This guest post comes from Michael Centore. It is one part of three in his series on filmmaker’s memoirs.

Three quotations constellate in my mind when I think of the subject of “excess.” There’s William Blake’s “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”; then Balzac’s “All excesses are brothers,” which finds its rhetorical forebear in Saint John Cassian’s “Excesses meet.” One of the “Proverbs of Hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the Blake line is often bumper-stickered into a general defense of hedonism—a misreading on par with the selective omission of the word rational in Rimbaud’s “rational derangement of the senses” by the (often) young and (usually) stoned. Balzac is more exact, the saint exacter still: in essaying the extremes of our emotional lives, bouts of self-denial and self-indulgence can both bring us to the same, self-surrendering place.

Ingmar Bergman knew this. The life mapped out in his memoir The Magic Lantern is one of a man constantly oscillating between the wildings of a rich interior world and the rigorous discipline involved in turning them into film. This is true of many artists, but in Bergman’s case—the Bergman presented here, at least—the whiplash between art and life is especially excruciating. Much has been made of the influence of his upbringing as the son of a Lutheran pastor, and with good reason: he references it a lot. From reminisces of his father emerge a portrait of a man who was able, week in and week out, to deliver sermons on the topic of love, but never have those words carry over into his behavior beyond the pulpit. Thus Bergman’s life becomes, effectually, an attempt to create love for himself—a love apart from the God of his father, a love extant most fully in the dream-life of the theater and, later, the cinema. Of Godard, Susan Sontag once wrote that his work gave “the impression of being engaged in an unending agon with the very fact of literature”; substitute love for literature and I think you have an apt description of the Bergman ethos. Or as he himself puts it succinctly: “Love makes one enterprising.”

The problem, of course, with reducing love to an “enterprising” motive is that it is by nature selfless, and at its fullest expression its own reward. The end of love is love, and yet the chronic need to “make something” of it is what seems to have exiled Bergman from himself, cast about in the “border country between body and soul.” The Magic Lantern is of all things an account of, rebellion against, and attempt at repairing this exile. In prose that shudders more than it flows, Bergman renders the instances of “boundless terror and explosive joy” that marked the poles of his childhood and carried on through his adult life. Nothing is spared, from the rarified concerns of a prayer life that “stank of anguish, entreaty, trust, loathing and despair” to the—sometimes vile, sometimes plainly debilitating—processes of the “poisonous life within [the] body.” This for terror; for joy, a handful of instances where “a few steles rise above the crushed pebbles,” mostly confined to those moments of grace chanced upon while shooting a film and beheld unobtrusively enough to be recorded for posterity (Victor Sjöström nailing the final scene of Wild Strawberries in one take). The means of finding some middle ground, or at least some pittance of peace, is always to direct: film as if it were life, life as if it were film. A collapsed marriage to pianist Käbi Laretei is summed up as “two people chasing after identity and security and writing each other’s parts”: a description which, with its well-worn theatrical metaphor, could serve as an epitaph for many of Bergman’s personal and professional relationships. In this he bears no small resemblance to his fellow Swede and closest literary ancestor, August Strindberg.

Strindberg is all over The Magic Lantern. Bergman reads and rereads him, quotes him, directs his plays, jockeys for a “jittery and deferential” meeting with him, and even—in a turnabout of fortune that plays like a scenario from either one of their works—rents an apartment on the site of his former home in the östermalm district of Stockholm. Unlike Andrei Tarkovsky, whose memoir Sculpting in Time is a choral arrangement of artistic influences, Bergman is much less forthcoming about the forces that have shaped his vision beyond Strindberg. Thus the maestro comes to occupy a place in the memoir similar to that of Tarkovsky’s father Arseniy: so total is the one man’s assimilation of the other that the influence transcends formal constraints and becomes something atmospheric. It is the spirit of The Ghost Sonata’s depiction of psychological torment alive in Hour of the Wolf, of The Stronger’s lean clash of longing and silence in Persona; the kitchen in Miss Julie, that overheated site of power struggle between the sexes, could be any number of Bergman’s domestic battlefields, from the comic (Smiles of a Summer Night) to the tragic (Face to Face) to the bleakly in-between (Scenes from a Marriage).

Ultimately, it is a skepticism of very the human connection they both long for that binds them. Like Strindberg, for whom “love is like the hyacinth which has to strike roots in darkness before it can produce a vigorous flower,” Bergman is committed—in his films as well as in this memoir—to showing how love can rend even as it saves. Transplanting the hyacinth: “A production stretches its tentacle roots a long way down through time and dreams. I like to imagine its roots dwelling in a special room of the soul, where they lie maturing comfortably like mighty cheeses.” For both men, communion comes via “the cruel fickleness of artistic truth.” Think Liv Ullmann’s Jenny Isaksson in the aforementioned Face to Face: In her shivers and spasms, her night sweats and sufferings, a sense of the director insinuating himself into the living tissue of her character becomes almost palpable. Knowing Bergman was working through his own nervous breakdown during the time of shooting helps explain this, but even without such biographical detail we can still feel the frisson of art and life reaching a fever pitch in the symbiosis of scripted and scribe. I’m not sure Bergman would share the opinion. In The Magic Lantern he offers up a terse appraisal of the film: “Artistic license sneered through the thin fabric.” Perhaps, in this case, he felt himself too enterprising.