august strindberg, colin farrell, cries & whispers, dheeral akolkar, erland josephson, faithless, fanny &alexander, faro island, hour of the wolf, indianapolis international film festival, indianapolis museum of art, ingmar bergman, jessica chastain, liv & ingmar, liv ullmann, max von sydow, miss julie, norway, persona, samantha morton, scenes from a marriage, seventh seal, shame, smiles of a summer night, sweden, wild strawberries
After attending this past fall’s Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, I have been biding my time until the Indianapolis International Film Festival this summer. Held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, this is the tenth year for this fest and yet again it is one I’ve never been to. Shame on me. With limited time to catch screenings, the first weekend I was only able to take in two. My first choice was Dheeraj Akolkar‘s poignant and touching documentary Liv & Ingmar, about legendary Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and Swedish writer-director and film titan Ingmar Bergman, whose seminal works include The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Cries & Whispers, Fanny & Alexander and Smiles of a Summer Night.
The film basically consists of Ullmann recounting her story with Ingmar through a series of interviews, clips from the 10 films they worked on together, recreations of scenes from their past and tours of the famous house where lived together on Fårö Island. The two met when they were filming his psychological thriller/horror masterpiece Persona and their relationship took off. But as the story unfolds, it’s one of pain and heartbreak for Ullmann.
The film is structured in six vignettes: Love, Loneliness, Rage, Pain, Longing and Friendship. It is through these themes that their story is told and it’s pretty easy to see how the story of these two pans out. As stated above, these two met on the set of Persona and she was married at the time. But as we know, relationships on-set blossom and and many a marriage has been tossed by the wayside. And this was the case with Ullmann. She and Bergman began a tumultuous relationship that lasted only five years, yielding a daughter (Linn). But it was after they moved in together that the bliss they found dissipated as Bergman would retreat to his study to continue work on his many masterpieces, leaving Ullmann alone and longing for more of the man she fell in love with. Ullmann‘s isolation was compounded by living on Fårö Island, which is situated far from anything resembling civilization that Ullmann knew growing up in Tokyo, Toronto and Trondheim.
Going into this film, I did not know what a bastard Bergman apparently was. Ullmann tells of the many abuses she suffered while working and living with Bergman. Akolkar positions the stories she tells of these abuses quite adeptly against stories of how Bergman treated her on set and coupled with clips from the films that would seem to reinforce her tales. It seems that the psychological violence in Hour of the Wolf and Shame and the instability of the relationship between Marianne and Johan in Scenes from a Marriage were nothing but proxies for the real relationship Ullmann had with Bergman. The most telling story she gave was of Bergman kicking in a bathroom door where she had locked herself for protection saying “it was fun.”
And so when it’s clear that they can no longer maintain a relationship, Ullmann leaves for Oslo and leaves Bergman behind. Even though their personal relationship didn’t work out, their professional relationship blossomed. They did 6 films together including the masterwork Cries & Whsipers during this time and Ullmann even directed a script written by Bergman, Faithless. Also during this time, Ullmann came to LA and began the darling of Hollywood and reignited her stage career on Broadway. So despite the loss of their relationship, both emerged strongly although suffice it to say Ullmann perhaps emerged the stronger of the two.
Perhaps the most poignant shot of the film is when Ullmann is shown watching the documentary in a theater, considering her life with Ingmar.You can really see the emotion gathered over the years in her eyes as she stares at the screen. An incredibly touching shot. And the big takeaway from this film is that despite how shitty their actual relationship was, their friendship and respect for one another’s craft never wavered. Bergman referred to her as “my Stradivarius” and it’s clear she was his muse for many years and painfully obvious that he could never love her the way that she wanted or deserved. He was just incapable.
This film was a nice way to start the fest. A tribute to two giants of the industry. However, running only 82 minutes it seems almost like a cursory undertaking when considering who these two are. The complexities of their relationship surely ran deeper than what was covered in this short time and I think that is the major fault of this film. It really left me wanting far more. Since Bergman died in 2007, we never really get to hear any of his side of the story outside of what Ullmann tells us and a short note that she found inside a teddy bear at his house on Fårö Island basically stating that he never stopped loving her. Surely a man of his measure left behind some documentation on their relationship be it letters, correspondence, diaries, etc. This film just scratched the surface of one of the great off screen romances and breakups in film history. It was gorgeously shot, though, and if I heard correctly, Ullmann only gave Akolkar two days to film her portions which are 90% of the film. So under those constraints, I would say the filmmaker achieved a great deal.
All that said, this is fine companion piece to those who are interested in Bergman as a man and filmmaker and Ullmann as an actress, who has given some of the most lush performances in cinematic history, and director in her own right. Ullmann continues to follow in Bergman’s footsteps, directing a film adaptation of August Strindberg‘s famous play Miss Julie starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton as her next project. Some people just have what it takes, I guess.
I hope people will give Liv & Ingmar a shot and use it as a springboard to tackle, consume and consider more of both of their work. It is a great starting point.
Here’s the trailer: