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Bergman’s Women

Bergman’s Women

Articles - Directing

A couple of months ago I
began an alphabetical journey through the work of the world’s great
moviemakers, revisiting
classics I’d forgotten and seeing for the first time films I’d
missed. I made it as far as Ingmar Bergman before this issue on
women in film came up. The timing couldn’t have been better, since
Bergman’s women are among the most luminous to ever appear on a
movie screen. But to imply that they "belonged" to him
is not entirely accurate, since Bergman was often the one possessed.
His Swedish sirens lured him, not with their beauty, but with their
strength while in the grip of madness, their grace in the throes
of collapse.

Bergman himself said women were "the world I have developed
in, perhaps not for the best, but no man can really feel he knows
himself if he manages to detach himself from it." Bergman
found self-enlightenment in his exploration of femininity, or what
Truffaut called, "the feminine principal." Politics meant
little to him in his films, so he was not interested in feminism.
Instead, he was concerned with the psyche and spirit of women;
women abandoned by God, or trapped in lifeless marriages; women
whose squelched desires often erupted as bitter confessions. In
nearly all his films, there is a moment when a woman unloads everything:
each regret or petty annoyance is voiced, half-truths and lies
are admitted to, betrayal and hate are laid face-up on the table.
These ritual purgings are always difficult to watch, but refreshing.
He allowed his women to cleanse their souls, before disease or
boredom swallowed them up.

The director’s leading lady Liv Ullmann in Face
to Face
(1975).

His men were never as interesting. Who could compete with a gallery
of stunning Swedish goddesses such as Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson,
Gunnel Lindblom, Harriet Andersson, and Liv Ullmann? What male
actor could steal their close-ups, or demand their respect?

When Max Von Sydow stalled Death in The Seventh Seal (1957), it
was to allow Bibi Andersson’s escape with her husband and small
child. To include her in Death’s final round-up would have been
too much for Von Sydow, or us, or Bergman, to bear. In A Winter
Light (1962), Gunnar Bjornstrand’s tormented minister paled in
the saintly, suffering glow of Thulin’s unconditional love. And
in one of Bergman’s early films, Brink of Life (1958), set entirely
in a maternity ward, the men are either autocratic doctors, self-serving
husbands or boyfriends who deposit their sperm and then stand back
to watch the women agonize alone with abortion and stillbirth.
In Bergman’s view, it is the men who judge, the women who suffer.

Instinctively, Bergman trained his camera on their faces and torsos.
His 1973 masterpiece, Cries and Whispers, was composed of sequences
that began and ended with close-ups of women staring into the camera,
mute introductions to flashbacks that told the story of three sisters
and their servant. The servant cares for the cancer-stricken oldest
sister by exposing her heavy, maternal breasts, and letting the
dying woman nuzzle there. It is a scene of marvelous sensuality,
a tribute to the life-sustaining power of a woman’s body. The Shame
(1968) opens with Liv Ullmann bustling out of bed and sponge-bathing
her breasts, while Max Von Sydow, the cowardly husband, looks on,
unable to compete with such primal sexuality.

From Through a Glass Darkly (1962)

Persona (1966), his strange and haunting tale of a nurse caring
for a psychologically unstable actress, is a study in profiles
and expressions, with the faces of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann
poised side by side, an inch from touching. One of the more memorable
shots in The Silence (1963), is of Lindblom napping with Ullmann’s
son, her bare back exposed in the dunes of white sheets, his body
curled fetally next to hers. It suggests heat and suppressed sexuality,
like Edward Weston working in wide shots.

It is rare to see a film these days with such
respect for women, which depicts their sex and their bodies with
such honesty. Bergman’s
two accomplished cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist,
each photographed his women beautifully, while also allowing the
light to expose their blemishes, their "sweat, heat, erectile
tissue" (The Silence). Harriet Andersson dies of cancer before
our eyes in Cries and Whisper, her white skin pulled tight across
her bones, her body embalmed in regret. Thulin suffers from eczema
in A Winter Light, her bandaged hands an object of Bjornstrand’s
rejection. And in The Silence, the same actress spends much of
the film in bed, gripping the bedposts and writhing from some unnameable
disease. Bergman found a path to clarity through illness. Healthy
people were boring.

