[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
It may be a peculiarity of my character that a little of Jan Troell’s unassumingness goes a very long way. There’s something very admirable—and certainly “grownup,” to anyone passionately concerned that the movies grow away from Melodrama and towards Life—about his talent for capturing the offhand beauties of a field, a rock, the picturesque yet undecorative angle from which the whimsy, at once gentle and profound, of a pregnant woman indulging in her last reverie on a swing is observed and defined. The New Land begins (at least, as it is shown in this country) with a slow, obscurely motivated zoom-out from a deep stand of trees somewhere in 19th-century Minnesota, the sound of … an axe? a gun? a wheel? … reverberating within. Anything could be happening there—something surely seems to be happening there—and in its own good time the land and the film may reveal that something to us.
Zandy’s Bride, Troell’s newest film and his first entirely un-Swedish one, partakes of many of these same qualities which we have encountered in The Emigrants, The New Land, and even his (much-cut in the Brandon Films version) Here’s Your Life. But it lacks the sense of epic aspiration that the literary forebears of his earlier films supplied—lacks it while, oddly enough, affecting it, groping to supply it. Again we are treated (not quite in the first shot) with a zoom-out from a vaguely perceived Gene Hackman picking his way on horseback down a miles-long Big Sur mountainside that suggests nothing so much as green musculature in repose. Zandy (Hackman) is on his way to Monterey to bring home a mail-order bride from Minnesota (Liv Ullmann). We see them fidgeting toward the act of marriage, the camera casually discovers them picking their way around a bluff beaten by the surf, and a piled-up telephoto view of distant sunset sea behind and violet-tinged darkness beforehand adroitly—but also seemingly accidentally—catches them nearing Zandy’s glamourless, comfortless home. Troell sets about examining the possibility of achieving a marriage between strangers and the tortuous processes by which such a marriage might ultimately be made. (His screenwriter, Marc Norman, already wrote up a not-dissimilar arrangement for Stanley Kramer in Oklahoma Crude; unlikely liaisons are, by virtue of longstanding cinematic tradition, the likeliest of romantic couplings.) Zandy rapes Hannah. Hannah demands a clothesline. Zandy sleeps in the barn. Zandy visits his father’s farm and vaguely recognizes the conditions of slavery his mother has always suffered. Hannah is visited by a Spanish-American local (Susan Tyrrell) who likes to think Zandy has always been her fella. The wind leans on the grass in the bowl-like pockets along the ever-noticeable hillsides, and up, down, and along these inclines husband and wife lock stubborn looks.
Sounds like a likely idea, the film and the marriage, to the extent that they afford one another mutual pretexts. But somehow it doesn’t jell. “Somehow” may well have to do with the considerable cutting Warners pretty much forced on Troell (you do it or we will, baby!), and I won’t deny that the extra time, the extra proliferation of unforced incident, that much more exposure to the people and places in the movie, might have made the difference: you live with a film long enough, as a viewer in his theater chair, and often the personal existential commitment sneaks up on you. But in its present form Zandy’s Bride is inadequate—and it also exemplifies rather handily something else about Troell’s unassumingness that bothers me, here and elsewhere: that it’s really not very unassuming at all.
His accidental-seeming focus can insist on specific details, and specific interpretations of those details, in an almost Zinnemann-like, even Kramer-like, manner. Within a large enough form that develops a justification of its own—the now-closeup, now wide-shot, now-traveling, now-hesitant take that enwraps Hackman and Ullmann the first time they share the screen and a moment of life—the device succeeds. But it’s dangerously susceptible to become a flaw at any time. The same is true of Troell’s stars: both Hackman and Ullmann are intelligent players, and both are capable of exerting an extraordinary charm; but—here, at least—Troell encourages them to play it safe, as he does himself, very selfconsciously developing bits of business not quite essential to the characters themselves, and just a wee mite suggestive of calculated audience endearment tactics. That Zandy and Hannah arrive at some kind of workable, mutually respectful arrangement by film’s end doesn’t really matter very much. And while the ordinariness, the non-epic quality of their coming-to-terms may well be The Point (Life Is Like That), its failure of impact as a narrative conclusion certifies the not-quiteness of Troell’s filmmaking in general.
Direction: Jan Troell. Screenplay: Marc Norman, after the story “The Stranger” by Lillian Bos Ross. Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth. Production Design: Al Brenner. Editing: Gordon Scott. Music: Michael Franks. Production: Harvey Matofsky.
The Players: Gene Hackman, Liv Ullmann, Susan Tyrrell, Eileen Heckart, Frank Cady, Sam Bottoms, Harry Dean Stanton, Bob Simpson.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson