Brink of Life: sympathetic and unromantic 1950’s investigation of pregnancy and childbirth

Ingmar Bergman, “Brink of Life” (1958)

Even in these supposedly more “liberal” times when no topic seems taboo to speak about openly, a director, male or female, would need to be very brave to tackle the subject of childbirth, miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy and stillbirth in the same feature film. Imagine then that over half a century ago, when it was rare for Hollywood even to show a married couple in bed together, a director did precisely just that: make a movie about childbirth and pregnancy that didn’t romanticise the phenomena but instead portrayed them as painful and ghastly and part of human suffering. The film is “Brink of Life” and it was made by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, following soon after he made “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries

Revolving around three women patients thrown together in a room in a maternity hospital, the movie has an ordinary look and its focus is small and intimate: the camera limits itself to the three women’s ward, the corridor immediately outside and a few other rooms. The entire film hangs on the performances of the actors playing the three women Cecelia (Ingrid Thulin), Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) and Hjordis (Bibi Andersson); fortunately all three actors rise to the challenge of playing characters undergoing their own personal crises connected with their pregnancies and all give outstanding performances. Cecelia has a miscarriage and tries to explain it away as evidence of her husband’s lack of love for her and the unborn child: she decides that they should get a divorce. Hjordis is a young unmarried girl rejected by her lover for falling pregnant; having had an abortion before, she now wants to keep the baby but is frightened that her parents will turn her away. Stina is looking forward to seeing her new baby and when her husband (Max von Sydow) visits, they make plans about what cot the child will sleep in. The birth turns out to be difficult and ends badly; the doctors are unable to explain why and how it went wrong

Each of the lead actors makes the most of her role in one scene or a few: Thulin in particular gives a wrenching performance early on when, delirious from the anaesthetic, she raves to Nurse Brita (Barbro Hiort af Ornas) about the lack of love in her marriage, her own personal inadequacies and how these affected the pregnancy. The camera focusses closely on Thulin’s face, in intense psychological pain, and, like the nurse, the viewer feels trapped yet compelled to listen. Dahlbeck has her moment when Stina goes into labour and suffers pain and panic as the baby gets stuck; the acting looks so realistic and is heart-rending to watch as doctors and nurses scurry about helplessly. Andersson perhaps steals the film from Thulin and Dahlbeck in her portrayal of Hjordis: young and not a little rebellious, yet unsure about her future and the baby’s, she has no monologues but her telephone scenes and the dialogues she has with Cecelia, Nurse Brita and a counsellor reveal a great deal about Hjordis’s background and inner turmoil about her relationships with her lover and family.

Of the support cast, Hiort af Ornas as Nurse Brita is excellent, having to be confidant to the patients in her charge as well as the authoritative head nurse giving orders, yet never really succeeding in giving the patients the psychological comfort they need and just mouthing platitudes about the joys of motherhood. Erland Josephsson, playing Cecelia’s husband, makes the most of his limited time portraying a man completely out of his depth in trying to help his wife come to terms with her miscarriage. Generally all male characters in “Brink of Life” seem self-centred and lack understanding and sympathy for the psychological and emotional issues that arise for women experiencing pain and uncertainty in a major life-changing event; they approach such problems with rationalistic views or science and technology which in the movie end up failing them. The nurses, Nurse Brita included, go about their duties quietly and efficiently but always defer to the men and their science. The hospital is revealed as remote and clinical in its culture, its staff narrowly focussed on getting results and churning through patients and babies: it’s, well, an inhospitable place. Towards the film’s end, Inga Landgre nearly sweeps away the other female actors’ thunder in a very brief but impressively forceful appearance as sister-in-law to Cecilia, urging her to give her marriage another chance

Limited to a small set of rooms, the film has a trapped, claustrophobic quality; the crying of newborn babies and the patients’ own limited movements reinforce the claustrophobia. The small scale of the movie is such that it begins with Cecelia being admitted to hospital and, in a terrifying scene, stranded in a room by herself while her foetus dies; the movie ends with Hjordis discharging herself from hospital, separating from the other two women with whom she has shared several details about herself so viewers never know if Cecilia and her husband will reconcile, or how Stina will react to news of her baby’s death. The film sometimes has the look of a play – if it had been made in the present day, it might be expected to look more like a documentary taking place in an actual hospital with improvised acting – and most of the acting does have a staged quality. Some of the dialogue that Hjordis has in expressing her ambivalence about pregnancy and looking after a baby to Nurse Brita touches on issues of human suffering which may strike some viewers as rather deep and intense for a young girl of a working-class background to express. The very ordinary, almost sterile look of the film may not win it any technical accolades but it does concentrate the attention on the actors and their lean dialogue

The premise of throwing together three women representing different social classes in the one ward hardly seems credible and the plot doesn’t explore the women’s social differences and how these might influence their attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth, and to one another. Hjordis’s social background helps to round out her character and fears about her pregnancy and what she believes will be her family’s reaction to the unexpected pregnancy but the other two women’s backgrounds seem irrelevant to their character development and the plot’s workings. At least the hospital staff treat the three women equally (as in equally coldly and unsympathetically) regardless of their social class. The film’s overall message seems to be that human existence can be grim, people don’t always live up to their potential as full human beings and provide the support women and babies need, and mothers must make the best of whatever difficult situations they find themselves in: a fairly trite message.

In spite of its limitations, “Brink of Life” is worthwhile watching for the performances given and for a complex and sympathetic view of pregnancy and childbirth in a context that should give care and support to women who need both but treats pregnancy and childbirth as strictly technical medical conditions.

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