Ingmar Bergman’s Muse Shines far Beyond him.
Everyone loves Liv Ullmann. That is, those who’ve had the opportunity to witness her talent. No less than one of the towering figures of international screen acting, Ullmann brings a certain staunch vulnerability and authenticity that is all her own. Her face and eyes beam an everywoman assuredness, even as her characters are made to suffer the most difficult of conditions and/or tragedies. It should come as no surprise that she’s gone beyond acting to prove herself as a skilled screenwriter, author of two popular memoirs, and a formidable director of stage and screen.
As an actress, she’s been nominated for Academy Awards and numerous other honors. As a director, she was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or in 2000 for her second such effort, Faithless– a personal drama scripted by Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann and Bergman go way back, and not just on film. In the five years the two were lovers, they produced a daughter, Linn Ullmann- Liv’s only child. They also collaborated as actress and director on ten films, several of which are considered among the greatest films ever made. Among those highly regarded works are their first, Persona (1966), Shame (1968), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973). It’s her luminous face that adorns the front of the Criterion Collection’s recent and unprecedented major box set, Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, which houses, among many others, all ten of their films. Ullmann seems to never decline the opportunity to speak of Bergman, who she considers the best director she ever worked with. Though he ultimately left her, and, according to her, appropriated her dog, to boot (!), her fondness for him remains infallible. The full second half of their collaborations occurred after their personal breakup, and she’s said to lament turning down at least one other (Fanny and Alexander).
Her face and eyes beam an everywoman assuredness, even as her characters are made to suffer the most difficult of conditions and/or tragedies.
Ullmann, though, should not be pigeonholed by her association with Bergman. As an actress, she’s appeared in important work by Jan Troell (his highly regarded epics The Emigrants and The New Land), Juan Luis Buñuel (Léonor), Richard Dembo (Dangerous Moves), and even Terence Young’s Charles Bronson vehicle, Cold Sweat. By her own testimony, Hollywood, despite its ample riches and lavish lifestyles it attempted to heap upon her, proved lonely and soul crushing. Her dalliance with the City of Dreams proved brief as she happily returned to the intimate filmmaking of Bergman in Sweden for 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage. She hasn’t been back much since, making World Cinema her professional home.
Indeed, her global array of national cinema appearances is nearly as diverse as her own fairly transient life. Though born in Tokyo (in 1938), both of her parents were Norwegian. The family hopscotched the globe, living in Toronto and then New York before eventually settling in Trondheim, a city in Norway. Through her time and reputation as Bergman’s muse, her film career flourished in Sweden, though today, being married to an American real estate developer since 1985, Ullmann makes Boston her home.
In 2017, the International Rescue Committee, of which she is co-founder and honorary chair, awarded for Ullmann for her many decades of service and advocacy through Unicef and other organizations on behalf of children in crisis in impoverished countries. So tireless has her service been that in 1982, The New York Times quipped that Ullmann “seems to be promoting [Unicef] almost full time these days.” On the audio commentaries for MGM’s original DVD releases of four of Bergman’s films, the late Jesuit priest and cinema scholar Marc Gervais can practically be heard falling in love with Ullmann as he makes mention of her far-reaching humanitarian efforts. Between this selfless fact about her and her powerful yet graceful onscreen presence, Gervais’s sentiments are entirely relatable.
ZekeFilm is proud to showcase Liv Ullmann for this installment of our monthly Film Admissions group column. Four of our regular contributors have stepped up with their thoughts on a single Liv Ullmann film that’s eluded them, until now. And if you are arriving to this piece unfamiliar, we encourage you to join us in discovering the beauty of her work.
– Jim Tudor
1978/Personafilm/dir. Ingmar Bergman
By Jeffrey Knight
In Autumn Sonata, Liv Ullman plays Eva, a minister’s wife who gave up a career as a writer and journalist to make a life with her husband in a quaint parsonage in a small, out-of-the-way town. Though they have had great tragedy (their 4-year-old son drowned some time in the past), Viktor’s and Eva’s life together seems to be one of quiet contentments. If Eva has any regrets for giving up her writing, she does not express them. When Eva learns that her mother’s long time lover has recently passed, Eva invites Charlotte to stay at the parsonage for a time, where Eva threatens to spoil her mother mercilessly. Upon her arrival, Charlotte is distressed to learn that Eva’s younger sister, Lena, is also staying at the house. Lena suffers from some sort of degenerative neuro-muscular disease. Charlotte had put Lena in a home to take care of her, but Eva had Lena moved into the parsonage where Eva can care for Lena herself. Despite Eva’s initial excitement when Charlotte accepts the invitation, many buried fears and resentments will come to surface over the course of one long night.
