Sunday, June 26, 2016


Let's get to some Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, because you can't get into The Criterion Collection without Bergman - if it wasn't for Criterion, I wouldn't be the cinephile I am to day and if nothing else because of his catalog of work.  And now we get this reflective documentary...

"I love you in my imperfect, selfish way. And sometimes I think you love me in your own fussy, pestering way. I think we love each other in an earthly and imperfect way" - Ingmar Bergman

Liv & Ingmar on the outside looks like another "Netflix" type of documentary.  Many documentaries that may have some significance but a 'light' air about it, telling a story that we/you/us don't want to necessarily trek out into the city to pay $15 for, but will watch, they fall under a "Netflix" banner though, irony in this case, this time it's Hulu Plus.  Or, to put it another way, it may tell an interesting story but in a shallow way: like, oh, here's this master director and legendary actress (not too arguably, for my money, among the greatest dramatists of the 20th century), and how they fell in love.  But the surprise of this documentary is that it tells a compelling story, with only one subject interviewed (Ullmann, since Bergman died in 2007) and about two people who had a lifelong arc with turns that startled them it seems most of all.

The short of it is this: Bergman met Liv Ullmann shortly before he made the surrealistic masterpiece Persona (also from the Criterion collection, so if you haven't seen it check it out, even if you're unsure about Bergman as a filmmaker or a newbie), and he felt, as is repeated in the film (and is even on the poster) "painfully connected" to Ullmann, and once filming ended the two of them knew they were in love.  While it didn't make the headlines (at first, maybe later we'll see), Bergman and Ullmann decided to get together romantically, and Liv left her husband to do so (one of the asides I found fascinating is how he felt most bad for her husband's mother, who liked her deeply, it's one of those touches that makes the story interesting). 

d'aww, they're so cute you almost forget they're about to tear the into the existential void of life, love, God and relationships!
 But what happens when a man decides to take his pregnant wife to an island on Faro and make a new home?  And this island being so secluded that no friends can get there very easily?  One of the things that I realized is a key to this love story - and it is a love story at its core, of a love that had layers over two lifetimes - is that if someone gets with someone in a serious relationship it's a good idea to be friends first.  It's not that Bergman and Ullmann didn't find each other attractive or have that 'connection', but they both got into a serious relationship in a short period of time (not unlike Rossellini and Bergman in 1949 they got together and had a baby relatively quickly), and yet Ullmann, being around 25/26 to Bergman's 46/47, the age gap and the sense of authority and control was set in place: Bergman was in charge of his place, including putting up a giant stone fence to keep out anyone from the public, and Ullmann had nothing but to become part of 'his' world. 

If you happen to have some rosy-colored vision of Bergman from his films... well, I wonder who you are considering the many, many dark dramas the man directed in his 60 years(!) in the film business.  There's the sense to think that filmmakers were geniuses and that's it - many of them were just guys and coming from bad backgrounds (Ingmar came from a strict Lutheran background, which isn't mentioned in the doc but you find these things out over the years if you're a Bergman fanatic like myself), it got them into some messy waters personally.  It's amazing to see that Bergman was married five times AND was married while with Ullmann (or at the least their relationship started while he was with his fourth wife - but hey, as Bergman said about work: theater's my wife, film's my mistress, or something).  It's even more amazing to think that while he was with her romantically things were the worst between them - he was controlling and knew, as Ullmann says, just what to say psychologically to get under her skin (they could also have physical fights, but not to the scope of physical abuse, according to her). 

 Then something ironic but kind of wonderful happens: Bergman leaves Ullmann for another woman - it's unclear from the doc if he went back to his wife or went to another - and the two became really close and intimate friends.  (He finally settled down with his final wife, Ingrid - not the actress though - during the filming of Cries & Whispers, and a funny anecdote comes up with her deciding one night after imbibing some wine to go to Ingmar and tell him "Yeah, for sure, we're over" just because they never made it official that it was really over-over (he just kicked her out, it sounds like, from the story Liv tells).  And as he tried to knock on the door to tell him he said later he jumped out the window as he was scared to talk to her because she sounded angry(!!) 

If you look at their career, you end up seeing that the two had some of the great collaborations post break-up - C&W, Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata, the final Bergman film Saraband (the "sequel" to Scenes) - and it's tempting to say that it was precisely because they broke up that such rich cinematic material was there to mine, that, if one can read in between the lines (or it's up front and present), the filmmaker knew what Ullmann was emotionally capable of and Ullmann trusted her director more than before.  One of the most moving anecdotes is when she talks of him picking her up from the airport in the 90's, and him marveling to her how they could be the best of friends (down to people walking down the street who might see the two of them together and point out 'oh, there's Liv & Ingmar' not knowing just how close they were).  It's a love story through and through, and the love became for the decades after their break-up into something else: the love of colleagues, the love of friends, the love of people who cut off the sexual and romantic part of their connection, but the "painful" part was always going to be there. 

And sure, it may sound a little eye-rolling for a viewer to hear Ullmann talk about Ingmar after he died as if he is still around on his island, like his spirit floats around and she can feel him there.  But there's a real sense of intimacy to what Ullmann shares about this man and how she felt about him in varying times of life.  They went through hell together - often with him slinging the flames (the stories of shooting the raw war film Shame sounds downright terrifying) - and then some heaven again, all the while in-tune like people so intensely, well, plutonic (to the point where, and I laughed a lot hearing this, Liv could call Ingmar to talk about her emotional struggles, even getting drunk once and complaining about him TO him and not rembering it the next morning!  That's commitment)

Is the doc some STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING AND WATCH!(?)  No, not quite, and I have to think if you're not already familiar with the many films shown from Bergman/Ullmann's collaborations, it may not hit you the same way.  And the filmmaker, Dheeraj Akolkar, tries to add his own, uh, 'poetry' to things in the way he shoots some of the old house that they shared together or the island itself or how those clips from the films are edited together to match the emotional beats of the story.  But I think there is something here for the 'average' Criterion viewer or documentary person looking for a story with emotional stakes and people who can move you with their journey through time: you get to see two people who had their own issues and had to work through them over time, either together or (mostly) separate, and came out together as so connected to one another that it seems to transcend space and time.  That's special.

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