The doctor is sick. And, as Kierkegaard liked to put it, the sickness is unto death. Psychiatrist Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ullmann), the central character in Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face, feels at loose ends while her husband’s away on business; consequently, she attends one of the most un-hip swingers parties ever committed to celluloid, starts a relationship with polyamorous playboy Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Erland Josephson), narrowly avoids an attempted rape courtesy of her willing but “cramped” cooch, bungles a barely motivated suicide attempt, and generally indulges a penchant for hysterical histrionics. If you’ve ever seen one of those old-fashioned woman’s pictures they used to call a “weepie”—let alone an episode of your average telenovela—you know exactly what I mean: Wailing inconsolably one moment, laughing uncontrollably the next, Ullmann delivers the sort of actorly spectacle that seems reverse-engineered to glom high-profile awards. That’s precisely what occurred, as she was dutifully nominated for a flotilla of the industry’s highest honors from the Academy Award to a BAFTA.
Ticking off the abovementioned laundry list of rather grotesque goings-on, the credulous viewer might understandably mistake Face to Face for an incident-packed film. On the contrary, it’s glacially paced, an exercise in dithering dialogue and nonstop navel-gazing, languorous rather than lacerating. Gauge for yourself: Bergman presents Jenny’s suicide attempt in one excruciating long take. For three solid minutes, we watch her gulp down pill after pill with impassivity, and then, while she slips sedately into a coma, the camera executes a leisurely 360-degree pan around the room, pausing every now and then to observe the artwork on the walls.
Like Bergman’s earlier Scenes from a Marriage, which also featured Ullmann and Josephson, Face to Face began life as a made-for-Swedish-television miniseries later truncated for theatrical release. Both films fall under the “chamber film” rubric Bergman applied to many of his later works, a term derived from August Strindberg’s plays, indicating small casts confined to restrictive spaces, whose subject matter typically consisted of psychologically probing accounts of characters in extremis. This designation certainly applies. But whereas Scenes from a Marriage packs a cumulative wallop at any length, laying out with surgical precision a married couple’s soon-to-be dashed dreams and asphyxiated aspirations, tracking them from complacency through the stirrings of discontent and on to separation, divorce, and eventual (adulterous) reconciliation, the abridged Face to Face feels scattershot and incomplete, never adequately establishing connections between characters, motivations for significant actions (like Jenny’s suicide attempt), or even the simple causalities of time and space. For instance, when a character like nurse Veronica (Kristina Adolphson) turns up late in the film to assist with Jenny’s recovery, it’s as if she just wandered onto the set, and the viewer is left puzzled, whereas Jenny’s reaction suggests an entire back story that has been elided. Such inelegant abbreviations only further de-dramatize an already listless film.
Even the stark dreamlike imagery—usually one of Bergman’s strong suits—dominating the film’s second hour, as Jenny teeters on the threshold between life and death, comes across too pat, sacrificing a truly oneiric logic and open-ended symbolism for on-the-nose parental confrontations (“Mama! Papa! I love you! I hate you!”), or else cribbing directly from other, better Bergman films (the getting-nailed-in-your-own-coffin routine, recycled from Wild Strawberries). The baleful blind woman who recurs throughout is as surely a harbinger of Death as the pale chess player in The Seventh Seal was its personification. These psychodramatic pyrotechnics allow Bergman a certain measure of revenge on his own childhood, elaborating on details transposed from his life onto Jenny’s: the décor of the grandparents’ apartment, the paralysis her grandfather (Gunnar Björnstrand) suffers from, the harsh imprecations and admonishments they tormented Jenny with when she was a child and that she now acts out, playing both the role of the accuser as well as the accused. But therein lies the problem. Not only do these scenes arrive too late in the film to detonate any psychological depth charges, they merely serve as an exposition dump directed into the viewer’s lap. Ullmann handles the perspectival ping pong with more dexterity than the earlier laughing-crying-laughing scenes, but still you cannot elude the suspicion that this is just another showcase showdown.
There are one or two all-too-brief moments near the end of the film where Bergman manages any profound contact with his audience. Partially recovered from her breakdown, Dr. Jacobi arranges for Jenny to meet with her daughter Anna (Helene Friberg). Not wanting to maintain the fraudulent cover story Anna’s been fed by relatives, Jenny tells the girl point blank about her suicide attempt, going out of her way to clarify the point that her actions weren’t Anna’s fault nor any reflection on her feelings about Anna. But Anna isn’t buying it. “You never cared for me anyway,” she declares sardonically before storming out of the room. This brief exchange says more about the fraught nature of parent-child relations than all the preening, overblown melodramatics. Back at her grandparents’ apartment, Jenny observes her grandmother’s tender solicitude toward her grandfather, who’s most likely on his deathbed, musing to herself in voiceover, “For a brief moment I realized that love embraces everything—even death,” a tentative benediction that arches over Jenny’s entire death-and-rebirth narrative.
Regarding the film’s reception, Bergman reportedly said: “Regard it as a surgeon’s scalpel. Not everyone will welcome it.” Maybe that’s because this emotional autopsy shows the filmmaker’s normally keen blade to be blunted, resulting in a hatchet job where finely honed dissection ought to have been the upshot. Good thing, then, directors aren’t liable for malpractice.
Given the film’s televisual origins, it comes as no surprise that the picture is soft and blurry on occasion, with the odd blotch or blemish. The anamorphic widescreen presentation is 1.78:1 and, although the original aspect ratio is listed elsewhere as 1.66:1, there’s scant evidence of cropping. The usually unimpeachable Sven Nykvist’s cinematography seems hampered by the stripped-down, confined nature of the material; it works best in outdoor scenes (unfortunately few and far between), where the verdant greens of the foliage lure the eye (much like the bold reds that dominate the dream sequences), or else in interiors flooded with natural light. The Swedish-language monaural soundtrack is blunt and at times reverb-y, more or less mitigated by using the obligatory English subtitles.
No extras whatsoever, not even a theatrical trailer.
While Olive Films should be commended for making this hitherto hard-to-see late-period Bergman available, only die-hard completists (and, possibly, masochists) should bother to face off against Face to Face.