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NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research

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Bergman's Queer Male Spectator

Ingrid Ryberg

To cite this article: Ingrid Ryberg (2014) Bergman's Queer Male Spectator, NORA - Nordic Journal
of Feminist and Gender Research, 22:2, 155-158, DOI: 10.1080/08038740.2014.900110

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Published online: 21 May 2014.

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NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 2014
Vol. 22, No. 2, 155–158,


Bergman’s Queer Male Spectator

Queer Bergman: Sexuality, Gender and the European Art Cinema
Daniel Humphrey
Austin, University of Texas Press, 2013, ISBN 9780292743762
(220 pp.)

Ingmar Bergman’s daring feature, Summer with Monika (1953), about young lust and
infatuation one summer season in the Stockholm archipelago, formed part of the
shaping of a national self-image of a country at the forefront of sexual liberation—
not least for women—and of Swedish sexuality as natural, free, and educated.
Internationally, however, this notion of a modern and enlightened sexuality came to
be understood as “the Swedish sin” and was tied to an image of a spiritually hollow,
amoral, suicide- and divorce-burdened, socialist nation. When Bergman’s film first
reached American audiences in 1955 it was not as an art film, but as the re-edited
“skin flick” Monika—The Story of a Bad Girl!, shown in drive-ins and grind-house
theatres. The case of Summer with Monika is a telling example of how the meaning of
any single film changes with and is shaped by different promotional strategies,
exhibition practices, and national, historical and cultural contexts.
In his book, Queer Bergman: Sexuality, Gender and the European Art Cinema
(2013), Daniel Humphrey studies the exhibition and reception of Bergman’s early
films in the USA and argues that they resonated with and invited a particular kind of
queer spectatorship, pre-existing the era of the gay liberation movement and the
emergence of a film culture more explicitly dealing with homosexuality, such as the
work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder or John Waters. By a detailed analysis of the ways
in which Bergman’s work reached the American audience—through film posters and
ads, movie theatres and reviews—Humphrey demonstrates how notions of
foreignness and strangeness, commonly used to describe the films, were associated
with non-normative sexualities and spoke directly to gay and lesbian audiences.
For instance, after its early grind-house existence and after Bergman’s American
breakthrough as an art film director, Summer with Monika reappeared in 1960 as
Monika with the tagline “The Story of a Strange Girl”, adding to the discursive
construction of the European auteur’s work as emanating from a curious, sexual grey
zone, which also related to a Cold War-era image of Sweden as a suspicious socialist
nation of demasculinized men. After the US release of The Magician (1958),
Bergman’s first film featuring androgynous characters, the notion of the uncanny
also became increasingly tied to his work. By relating Freud’s notion of the uncanny
to his theories on polymorphous perversity, Humphrey argues that this further
evoked a queer spectator position.
q 2014 Ingrid Ryberg
156 Book Review

Humphrey presents convincing empirical grounding for his argument by

highlighting how a queer understanding and appreciation of Bergman’s films—for
instance Thirst (1949) and The Silence (1964)—as well as other European art films,
clearly informed articles in the gay and lesbian press at the time. These are valuable
findings given the later critical distancing from Bergman that characterized not only
gay and lesbian culture, but also feminist film criticism and left-leaning film
scholarship during the 1970s more widely. Gay critic Robin Wood and feminist film
scholar Constance Penley were some of the critical voices rejecting Bergman’s films—
in particular Cries and Whispers (1972)—on the grounds of their misogyny,
homophobia, and bourgeois values. Aligning his book with the works of film scholars
Marilyn Johns Blackwell and Maaret Koskinen, Humphrey’s study belongs to an on-
going critical reappraisal of Bergman’s work, including its relevance to groups it has
been thought to offend.
The book enters into respectful dialogue with previous studies, but through its
queer lens it also provides a kind of revision of the prevailing history of Bergman’s
significance in the US context. For instance, by carefully charting the American
distribution and promotional materials for Bergman’s early work, Humphrey draws
attention to how Thirst (1949) primarily met the American art film audience in 1958
as Three Strange Loves, a title emphasizing the lesbian subplot. Moreover, and quite
strikingly, the film was advertised in The Los Angeles Times with a still of a woman
looking intently at another woman above the caption: “I’ve found a way to love
independent of any man”.
In addition to providing this new element to Bergman scholarship, the book also
makes an important contribution to a current strand of queer scholarship that is
engaged in modifying and complicating standardized accounts of LGBT history as a
movement synthesized through the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Humphrey draws
attention to other forms of queer subjectivities and socialities—the art cinema
homosexuals—separate from the drag queens and activists fighting for visibility on
the barricades.
In fact, the notion of queer works particularly well in Humphrey’s analysis of the
spectator position offered through Bergman’s films in the American pre-Stonewall
context, since this subjectivity is not about identity politics or being positively
reflected and affirmed by out gay or lesbian characters. Nor is it about the better-
known queer sensibility evoked by camp aesthetics and avant-garde film-makers such
as Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. The queerness that Humphrey extracts from
Bergman’s films is not about parody or exaggeration, but rather about a certain
masculine vulnerability, penetrability, and anxiety.
In addition to charting the chain of associations between foreignness, strangeness,
the uncanny, and queerness in the US exhibition and reception of Bergman’s films,
Humphrey also analyses the work formally and draws attention to how lighting,
setting, and composition make up rich subtexts for spelling out homoerotic desires in
films such as Thirst, Torment (1944), and Frustration (1947). Through a close reading
of Torment, Humphrey makes a convincing point about the queer gaze being invited
through the soft lighting of actor Alf Kjellin (who is also presented in passive
feminized positions), in accordance with how female sex objects were lit in 1940s
Hollywood films.
Book Review 157