He preferred to work in close quarters, with the same group of
actors, on scripts written like short stories, with little action,
few extras, and even fewer exteriors. The austerity reflected his
own Lutheran upbringing. His father was the minister to the Swedish
royal family, and under the twin institutions of religion and politics
Bergman suffered the same repression and rigid formalism to which
he subjected his characters. His father sometimes locked the young
Bergman in a closet for hours. It’s no wonder, then, that to him
a bedroom seemed immense, or a living room could contain a universe.
Within these spaces he created a family of mostly sisters, daughters,
and mothers, sheltering dark secrets, capable of hate as deep as
love.

Thulin was Bergman’s ice queen, his stoic sufferer.
She was a mother pregnant with a child her suicidal husband didn’t
want in
Wild Strawberries (1957); and had a soul-draining abortion a year
later in Brink of Life; she subjugated her sexual needs until they
erupted into a skin rash in A Winter Light; she was an unfulfilled
lesbian who masturbated on screen in The Silence (in 1963!), and
proclaimed, after an earlier, aborted pregnancy, that "I stank
like a rotten fish when I was fertilized." By the time Cries
and Whispers rolled around a decade later, she was slashing her
vagina with broken glass to spite her insensitive husband. When
Thulin smiled in a Bergman film, it was a flash of the fang before
the bite.Bibi Andersson was his virgin, his temptress, his naive
schoolgirl on the cusp of womanhood. She lived to see the newly
dead dance across the horizon in The Seventh Seal, but lost her
baby in Brink of Life. She was the freewheeling hitchhiker who
helped an old man relive his past in Wild Strawberries, and the
nurse who recounted her experience of a beachside orgy with lucid
eroticism in Persona. In The Passion of Anna (1969), she was a
wife who felt her existence was meaningless. Andersson was as close
to a heroine as Bergman would allow, her buoyant spirit lifting
her above the wretched self-examinations of most of his characters.
She shared an acting prize with Eva Dahlbeck and Thulin at the
Cannes Film Festival for Brink of Life.

Cries and Whispers (1973)

Liv Ullmann was Bergman’s mystery woman. She could express her
characters’ interior lives with a quiet stare, an implacable stance,
or a sudden, youthful smile. She shared Bergman’s intuitions about
women, but kept something of an emotional treasure chest that contained
elements of anger and terror. Her performance in Persona, as the
actress who refuses to talk, is a shifting Ouija board of smiles
and frowns, conjuring up a multitude of diagnoses for her condition.
She is oblique and utterly compelling. And in Face to Face (1976),
who can forget the moment when Ullmann’s face registers the horror
that her insanity is inextricable, that death is the only way out.

She was at her most accessible, her brightest
and strongest in The Shame, which is as close as Bergman ever
came to an "action
picture", with bombs exploding and cars racing around, with
escapes and betrayals, and Ullmann standing tall amid the chaos.
As the bored but loving wife of the weak-willed Von Sydow, she
refused to surrender to the clichéd brutality her husband
adopts in the face of civil war, but instead despairingly submits
to another cliché: she sleeps with the man who saved their
lives. Ullmann was at her best when you could see, beneath her
translucent skin, her struggle, not with the truth itself, but
with exactly which truth to tell.

Bergman was, like Cassavetes, a lover of truth. His films were
battlegrounds. For Cassavetes, love was the weapon and truth the
prize; for Bergman’s women, truth was the weapon. Loveand God were
dead and gone. Existence was all that mattered. When in Cries and
Whispers Ullmann and Thulin decide to end their years of bitter
feuding, they make up with a heart-to-heart talk that Bergman shoots
silently, knowing it is a sham. He was only interested in the real
thing, and the real thing for him was women coming clean. MM

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