Obituary: Jarl Kulle

Tom Vallance
Sunday 12 October 1997 23:02

Jarl Kulle, actor: born Angelholm, Sweden 27 February 1927; married first Louise Hermelin (one daughter), second Anne Nord (two daughters); died Bergshamra, Sweden 3 October 1997.

One of Sweden's most distinguished stage and screen actors, Jarl Kulle is best known to the rest of the world for his work in the films of Ingmar Bergman. He was one of several players (including Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max Von Sydow and Harriet Andersson) whom Bergman consistently utilised in his films, and for his late masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982), he created a role specially for Kulle. With his aquiline good looks, regal bearing and extrovert style he excelled in playing seducers and roues, and he also featured in several of the racy comedies for which his country gained a reputation in the Sixties.

Born in Angelholm, Sweden, in 1927, he trained from 1946 to 1949 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, with which he maintained a close relationship throughout his career, making his home in the town of Bergshamra, just 30 miles from Stockholm. Though his dramatic style and bearing made him an outstanding classical actor, he also excelled in modern comedies and even musicals, early shows including My Fair Lady and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

In 1956 he had great success in Stockholm as the son Edmond in the world premiere of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Thirty-two years later he starred in the same play as the father.

He would still be little known outside Sweden, however, were it not for his association with Ingmar Bergman. His first film for the director was Waiting Women (Kvinnors Vantan, 1952), in which three women tell of incidents from their married lives. In the first of the episodes, Kulle seduces a former childhood sweetheart (Anita Bjork) while her husband is away.

In Bergman's exquisite comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende, 1955), the first film to bring its director world acclaim (it was later turned into the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music and was the inspiration for Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), Kulle was the pompous manacled dragoon who is outraged at the thought of his mistress reuniting with an old love ("I can tolerate my wife's infidelity, but concerning my mistress I'm a tiger").

In 1960 he was given top billing in Bergman's The Devil's Eye (Djavulens oga). The title comes from an Irish proverb which states that "a woman's chastity is a sty in the devil's eye", and Kulle was Don Juan, sent back to earth by a troubled devil to woo a pure country maiden. Heavy with typical debates on life, love and religion, the comedy was minor Bergman, but Kulle was moving in his anguish when he falls in love with the unattainable heroine.

Now About These Women (For att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor, 1964) was a misconceived attempt by Bergman to make a farcical satire on critics, with coy gags (a love scene is blacked out with a title card explaining an attempt to avoid censorship), and an insistently jokey musical score (with liberal use of "Yes, We Have No Bananas"), but Kulle's poseur of a critic, with his pink carnation, white spats and enormous quilted pen extracted some humour from the strained project.

In 1966 Kulle joined two other Bergman regulars, Bibi Andersson and Gunnar Bjornstrand, in a film directed and written by Vilgot Sjoman, My Sister, My Love (Syskonbadd, 1982), but though the performances were praised, the film's lumberingly bleak account of an incestuous affair and its tragic consequences was dismissed by critics as sub-Bergman. Bergman himself created a role specially for Kulle in Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander). In this multi-faceted evocation of childhood in turn-of-the-century Sweden, which won four Academy Awards including Best Foreign Film, Kulle was superb as the ebullient, excitable and sexually voracious Uncle Gustav.

Five years later Kulle was in another Oscar-winning film, Gabriel Axel's exquisite adaptation of Isak Dinesen's short story Babette's Feast (Babettes Gaestebud, 1987), in which he played the aged General Lowenhielm who returns to the small religious community where two sisters, one of whom had been his great love many years past, invite him to dinner. It is Lowenhielm, amazed to encounter such succulent fare, who realises the true identity of the cook when he tastes the "Cailles en sarcophage" which she herself invented and once served in a famous Paris restaurant. The general's palpable joy in the meal, and his poignant farewell to his former sweetheart ("I have been with you every day of my life") were affectingly realised in Kulle's subtly humorous and touching performance.

Kulle himself both wrote and directed one film in 1968, The Bookseller Who Gave Up Bathing (Bokhandlaren som slutade bada), in which he also acted as a friend of the hero, a middle-aged bookseller who marries a young widow and is rapturously happy until he discovers that she used to be a prostitute. Both poignant and funny, the finely crafted film was hailed as a notable directing debut.

- Tom Vallance

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