World Cinema has seen its fair share of long-term director and actor pairings, from Kurosawa/Mifune to Fellini/Mastroianni to Scorsese/DeNiro. (Please don’t put Scorsese/DiCaprio in the same list.) Rare has been the director/actress pairing, but there have been a few – Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg to go way back, or Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz to be a bit more current. Perhaps the most celebrated director/actress teaming was Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, and the new documentary “Liv & Ingmar” tells the story of this artistic and personal collaboration.
And what a story it is, as told by Ullmann herself. The film is built around an interview conducted with Ullman at the gorgeous seaside estate she shared with Bergman for five years. From their first meeting when she was 26 and he was 47, through their five year relationship (and the birth of a child) and their continuing professional collaborations, Ullmann allows us a personal glimpse into the man responsible for such classics as “The Seventh Seal” and “Cries & Whispers”.
Sometimes it is not a pretty picture, and credit should go to Ullmann for giving us a “warts and all” look at their relationship. Granted, it is a one-sided presentation (Bergman died in 2007) which uses Ullmann’s autobiography as its main source. Still, one can’t help but feel Ullmann is being honest, particularly when one looks at Bergman’s work. The film is even broken down into “Bergman-esque” chapters, with intertitles such as “Love”, “Loneliness”, “Rage”, and “Pain” to highlight the subject matter.
“Cold”, “aloof”, and “cruel” are terms often used when discussing the work of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his male characters. His female characters were far more open and emotionally expressive, especially with their sexuality. One leaves this film feeling that a great deal of Bergman’s work was autobiographical. The film is populated with clips from their films, and one gets the sense that Ullmann was often playing Ullman, while actors like Max Von Sydow took the “Bergman” role.
But there was real love in this partnership as well. Evidence of Bergman’s humanity and affection come from the reading of several pieces of personal correspondence that Ullmann shared with writer/director Dheeraj Akolkar which are effectively narrated, as well as excerpts from Bergman’s autobiography. Most telling is Bergman’s comment to Ullmann that he considers her “his Stradivarius” – the beautiful, perfect instrument through which he communicates and makes beautiful music.
But make no mistake about it, this is Ullmann’s tale to tell. It is a tale told well.
“Liv & Ingmar” opens in the San Francisco Bay Area Friday, January 10th, at Landmark Theatres’ Opera Plaza Cinemas. Check your local listings for screenings near you.