November 24-December 6 at BAM
Liv Ullmann wasn't Ingmar Bergman's muse, she was his partner in angst—a fellow weary existential traveler conspiring with him to invent some of the most psychologically complex men and women in cinema history. There were three other key players in Bergman's unofficial troupe—Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson, and Max von Sydow—but none are as inextricable from the filmography as Ullmann, the strawberry blond Norwegian beauty who was for years his lover and who bore him a daughter, the novelist Linn Ullmann. By necessity then, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's welcome new Liv Ullmann series is also more or less a mini Ingmar Bergman retrospective—the first in New York in five years, and the first since the director's death in 2007. Of the ten films screening at BAM, nine were directed by the departed Swedish master, while the tenth, Faithless, was scripted by him and made by Ullmann herself.
Ullmann by Bergman
Andersson, Josephson, and von Sydow are all well represented in this de facto Bergman program (as is the incomparable cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who shot every movie here but Faithless). Yet BAM's focus—those pictures Bergman made with Ullmann—has the curious effect of bringing into the spotlight several of the director's lesser-known movies, while simultaneously suppressing the more obvious and frequently screened landmarks the actress didn't star in (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander, among others).
That's not to say that BAM isn't screening any of Bergman's more accessible greatest hits. Included are Persona (1966), Ullmann's inaugural pairing with her future paramour, in which she plays an actress under the care of Andersson's nurse following an on-stage breakdown; the twisted, erotic Cries and Whispers (1972), which essayed genital self-mutilation by broken glass decades before Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher; Autumn Sonata (1978), featuring a late performance by Ingrid Bergman (a fellow Swede, but no relation) as Ullmann's caustic mom; and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), the six-part Swedish TV drama shown here in its shorter but more harrowing 168-minute stateside theatrical cut.
These films—classics all—might seem familiar, but when placed alongside the overlooked treasures in BAM's adventurously curated series, they assume a different meaning. I'm talking about The Serpent's Egg (1978), an English-language, Dino De Laurentiis-financed Cabaret knockoff with a not-at-all-believable David Carradine as a naïve Jew in Weimar Berlin; Hour of the Wolf (1968), a horror flick that evokes David Lynch by way of Alain Resnais; The Passion of Anna (1969), a half-baked but involving metadrama warm-up for Scenes; and Shame (1968) a criminally underrated dystopian parable. The latter features an unusually brittle performance from Ullmann, who, when the role called for it, was just as comfortable dominating Josephson's and von Sydow's male chauvinist pigs as she was playing their doormat. In this case, it's von Sydow, as a whimpering neurotic unable to keep his shit together when a civil war finally reaches the remote island where he and wife Ullmann farm lingonberries. Can you feel the Scandi-ness of it all?
And that's been the problem for Bergman, who is thought of these days, unfairly, as a mere chronicler of bourgeois life—a middle-class navel gazer more concerned with domestic upheaval than the larger political and social conflicts of the volatile era in which he made his art. Indeed, when he died two years ago, he was remembered primarily as a self-serious relic of the golden age of the art film, a director whose Seventh Seal chess match had launched a thousand parodies; or, as the Times's polite but dispassionate obituary put it, "he stood with directors like Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa at the pinnacle of serious filmmaking." Well, duh. Worse, Bergman's passing was instantly overshadowed by Michelangelo Antonioni, who had the nerve to die later on the same day and whose critical stock was, and continues to be, higher.
Shame—the highlight of BAM's series along with the more traditional Ullmann-directed drama Faithless—proves how limited our understanding of Bergman has been. It's an incredibly dark anti-war picture, teeming with the imagery and themes of Vietnam, as even the Times's Renata Adler noted upon its initial release. But then the same can be said about the better-known Persona, a movie that's too often remembered solely for its gorgeous B&W framing of its two lead actresses and not for the pair of rather startling montages (is that a hairy penis I see before me?) with which the film begins and ends—philosophical passages that still look as formally daring as anything by more celebrated postmodern radicals like Jean-Luc Godard.
That's why BAM's Ullmann-inflected series provides a timely opportunity to reassess the oeuvre, to see anew how varied and experimental a body of work it really is. With their recurring overwrought portrayals of female sexuality, marital discontent, and male midlife crises, Bergman's movies are undeniably rife with middle-class woes. But while Bergman had a knack, thanks to Nykvist's inimitable camera, for psychological chamber pieces shot almost entirely in close-up, he also had a penchant for feminism and surrealism—a subversive's impulse for upending conventional mores.
If amidst all his innovations Bergman lingered long and lovingly on the human face, it was, in part, because he possessed in Ullmann one of the screen's most expressive profiles ever—never mind a worthy accomplice who wasn't afraid to stand up to him. The actress relates in her 1976 memoir, Changing, how when they were together, "Ingmar and I had an arrangement whereby at his funeral I should appear in a long black dress. I should have preferred red. And if he was married to someone else, I would go and take my place at the back of the church after everyone else had arrived, faint during the eulogy and be carried out during the recessional." Bergman, as it happens, was a widower at the time of his death. He never stopped working with Ullmann, however, even coming out of retirement to direct her in Saraband, a disappointing 2003 digital sequel to Scenes. There's no way of knowing for sure, but I like to think of Ullmann showing up at her director's funeral and enacting the plan as discussed, but with one exception—she wore the red dress.