For lovers of foreign art house film, the collaboration between Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann stands as one of the great cinematic relationships of the 1960s and ‘70s. One can argue how much of an influence their affair brought to their work, but a magic permeates the resulting films, which began with Persona (1966) and ended with Bergman’s last film before his death, Saraband (2003). Humanity and passion leaps off the screen in these films. Bergman’s understanding of the way two members of the opposite sex relate has hardly ever been equaled, and it came from somewhere very real.
In the documentary/memoir by neophyte filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar, Liv & Ingmar, Ullmann reads short passages from her 1978 book Changing, answers Akolkar’s unheard questions and offers anecdotes that gradually culminate to reveal an undeniable source for Bergman’s penetrating films: a passionate love affair whose flame continued to burn even after their break-up, a long-enduring friendship and Bergman’s eventual death in 2007.
At first, the film feels a bit indulgent and heavy-handed, but it builds nicely to express something greater about the relationship, beyond the two human beings involved in it. As Ullmann reflects on her early life with Bergman, Akolkar layers on the images, scanning landscapes or empty interiors the couple once inhabited together. He likes superimpositions, augmenting them with delicate piano and string melodies by Stefan Nilsson. Akolkar tries to add Bergman’s voice via letters he wrote, which are read by actor Samuel Fröler. It can seem chintzy, but one has to forgive these ham-fisted efforts, as Liv & Ingmar actually becomes quite neatly focused.
Akolkar hardly takes tangents away from the relationship. In fact, some unfamiliar with the story of this creative couple might wonder what happened to the significant others Ullmann and Bergman were married to when their affair brewed up on the set of Persona (she was 25, he 46). She simply says she left her husband for him, and we never hear what happened with his wife (he was then on his fourth of five marriages). Some may wonder what became of the daughter they had during this affair (she’s a successful author in Norway). But Akolkar remains smartly focused on the dramas of the relationship, juxtaposed with a smattering of key scenes from the films they made together, like Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and Shame (1968), that show Ullmann engaging with male characters clearly implied as surrogates of Bergman in the form of the director’s favorite actor, Max von Sydow.
Though the films of Bergman and Ullmann are presented in highlights that seem to connect observations from their personal lives to certain scenes in the films, Ullmann is presented as something much grander than an idealized muse. She was a channel to a force of energy that resides between all passionately connected couples. Bergman recognized her for what their experience together brought to Bergman’s work, famous for its awareness as a mirror to the audience. Bergman’s films were not autobiographical of their relationship. They presented a sort of truth rarely achieved in cinema: something honest to human emotions. She says, he once told her about her role in his movies: “’It has to do with you, Liv, because you are my Stradivarius.’ And I think it was the best compliment I ever got.”
But it was a tumultuous relationship. Reflecting on her memories on the set of Persona, she says, “I would start to cry, I was so much in love.” Meanwhile, he wrote, “This is a little like Hell … almost romantic.” They moved into a house he built on Faro Island, where they shot Persona. It soon became far from idyllic, as he built a taller wall around the property and began to control her comings and goings to only one day a week.
She ultimately became lonely in his company until their daughter was born. “My daughter and I would help us be real people,” she declared. However, she does not blame Bergman as an oppressor. “It was loneliness, but that loneliness belongs to me … because we all have that. It’s how we deal with it that makes a difference.” Ullmann does not romanticize this relationship, though she does cherish it. It had its flaws, but feeling any bitter resentment would mean she would have to hate herself as much as she sometimes hated Bergman. Instead, she understands she was growing up and changing. Reading from her book, she says, “When I cried, stormed against him, when he shut himself in his study, when he left me for a day, while it was all very painful, I knew that it did help me develop.”
They did eventually split, but she observes, it would ultimately make their relationship healthier, as their working relationship would continue though the love affair had ended. As noted already, they worked together up until his final film. After she left him and returned to Oslo, Norway, to act on stage, he still wrote her letters dwelling on his misery without her. She reflects on it, thinking of the separation as a grand action they had to undergo. “You let go,” she says. “It’s an important lesson in life.” The distance is a divide, but it’s also a link in their bond. She says the distance allowed her to “build a bridge,” and it was important.
In Liv & Ingmar, this intense relationship is offered as an object to be reflected in the art of their films, and she is grateful for the outlet. “I have a lot of anger in me,” she admits, “and I’m so lucky I have a profession where I can let it out.” Ultimately, Ullmann achieved even greater fame in Hollywood, getting covers in “Time”and “Newsweek,” making an appearance on “the Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and earning an Oscar nomination for Emigrants (1971). “They thought I was the next Greta Garbo,” she says.
She says Bergman expressed only happiness for her success and a friendship blossomed. “We had been painfully connected but only when it was over had we become true friends,” she says, “and I was really over him.” Their collaboration began anew with Cries & Whispers (1972).
Their relationship was real in a sometimes ugly, cruel way, but it was also banal and infused with an honesty of love that comes with a perspective of hindsight. Liv & Ingmar turns out to be a beautiful, meditative film imbued with the nostalgia of reflection from a perspective that only the twilight years can provide. It’s a link Ullmann deeply explores and values for what it is, highs and lows intact. They were separate beings with a unique, irreplaceable bond that seems to define who they were and ever will be, beyond their own deaths. Both Ullmann and Akolkar seem keenly aware of this, ending the film on a sweet, spontaneous moment, which Akolkar had the good fortune to capture on camera that reveals how alive her love for Bergman remains beyond his passing. “We made each other alive,” Ullmann says. “It doesn’t matter if it hurts.”
Liv & Ingmar runs 83 minutes and is unrated (nothing to be offended by). It opened in the South Florida area at the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater over the weekend and continues through the week. Eventually, you’ll be able to see it as an extra when the Criterion Collection releases the first U.S. blu-ray of Persona (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link). Criterion provided a DVD screener of Liv & Ingmar for the purposes of this review.