Elvira Madigan, one of the great art house hits of the 1960s, begins and ends with a children’s choir rendition of a classic Swedish hymn, one that has come to symbolize summer. In between is one of cinema history’s most uncanny uses of a Mozart piece, his 21st piano concert. Director Bo Widerberg first hired a composer, Ulf Björlin, then rejected his entire score because he felt it was too overblown. Out of desperation, the film crew started browsing their own record stashes, hoping to find something that fit.
As soon as Widerberg heard Mozart’s music, he knew that the search was over. This movie made the piece so popular again that it is often recognized simply as the “Elvira Madigan theme”.
The story is based on real-life events. When she was 20, Danish tightrope walker Elvira Madigan (whose real name was Hedvig Jensen) met the Swedish cavalry officer Sixten Sparre, a lieutenant and a count. Even though Sparre was married and 13 years older, they fell in love and stayed in touch after an initial encounter, writing letters to each other. A year later, Sparre deserted from the Swedish army and escaped to Denmark where he reunited with Elvira. They never fell out of love, but did run out of money. On July 20, 1889, the couple packed a picnic basket, went to the island of Tåsinge and had a last meal before Sparre shot Elvira and then himself.
Ultimate romantic tragedy
This movie focuses on their time together after Sparre’s desertion. Previously filmed once before in Sweden in 1943, this ultimate romantic tragedy enchanted audiences worldwide 24 years later in the hands of Widerberg who got his international breakthrough. Subsequent critics have often compared Jörgen Persson’s soft-focus cinematography with commercials and we certainly recognize that kind of visual language – close-ups of pretty faces and impossibly beautiful views of a summer landscape. They sure do look like they’re selling something. And perhaps they are – the concept of Scandinavian summer. A stern critic of Ingmar Bergman, I’m sure Widerberg wouldn’t like being compared to this master, but Elvira Madigan probably made Denmark and Sweden look as attractive to tourists as Smiles of a Summer Night did ten years earlier.
Widerberg and his crew take pleasure in marrying small, everyday details with naturalism, childish spontaneity and idealism. Their view of the Danish landscape and the relationship between Sparre and Madigan is intensely romantic and naive, with the couple lying in the grass and eating berries with fresh cream. There’s a touching scene where Sixten apologizes to Elvira by floating a “I’m sorry” note on the surface of a stream. Later, Widerberg artfully moves into darkness and deeper emotions; the final sequence chillingly fuses the beauty of summer with the inevitable hopelessness of the couple’s romance.
After making this film, the director came to regret the fact that he was unable to capitalize from its huge box-office haul. Had he been a smarter negotiator, Widerberg would have been wealthy. As for Pia Degermark, the 16-year-old amateur who played Elvira, anorexia caused her to lose balance and led to drugs, a ruined career and later a stint in prison for fraud and assault. In different ways, Elvira Madigan was a triumph and a tragedy.
Elvira Madigan 1967-Sweden. 90 min. Color. Produced by Waldemar Bergendahl. Written and directed by Bo Widerberg. Cinematography: Jörgen Persson. Cast: Pia Degermark (Elvira Madigan/Hedvig Jensen), Thommy Berggren (Sixten Sparre), Lennart Malmer (Kristoffer), Cleo Jensen, Nina Widerberg.
Trivia: Nina Widerberg is the director’s daughter.
Cannes: Best Actress (Degermark).
Last word: “My method was to allow Pia and Thommy all the time they wanted for each scene. They could take long pauses before each line. Then I edited the pauses out of the film without losing the clear sense that each scene was played as a whole. I also wanted them to experience personally some of the things that were happening to the characters they were playing.” (Widerberg, RogerEbert.com)