Though made specifically for movie theaters, Autumn Sonata is not Bergman at his most cinematic. The movie is framed in either tight closeup or two shots, or it is shot wide and staged as a nearly-still tableau. Bergman’s experiments with the forms of cinema are not to be found here. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t beautifully shot. Bergman’s longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist lights and shoots the film such that even the most seemingly mundane scenes have an exquisite warmth and glow about them.
Paired up against a legend like Ingrid Bergman, you could be forgiven if you assume that Ullman would be outmatched in the acting department. You would be mistaken, of course. Ingrid Bergman naturally does superb work here. But this is all Ullman’s show. From the moment Charlotte opens up a can of worms by asking Eva if Eva thought she was a good mother, Ullman (metaphorically) opens up a vein and lets decades of bile spill out. Given the levels of emotion both actresses had to summon up, for line after line, this could not have been an easy shoot for them. Autumn Sonata isn’t a visually splashy film, but Bergman knew all he had to do was get out of the way. Ullman’s blistering performance keeps you riveted to the screen.
For the first half of the movie, Ullman plays Eva with an excited, almost child-like giddiness at the prospect of her mother’s visit. As the visit progresses, that small joy will be replaced by sadness, as Eva recalls her son and confesses to her mother that Eva doesn’t feel as if her son has left at all. There will then come fear, as the feelings toward her mother that Eva has long since buried begin to rise up inside her. “Do you hate me?” Charlotte asks her daughter. Eva cries out, almost in terror, “I don’t know!” Eva’s fear soon curdles into anger and hatred. She accuses her mother of making her childhood a living hell, and for teaching Eva that the girl she was had no intrinsic worth. Charlotte is devastated by the truth. Eva will come to forgive her mother, and accept Charlotte’s failings. It is unclear whether Charlotte can do the same.
1973/Columbia Pictures/dir. Charles Jarrott
By Robert Hornak
The movie figures snugly among the flotsam of ’70s disaster movies, of which it only tangentially is, but can never be separated from, thanks to the plane crash that is its inciting incident, while it also floats easily amidst the waning tide of failed musicals still trailing out of the guts of the ’60s. There it sits, possibly alone, in the Venn diagram of the two most garish phenomena of the era. But there’s a third Venn circle: unnecessary remakes. It must have seemed natural to update the James Hilton book/1937 Frank Capra adaptation into the promising age of swinging sexual freedom and relaxed cinematic blinders – it’s impossible to think the pitch didn’t include some kind of free-lovin’ utopia where morals are passé and Swedish women await your every command. But the result is so earnest, so old fashioned, so square that the ironically star-spangled Easy Rider crowd must’ve snickered extra hard from the back row.
There’s the British diplomat-peacekeeper (Peter Finch), his dutiful assistant and brother (Michael York), a neurotic news photographer (Sally Kellerman), a tough engineer (George Kennedy – I’m not sure why he ever got on a plane in the ’70s), and, somehow, a USO comedian (Bobby Van), all barely escaping fiery social upheaval somewhere in Asia when their hijacked plane goes down in the Himalayas. There’s the feel of some socially-aware Gilligan’s Island reboot in the making, but once our crash survivors are rescued and recruited into their new Shangri-La digs (looking very much like a beta test of the Genesis Device), all the action is over and it mostly becomes a congregation of mid-life crises eked out into character arcs bending toward more-sensible-than-compelling. Then, out of nowhere, and again every ten minutes or so, there’s an abruptly incorporated Burt Bacharach song, complete with obviously dubbed voices and dancing choreographed so carelessly that the entire enterprise is elevated, against your will but somehow perversely for your betterment, into the thinnest mountain air possible, where shuffling of genres and shattering of expectations actually help relieve the gloom of good actors neglected and into the climes of rarefied if accidental camp. None of this is competent in any way… But it is worth seeing if you need to calibrate your so-bad-it’s-good scale to zero.
Liv Ullmann is one of the residents of the village when our heroes arrive, and she becomes the instant love interest of emotionally beleaguered Finch. He learns early on in conversation with utopian powers-that-be, freakin’ John Gielgud and Charles Boyer, that in this world women may be taken at will, even if already belonging to another, so long as there’s a verbal contract of kind understanding amongst the men folk. It seems some utopias are less equal than others. Maybe for this reason it’s merciful she’s only in a handful of scenes. She talks very little, and even when it’s her turn to sing it’s someone else’s voice, but at least she gets to emote with those penetrating eyes. The Bergman ray of intensity still beams from those eyes, never dimmed, even when the soundtrack is pummeling your suspension of disbelief. As utopias go, this one’s not living up to the brochure. In a really perfect world, you’d be watching Ingmar instead.
The Night Visitor
1971/Hemisphere Pictures/dir. Laslo Benedek
By Erik Yates
My introduction to Liv Ullmann was a 1971 thriller called The Night Visitor directed by Laslo Benedek (The Wild One), and starring Ms. Ullmann and Max von Sydow.
