Thursday, March 27, 2014

A very particular collaboration

Here are some of the films Ingmar Bergman made with Liv Ullman: Persona (1966), Shame (1968), Hour of the Wolf (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes From a Marriage (1973), Autumn Sonata (1978), Saraband (2003). If you know just one or two of the films on this list—to which I should add Faithless (2000), the excellent film Ullman directed from Bergman’s script—you probably know that we’re surveying one of the great collaborations in cinema history. Great not only because Bergman was a visionary director and Ullman an actress of singular gifts, but because each of those films were elevated and deepened by their creative dialogue. Actors were far more essential to Bergman’s cinema that is the case with most of the great auteurs, and Ullman was so much more than a muse.

Begrman and Ullman were married for a time, and had a child—another collaboration—and theirs is a fascinating, at times chilling love story. He was over 20 years her senior, a notoriously difficult, neurotic, particular man already on his fourth wife—whom he’d leave for Ullman, just as Ullman would leave her first husband for him. He bought a house for them on Fårö, the island where they shot Persona and many subsequent films, and surrounded it with a high stone fence. He wanted to keep her there and she needed to spread her wings, which in time she did, embarking on an international career with few filmic highlights that didn’t possess his signature, but with numerous successes in the theatre. They remained close friends and creative allies until his death in 2007. Their relationship deserves serious investigation. It deserves so much more than the narrow, sentimental gloss it gets in Dheeraj Akolkar’s Liv & Ingmar.

The film’s chapters are given titles like ‘Love,’ ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Pain.’ The music feels best suited to a soap opera or a commercial for long distance rates. There are shots of tastefully arranged photos and letters which Ullman’s hand gently glides across, and shots of Ullman gazing solemnly from a beach or an empty stage, or through the window of a car. In short, this documentary, about people who made some of the most austere and emotionally brutal films ever made, is super-cheesy. More importantly, it seems largely devoid of curiosity. Ullman is the only interview subject. Akolkar apparently spoke to no one else, not even Bibi Andersson, Ullman’s frequent co-star, and another of Bergman’s actress-lovers. There are no archival interviews with Bergman or cinematographer Sven Nykvist, his other great collaborator. There’s almost nothing about the nature of Bergman and Ullman’s working life—which surely can’t be separated from their love story—how it was negotiated, given their intimacy, how characters and stories were developed, and so on. It’s hardly the case that Ullman isn’t articulate on these subjects—though only a fraction of the duration of Liv & Ingmar, the interview Ullman gives on Criterion’s new Persona DVD/BD (see previous post) brims with insight into their process.

There is a moment near the film’s end in which Ullman describes following an impulse to go visit Bergman on the last day of his life. The scene is almost unbearably moving, but what makes it so moving—the phenomena of having someone whose life is so utterly intertwined with yours—only emphasizes all that this film lacks.    

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