Although Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words presents a portrait of actress Ingrid Bergman as a lovely, intense individual who was dedicated to her craft and professional work above all else, director Stig Björkman circumnavigates hagiography by structuring Bergman’s life in relation to the numerous film systems she worked in, from Sweden to Hollywood to her films with Roberto Rossellini in Italy. To be sure, there are numerous talking heads that heap praise on Bergman, from Isabella Rossellini to Sigourney Weaver, but Björkman’s biographical textures are also supremely tied to place and time, giving the documentary an edge that seldom settles for complacency.
Bergman’s writings, spoken in voiceover by Alicia Vikander, supplement 16mm footage of Bergman’s youth and early years as an actress, much of which is footage Bergman shot herself around film sets. While voiceover and image might typically be coupled to create a diarist’s sense of intimacy in relation to the subject, Björkman keenly focuses on Bergman’s hustling from one place to another as a necessary condition of her Swedish status. To “make it,” she had no choice but to become something of a nomad. In effect, rather than focusing on Bergman as a centripetal force, or suggesting that all matter moves inward and toward her as the subject, In Her Own Words makes her a centrifugal force, anchoring its largely outward gaze to the people and events that informed Bergman as a human being, emotionally and existentially.
Björkman uses the documentary’s opening minutes to establish Bergman’s troubled life in Sweden, where several family members died for various reasons, but mostly due to illness. Bergman obsessively kept every photograph, diary, and even her childhood passport through all stages of her life because she “knew her life was going to be important,” which allows Björkman to feature clips from these home movies for much of the film’s duration. In travelling from the Filmstaden in Råsunda to work for David O. Selznick in Hollywood, Bergman seems to have felt each mile of the journey in how it was placing her into an irrevocable state of careerist ambition.
Of course, those ambitions (and her talent) made her one of Hollywood’s brightest stars during the 1940s, working with Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor, among others, all of which Björkman chronicles with only mild interest in the films themselves. Comments are offered about her work with directors and in relation to Bergman’s admiration for Cary Grant, but not as the mere circumstance of greater biographical comprehension. When the film reminds viewers of perhaps Bergman’s most famous role in Casablanca, it’s in the present tense through voiceover in a letter Bergman wrote to her friend back in Sweden. Vikander’s reading conveys simultaneous certainty and vulnerability in Bergman’s tone, and the indirectness of the note creates ambiguities as to the specifics of her psychology.
There are moments when In Her Own Words seems like it may veer into tabloid terrain, as in a prolonged sequence about Bergman’s marriage to Roberto Rossellini that too giddily flirts with details about the couple’s inaugural romantic entanglement. Certainly, Bergman’s mixing of personal and professional relations (she made three films with Rossellini over a four-year span) warrants representation and exploration, but Björkman dulls the potential sharpness of this sequence by taking away Bergman’s voice for substantial portions of it. It’s only when Bergman subsequently speaks about her filmic collaborations with Rossellini through archival audio, believing they were doomed to commercial failure because audiences would only have seen the “scandal,” that Björkman refocuses on routing details of Bergman’s biography through her own outward-looking perspective.
The documentary’s final third provides brief, if expected, segments that detail Bergman’s films with both Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman, and while each of these stories helps pull the film toward the conclusion of Bergman’s life (she died of breast cancer in 1982), the added credits to her filmography finally feel more dutiful than a piece of any vision Björkman has in mind. Such is inevitably the fault of any chronological history if it places an allegiance to completionist tendencies ahead of its subject’s affect, but Björkman’s limitations are saved by Isabella Rossellini, whose emergence in the film’s final half hour provides the missing link to Bergman’s private life. As she’s sitting with Weaver and Liv Ullmann, each discussing their memories of her mother, it’s Rossellini’s suggestive utterance of the word “mama” in the course of a story that bridges the film’s gap between turning Bergman from documentary subject into luminous human being.
Criterion’s transfer of Stig Björkman’s documentary beams with the precision one likely expects from a film released in 2015. While some of Ingrid Bergman’s personal footage from the 1920s and 30s looks a bit rough around the edges, Criterion has maintained Björkman’s intent and Bergman’s family’s wishes to present that footage with minimal touch up. However, the image’s sharpness remains consistently striking, whether in close-up for interviews or when utilizing Bergman’s footage. The score by Eva Dahlgren and Michael Nyman gives Bergman’s words and images a delicately melancholic touch without dipping into overt sentimentality. Accordingly, Criterion has mixed the score a little high in these stretches, so that it borders on overwhelming the speakers. This may put off some viewers, but others will be enthralled by the choice to bask the images in such deftly lugubrious music.
The supplements included here are a bit light, and they err on the side of production materials from Bergman’s career. The major standout is a poignant interview with Björkman, in which he recounts the film’s conception. As he tells it, he was attending the 2011 Cannes Film Festival when Isabella Rossellini, who was the jury president that year, approached him and said: "Should we make a film about mama?" Aside from the interview, there’s a selection of 8mm home movies shot by Bergman, deleted and extended scenes from the film, a clip from the 1932 film Landskamp which features Bergman in her first screen role, outtakes from Bergman’s 1936 film On the Sunny Side, a music video for Eva Dahlgren’s song "The Movie About Us," and a trailer. Finally, Jeanine Basinger, who’s also in the documentary, pens a very good essay about the film’s depiction of Bergman’s life.
Compassionate and structurally intriguing, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is a stellar portrait of a great artist and looks superb on Criterion’s carefully calibrated new Blu-ray.