The Night Visitor is about a man named Salem (Sydow) who has been put into an insane asylum for the murder of a man, which he was innocent of. The film wastes no time letting you in on the particulars of the case. Salem’s sister Ester (Ullmann), along with her husband, Dr. Anton Jenks (Per Oscarsson), have committed the murder to allow them to take ownership of the property Salem was in charge due to his excessive drinking that was taking away all of the profits from the farm. While they work on Ester’s other sister Emmie (Hanne Bork) to get her to sell her stake so that they can sell and take the money and get back to the city where Dr. Jenks can begin a more lucrative practice, Salem has been plotting his revenge.
Rather than wasting time having the audience figure out how Salem has been sneaking out of the asylum to commit a series of crimes to frame Dr. Jenks, it lets the Inspector (played by Trevor Howard) do that. The audience knows what’s about to happen but the tension comes from watching to see if the inspector can figure it out before Salem acts out his revenge. Ms. Ullmann wears many masks throughout the film and subtly slips into them all with ease, sometimes within the same scene.
While we are let on immediately to the fact that she was involved with the murder her husband committed, she plays her part of innocence perfectly in front of her sister, the inspector, and even Salem. When she tires of their incompetence, her face shifts slightly and all of a sudden the shrinking violet act is replaced with a strong, capable woman who gives all of the aires of someone capable of masterminding it all. This game of transitions is best seen as she dialogues with her brother towards the film’s climax. From this limited exposure to her work, I can see why she was a mainstay in the works of Ingmar Bergman (ten films), and this is but one of the many films (some count seven) that she did with co-star Max von Sydow.
2003/SVT Fiktion/dir. Ingmar Bergman
by Jim Tudor
Ghosts haunt Ingmar Bergman’s final film, 2003’s Saraband. As Liv Ullmann’s character Marianne, at this point undeniably “of a certain age”, though no less alive, makes her way into the home of her ex-husband, doors and the like blow open without cause or explanation. In the otherwise tranquil setting, there’s little reason in denying such activity is anything other than what it’s filmicly intended to be: a literal signifier of an unseen reality- in this case, a volatile and difficult, muddled past relationship brought back to life. More than one, in fact.
In reality, Saraband marks not only a reunion of fictional lovers Marianne and Johan, once again played incredibly by Ullmann and the late great Erland Josephson, but also of real-life former lovers Ullmann and Bergman. Though Ullmann went on to be directed by Bergman numerous times since their personal relationship ended, her surrogate Marianne, did not remain as close to Johan. Being that they are two of the most significant figures in all of Bergman’s filmography, and that the filmmaker chose this humble revisitation as his probable final filmic effort, this brief analysis can only scratch the surface of Saraband’s deeply complex realities both on and off screen.
Saraband is also significant for being Bergman’s only sequel, in this case following quietly and many years later to his vitally important Scenes from a Marriage. Though Scenes was conceived in low-budget desperation as a made-for-Swedish-television miniseries, it found its way to big screens in the U.S. and elsewhere (same as Saraband, appropriately enough), albeit in a truncated form- only three hours long, down from five. The project, a hyper-focused look into the tragic deterioration of Marianne and Johan’s blessed union, proved to be successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Bergman, Josephson, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist became millionaires due to their profit-centric contracts. Ullmann, on the other hand, turned down that option, going instead for what turned out to be a significantly smaller lump sum. But to hear her tell it, she laughs it off, recalling how she was just happy to be back home, no longer tethered to Hollywood making the likes of Lost Horizon and whatnot.
2003’s Saraband, then, marks another financially missed mark, in that it only played theatrically in my home town of St. Louis in one theater for only one week. Late local critic Joe Williams lamented that one of the world’s greatest directors of all time has bestowed, at long last, a new film onto the world- and this is how we receive it. It’s a point I’ve not forgotten, even as I continue to live in this myopic sports-worshipping backwards town.
In Saraband, Marianne is compelled to revisit her former husband and lover one last time. She ends up staying far longer than she anticipated, offering a sympathetic ear and nurturing advice to Johan’s college aged granddaughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius). For a while, Karin’s plight overtakes Saraband, as she longs for independence from her widowed, abusive father (a fragile Börje Ahlstedt), himself a lifelong victim of his father Johan’s own dismissive venom. Karin’s passion for playing the cello also plays into the film title, the term “saraband” itself sporting two different but applicable definitions:
- A fast, erotic dance of the 1500s of Mexico and Spain.
- A stately court dance of the 1600s and 1700s, in slow triple time.
Is Bergman’s Saraband fast and erotic? Respectively, no and only mildly. It is far more of a stately court dance, if a housebound one. But in regard to a farewell visit we never dreamt would happen, it feels right. In such, Saraband proves to be an indispensable footnote to several imperative careers.