Another formal feature crucial to Humphrey’s analysis is Bergman’s so-called

“signature shot”: sequences in which the (often female) characters turn to look
straight at the camera, in films such as Persona (1966), Winter Light (1963), Shame
(1968), and, again, Summer with Monika (1953), where the female lead shamelessly
makes eye contact with the spectator right when she is about to pick up a man in a bar
for an extra-marital adventure. Humphrey reads these shots through the affect
theories of Silvan Tomkins and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and contends that, by letting
the characters look right back at the film audience—sometimes for uncannily long
sequences—these films impose shame on the male-identified spectator specifically.
He argues that these sequences deconstruct not only the seamlessness of the film’s
illusion, but also dominant understandings of gender and sexuality and therefore
evoke a certain gender shame, a kind of self-critical epiphany regarding the male
spectator’s own constructed masculinity.
The strength of this analysis of male sensibility to the shaming work of Bergman’s
films is its situatedness in a context of Cold-War pre-Stonewall anxieties and
ambiguities regarding patriarchal and hegemonic masculinity. This sensibility would
soon give way to a gay liberation urge for visibility and positive representations, but
would also find its way back into queer cinema in the works of Fassbinder and later
Todd Haynes, Humphrey argues. This historical and cultural anchoring is crucial to
the claim that shame is relevant to this particular historical audience, and in this
aspect Humphrey’s book also makes a productive contribution to current queer
debates about the so-called anti-social thesis. Humphrey potentially opens up space
for a much-needed discussion about how notions of queer negativity and the anti-
sociality of gay male sexuality (for instance in the works of Leo Bersani and Lee
Edelman), need to be located in relation to patriarchal and other intersecting power
structures in specific historical contexts.
However, in his chapter on shame (pp. 133– 166), Humphrey gradually loses touch
with the empirical groundwork in the book’s opening chapters and ends up by
making much larger and more general claims—arrived at primarily through textual
analysis of a handful of films. Ultimately, Bergman’s shaming films are interpreted as
being of no more particular relevance to the gay male spectator in the specific
national, cultural, and historical context the book sets out to consider, than to any
male-identified spectator in any time or place. Rather than excavating how gender
shame possibly informed other discourses of relevance to the art cinema homosexuals
of the time, Humphrey is more concerned about arguing with other Bergman
scholars over the correct reading of these shaming films, making his key point the
need to insert a potential queer subjectivity and radical awareness into the film
theoretical notion of the male spectator.
The strength of this book is its productive starting-point in the acknowledgement
that a film’s meaning is shaped by specific contexts and audiences, but this point is
lost in the discussion about shame. Against the backdrop of the well-grounded and
highly convincing argument about how Bergman’s films invited queer
spectatorship in pre-Stonewall America, the latter half of the book, ironically,
comes to serve more as a manifestation of the weakness of textual analysis as
de-contextualized and isolated practice. Undeniably, Humphrey makes an
interesting point about the male spectatorship that is evoked in Bergman’s films,
158 Book Review

but his interpretation also becomes just one of many possible readings that the
auteur’s multi-faceted work invites—which is finally exactly what characterizes the
European art film.

Ingrid Ryberg
Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University
Stockholm, Sweden