Elvira Madigan

Director: Bo Widerberg
Screenplay: Bo Widerberg
Stars: Pia Degermark (Elvira Madigan / Hedvig Jensen), Tommy Berggren (Sixten Sparre), Lennart Malmer (Kristoffer), Cleo Jensen (Cleo), Nina Widerberg (Cleo’s daughter)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: Sweden
Elvira Madigan Criterion Collection Blu-rau
Elvira Madigan

Following his first four films—the dour, black-and-white social realist works The Baby Carriage (Barnvagnen, 1963) and Raven’s End (Kvarteret Korpen, 1963), the self-reflexive Love 65 (Kärlek 65, 1965), and the workplace comedy Heja Roland! (1966)—one could not imagine a more unexpected film from Bo Widerberg than Elvira Madigan, a lush, period tragic romance shot in color. Based on the real-life story of the doomed relationship between Elvira Madigan, a young circus performer, and Sixten Sparre, a nobleman and lieutenant in the Swedish army, who ran away together in the late 1880s end ending up dying in a murder-suicide, it is in many ways a conventional period piece. Yet, Widerberg deviates from many of the traditions of the period romance, particularly in the loose narrative and intense emphasis on real locations and natural lighting, all of which presage the films of Terrence Malick, particularly Days of Heaven (1978). It is also clear that Widerberg has not abandoned his interest in social reality, as much of the tragedy around Elvira and Sixten hinges on their being from different social classes, which necessitates their cutting themselves off from the rest of society. This self-created isolation affords them an idyllic romance apart from the pressures of the world, albeit one that is inherently doomed to collapse.

The story had been made into a previous film in 1943 by actor/director Åke Ohberg (who also played the role of Sixten, although the name was changed to Christian under pressure from Sixten’s family). Widerberg takes a substantially different narrative approach by eliding the development of Elvira and Sixten’s relationship and instead focusing entirely on the last few weeks of their lives, when they were already together and trying to forge a secret life for themselves. The story begins in a Danish forest, where the lovers spend much of their time, the beauty of the surrounding nature endowing their romance with an air of grace and sanctity that the rest of the world, especially the newspapers, which are hungry for a story, could only tarnish. Widerberg could begin this deep into the story because it was already so well known throughout Scandinavia, especially as it had been immortalized in Johan Lindström Saxon’s 1889 song “Sad Things Happen.” Yet, even without knowing the real-life story, one can easily follow the narrative, as there are constant references to the past that help us piece together what has happened (although some scenes will play very differently to those not in the know, including the opening where a young child finds Elvira and Sixten in the forest where they appear to be dead, but turns out they were only sleeping).

Elvira was played by Pia Degermark, who was only 18 at the time and had never acted in a film. Degermark was a natural beauty who could hold the camera with a simple gaze, and although she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, her career stumbled through the next decade due to health battles with anorexia, a bad marriage to a controlling producer, and eventually drug problems and criminal charges involving embezzlement. Sixten was played by Tommy Berggren, who had had roles in all four of Widerberg’s previous features (including the lead in Raven’s End) and would go on to star in three more. With a face and left-of-center air reminiscent of French New Wave icon Jean-Paul Belmondo, Berggren makes for an intriguing romantic hero, though his version of Sixten is a highly romanticized fabrication given that the real Sixten likely suffered from severe mental illness. There is some attention paid to the fact that Sixten left a wife and two children to be with Elvira, but it is largely glossed over.

Of course, historical veracity is not the point here, and Widerberg succeeds magnificently in weaving an air of languid, poetic romanticism that is nevertheless punctuated at times with bits of harsh reality (such as when Elvira makes herself physically ill eating wild berries). The majority of the soundtrack is supplied by the second movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, which became so associated with the film that it has since been referred to as the “Elvira Madigan Concerto.” The cinematography by Jörgen Persson is striking in its evocation of Impressionist painting, especially given that it was only his second feature film and his first time working in color (he would go on to a prolific career, shooting several more of Widerberg’s films and eventually working with Lasse Hallström and Bille August). The film’s colors are intense, bordering on Technicolor luminosity, while the image has a slightly soft, hazy texture that makes much of the film feel like a dream.

Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema 4-Disc Blu-ray Set
Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema Criterion Collection Blu-ray SetThis four-disc Blu-ray set contains four films: The Baby Carriage (1963), Raven’s End (1963), Elvira Madigan (1967), and Ädalen 31 (1969).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (The Baby Carriage, Raven’s End; 1.66:1 (Elvira Madigan); 2.39:1 (Ådalen 31)
  • Swedish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all four films)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video introduction to director Bo Widerberg by filmmaker Ruben Östlund
  • Video interviews with actor Tommy Berggren
  • Video interview with cinematographer Jörgen Persson
  • The Boy and the Kite (1962), a short film by Widerberg and Jan Troell, with an introduction by Troell
  • Swedish television interviews with Widerberg from the 1960s
  • Behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Elvira Madigan
  • Essay by film historian Peter Cowie and excerpts from Widerberg’s 1962 book Vision in Swedish Film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 22, 2023

    All four of the film’s in Criterion’s four-disc Blu-ray set Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema are listed as “new restorations” and they all look excellent, although there are some differences in how each transfer was done. The Baby Carriage was transferred in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative; Raven’s End was transferred in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and a duplicate negative; Elvira Madigan was transferred in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative; and Ådalen 31 was transferred in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and a duplicate negative. There is a great deal of visual difference among the four films, with The Baby Carriage and Raven’s End being gritty, black-and-white, Academy aspect ratio films, while Elvira Madigan and Ådalen 31 are lush, color, widescreen films. The grayscale and contrast of the two earlier films give them a strong, realistic presence and work well with their grim subject matter, while the beautiful color cinematography on the latter two films is impressive in its saturation and wide-ranging palette. All four films look generally clean in their restorations, with little or no print damage of signs of age and wear. All four films feature clean monaural soundtracks in Linear PCM. As for the supplements, there isn’t a ton here, but there is enough to help contextualize the films and the role that Widerberg played in invigorating and expanding Swedish cinema in the 1960s. There is a 15-minute video introduction to Widerberg’s career by filmmaker Ruben Östlund (The Square, Triangle of Sadness) that is essential viewing if you are unfamiliar with his work. We also get The Boy and the Kite, a 30-minute film from 1962 by Widerberg and Jan Troell, with a brief introduction by Troell (who would, of course, go on to become a major director, as well). The set also includes new video interviews with two of Widerberg’s most consistent collaborators: Tommy Berggren (18 min.), who starred in eight of Widerberg’s films, and cinematographer Jörgen Persson (21 min.), who shot six of his films. Widerberg himself appears in four interview excerpts from Swedish television: he discusses The Baby Carriage on a 1963 episode of the show Aktuellt (2 min.); that same year he and his daughter Nina discuss Raven’s End on the show Filmkrönikan (7 min.); in 1967, in what is arguably the most intriguing interview, Widerberg is interviewed about Elvira Madigan on the show Filmrutan by a group of schoolchildren (5 min.); and, finally, in 1968 he discusses Ådalen 31 in a press conference on the show Aktuellt with labor-union chairman Hjalmar Näsström, who was present at the actual event (4 min.). There is a tantalizing and all-too-brief minute of behind-the-scenes footage from Elvira Madigan, as well as a hefty insert booklet with a new essay by film historian Peter Cowie and excerpts from Widerberg’s 1962 book Vision in Swedish Film.

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 Qnetwork.com - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.