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CINE-LIST: Five Great Collaborations Between Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann

Features
by Beth Hanna
December 12, 2013 3:34 PM
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Liv Ullmann in "Persona"

This week, to coincide with the release of documentary “Liv & Ingmar,” as well as the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s program on the Swedish auteur and his muse (and one-time girlfriend), Cine-List presents some of the great titles directed by Bergman, and starring Ullmann.

1. “Persona” (1966, streaming). Ullmann gives a magnificent and near silent performance in Bergman’s groundbreaking arthouse classic. She plays a well-known actress, Elisabet, tormented by inner demons; Bibi Andersson plays Alma, the chatty nurse who falls under her glamorous patient’s spell. The two move through an ambiguous thicket of friendship, disenchantment and horror as they spend time at an isolated cabin, set against the rugged natural backdrop of seaside Sweden. The film offers up plenty of heady stuff that demands multiple viewings: Merging identities, guilt over births and abortions, wars past and present, and the meta nature of film. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist nails it in glorious black and white.

2. “Cries and Whispers” (1972, streaming). Ullmann plays terrifically against type as Maria, the selfish, shallow sister of Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who is dying a slow and painful death to cancer. This may be Bergman’s harshest film, but also his most hopeful. Bergman gets at the heart of true suffering, sparing viewers no mercy with long sequences of Agnes wasting away, shrieking and moaning from her sickness, while being relatively ignored in the family’s country estate by Maria and her other sister, the cold Karin (Ingrid Thulin). Karin, by the way, is not averse to her own suffering, taking a shard of glass to her clitoris. Where, one could ask, is the hopefulness in this hideous scenario? There is the zaftig servant Anna (Kari Sylwan), who takes Agnes into her loving arms. And finally there is the remembrance of one good day, read from Agnes’ diary after her death, when the four women walked and talked in the estate’s gardens: “And so the cries and whispers die away.”

3. “Face to Face” (1976). Ullmann scored her second Oscar nomination, and her first and only for a Bergman film, with this portrait of one woman’s psychological descent into a world of nightmares. Psychiatrist Jenny gets tangled up with the wrong patient, and is raped by two home invaders. In the aftermath, Dr. Jenny can’t suppress her feelings of horror, and makes a botched suicide attempt, which sends her into a half-coma tailspin in the hospital. There she is caught in the horrific land of her own dreams, only coming up for consciousness in fits and starts. Dreams are tricky to recreate, on film, on paper, anywhere. Bunuel, Bergman and Haneke do it best. In “Face to Face,” Ullmann wanders through one of the scariest dreamscapes imaginable, confronted with ghostly patients, parents who shut her out, and a doppelganger who watches and laughs as she’s nailed into a burning coffin.

4. “Autumn Sonata” (1978). The sole collaboration between the two great Bergmans of Swedish cinema, “Autumn Sonata” centers on the troubled relationship between an introverted parishioner’s wife (Ullmann) and her energetic if emotionally distant concert pianist mother (Ingrid Bergman). When the two spend a fraught day and night together, confessions and accusations come to the fore. Issues of neglect, illness and guilt are handled with rigorous philosophical deftness -- by director and actresses alike. The film not only acts as one of cinema’s fine two-handers, but reminds us of Ingmar Bergman’s ability to craft a perfect ending: As Ullmann and Bergman are cross cut reading a letter of grave import, it becomes clear that family ties are never severed, just strained taut by years of pain and misunderstanding.

5. “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973). Epic and intense, “Scenes from a Marriage” has become the go-to classic about the arduous path of romantic companionship. Ullmann and Erland Josephson, playing her professor spouse, deftly take us through the twists and turns of one bourgeois couple’s marriage -- from its happy period, to infidelity, divorce and new partners. We get the sense in this film that Bergman is holding our faces to the screen, forcing us not to look away. Hence the many close-ups, shot skillfully by Nykvist. Originally a five-hour, six-part miniseries, the film was subsequently cut into a three-hour theatrical cut for US audiences. See both.

BONUS: Love Liv Ullmann? Love Max Von Sydow? Then be sure to check out this trio of Bergman films in which they star opposite one another, and in all three play lovers up against frightening odds while on remote Swedish isles: “The Passion of Anna” (streaming), “The Hour of the Wolf” and “Shame.”

Clips and trailers, after the jump.

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