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'Liv and Ingmar': Great Filmmakers, Bad Lovers

But did the films need the lovemaking?

STF/AFP/Getty Images

Liv Ullmann is seventy-five and flourishing. A few years ago, in Australia and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she directed Cate Blanchett in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire; later this year, she will deliver a film of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, in which she directs Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell. Meanwhile, in Liv and Ingmar, the documentary film that was made two years ago by Dheeraj Akolkar, she presides over the house on the island of Fårö where Bergman lived, just as she seems like the executor to his imaginative estate. She is appealing still, humorous and confidential; she is wise and maternal, nearly. But she is an actress, from which there’s no hiding. Late in the film, there is a scene where Ullmann describes finding a teddy bear that belonged to Pingmar (her pet name for him) and folded up inside that bear was a note Liv had written to him years before, saying what a privilege it had been to know Ingmar and to work with him. She reads the note in what becomes a heavy-lidded scene. A perfect tear slides down her well-lit face. Alas, this is like an Ingmar Bergman movie, as directed by Walt Disney. (Saving Mr. Ingmar?) It also provides the helpless insight that whereas Ullmann might like to think of her life as the several-step journey of a soul, moving through ecstasy and storm to acceptance, the truth is she was an actress working with one of the great, devious visionaries of acting. Liv and Ingmar doesn’t tell that story, but we can work it out.

It was in 1965 that Ullmann first went to Fårö. She was Norwegian and she had been doing theater and film in Norway. She had worked on a project with the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, who was in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries for Bergman. (They had been lovers.) The director was casting what would be a film called Persona, a film about an actress who has an apparent breakdown and the nurse who looks after her. Bergman wanted Andersson for the nurse, but he recognized Ullmann in a photograph and asked her to play the actress, Elisabeth Vogler, who stops speaking one night in a performance of Electra.

Bergman decided that the two women would explore the actress’s convalescence on an island, Fårö, off the Swedish coast, linked by ferry. They filmed Persona there in the summer of 1965. “During the filming,” Bergman later wrote, “Liv and I were overwhelmed by passion. With monumental lack of judgement, I built the house with the idea of a mutual existence on the island. I forgot to ask Liv what she thought. I managed to find out later from her book Changing. On the whole her testimony is, I think, affectionately correct. She stayed a few years. We fought our demons as best we could.”

Ullmann tells the story in this documentary, with clear-cut acts—Love, Anger, Friendship—kept in tidy order, and it’s not unreasonable that she should have worked it out that way. But in 1965 not many onlookers were surprised by what happened. Ullmann was married at the time to a psychiatrist in Oslo. Bergman was married to his fourth wife. He was one of those directors—and it seems to me an unavoidable impulse—who made movies to be close to women. He had already had affairs with Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson and probably with several other actresses. In his mid-forties, Bergman was a recognized genius and a notoriously difficult man: neurotic, hypochondriacal, self-dramatizing, 
manipulative, restless. It might have left Persona empty if he had not fallen in love with Ullmann, and it surely enriched the tension between the two women in the film that the actresses were the director’s lover and ex-lover.

Liv and Ingmar were four years on Fårö, and they worked together on Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna. They had a child, Linn Ullmann, who is now a distinguished novelist in Oslo. But then Liv felt she had to break away. She played the lead role in Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land, and she got an Oscar nomination. With that encouragement, she went to Hollywood, rather as Garbo and Ingrid Bergman had done, and she had a disastrous couple of years: The Night Visitor, Pope Joan, Lost Horizon, 40 Carats, Zandy’s BrideThe Abdication. The wretchedness of these films (and Lost Horizon is among the worst ever made) was offset by her stage work in America (she did A Doll’s House), by her best-selling, soul-searching book (not quite as interesting as she thinks), and by her fresh-faced, wide-eyed look on TV talk shows where she did seem to be a new woman for the 1970s, happy to flirt with Johnny Carson. But she was shrewd enough to realize that her Hollywood career was ruined and to go back to Ingmar to do Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage (for Swedish television), and Face to Face. A year or two later, she played daughter and mother with Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata. She was no longer Ingmar’s lover, but the fondness remained, and she knew there was no alternative for her to working with him.

Here’s the odd thing: in Persona, Cries and Whispers, and those few films, Liv Ullmann looks like an open wound of feeling. In her American movies she is inexplicable. That surely speaks to chemistry and genius, but I think it also means that Liv and Ingmar were committed to their work rather more than they believed in their lives. As it is, this adoring but congealed documentary takes them at Liv’s estimate, as soulmates. But what we deserve is a much fuller portrait, in which Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson might talk (they are both alive still), as well as Linn Ullmann and some of the people who saw what was happening and realized that the romantic and sexual ambitions of these two people were inseparable from their infernal trust in theater and acting as opposed to life. I say “infernal” because I think it gave them, and other bystanders, a kind of hell. Ingmar Bergman may have rescued souls in the audience, but he damaged some of those close to him. That is part of the movie contract, and not a reason for moral censoriousness. But it is a common passion that elevates and then drowns people in the art and business of pretending.

I have no doubt but that Ullmann was vital to Persona—albeit in ways no one could articulate—and it is one of the great films. Bergman’s luster might have faded a little since his death in 2007, but that is partly because he was regarded with such reverence in his lifetime. Anyone concerned with film needs to take him on, and you might 
as well start with Persona, because it is the best and because its mystery is eternal.

But if you care to follow the drama of Liv and Ingmar all the way, there is another essential film, but not nearly as well known. Toward the end of his life, Bergman sometimes felt he was too old or too sick to direct films. But in 2000, he wrote a script of the greatest confessional importance. It is about an actress (played by Lena Endre) happily married to an orchestral conductor, who cannot resist a destructive affair with a stage director. It is one of the most erotically compelling and upsetting films you can see. It is called Faithless, and in his odd mixture of tact and exploitation Bergman asked Liv Ullmann to direct it. The drama is re-lived as it is told to an elderly artist, a character actually named Bergman, played by Erland Josephson. The film was shot in the house on Fårö that Ingmar had built for Liv and himself. It is another great work, and it is up to us to determine what pressure Ingmar exerted on the direction, or how far Liv had really taken on his creative character. Faithless is admired but not taken with proper seriousness. It was not signed by the great man; therefore, it only helps to demonstrate that the woman had a lesser power. But how far was that conclusion Ingmar’s intention? I don’t find it possible to regard Faithless as less than a Bergman film, and I think it is in the class of Persona and Cries and Whispers.

But it was Liv Ullmann’s film, too, and proof that the two of them were knotted in an embrace of uncommon force and complexity. It is hard to think of an actress-director bond so long-lasting, and there are plenty to consider—Godard and Anna Karina, von Sternberg and Dietrich, Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Griffith and Lillian Gish. That’s why Liv and Ingmar is such a disappointment, in which the face and the voice of Ullmann become monotonous, bland, and even foolish in insisting on the Disneyfied glow of their lives. Faithless is filled with raw anguish, corrosive guilt, and helpless self-indulgence, and it only goes to prove the old adage: trust the work, and not what the artists like to say about it.

David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).