true battle of wills.

This careful manipulation of shot scales and the smart way the film uses the rhythm of Josephson and Olin's performances to guide its own pace without completely relying on them mean that those 73 minutes end up going by exceptionally fast; given that the film consists of virtually nothing but arguing in Swedish, there's no reason for After the Rehearsal to be as gripping as it so consistently is. But that, I guess, is part of what you get from a director who had spent more than 20 years at this point honing exactly this skill, and who is here venting forth some of his deepest concerns and insecurities as an artist into a passionate rant that hopes there's some point to this whole theater thing. It's a small film, to be sure, and unassuming, and I guess that's why it tends to be counted as a minor Bergman work. But being tiny, in this case, just means it's unusually dense, and I really do suppose this might be the definitive statement of Bergman the film director on Bergman the theater director - and how are we to possible consider that "minor"?