Liv & Ingmar provides visible evidence as to how autobiographical Ingmar Bergman’s work was. This intimate documentary collages footage from the auteur’s fllms with interviews with his cinematic muse, lover, and friend, Liv Ullmann, who suggests a psychosomatic relationship between the filmmaker’s domestic dramas and his cinematic masterpieces. Ullmann recounts their 42-year love story from their first summer together on the island where they shot Persona (she was 25, he was 46), and where Bergman subsequently took residence, until the last visit she paid him on the afternoon before his death.
What keeps Ullmann’s account from the realm of celebrity narcissism is both director Dheerai Alkolkar’s delicate approach to his subject, and the fact that Ullmann and Bergman’s love story was at once impossibly unique and maddeningly quotidian. Her version of events is the narrative of every woman, whose strategy for survival in a relationship is too often self-humiliating. Ullmann’s musings and anecdotes help us re-signify Bergman’s oeuvre in a way that makes it impossible to see a film like Scenes from a Marriage as something other than a perverse reenactment of the muffled horrors undergirding the filmmaker and his actress’s real-life togetherness. At times this seems like an imagined post-cinematic life of Marianne, Ullmann’s character in that film, the wife who was willing to accept any horror, except being abandoned. At one point, Ullmann says of the moment she realized Bergman was attracted to her, sexually and ontologically, that “it felt unusual that someone would feel something for me.”
Liv & Ingmar not only humanizes Bergman as the absent lover-cum-father of everyday life, but works as a priceless oral history of cinema. Ullmann navigates decades of masterful filmmaking with the kind of poesis we associate with Bergman’s cinema itself: slightly undercooked, and delivered with astounding simplicity. Ingmar’s cinema and Ullmann’s witnessing are never loud, but discretely decisive, like a timid but lethal blow. We see the inside of Bergman’s home, we see his love letters, their journal together, and the teddy bear in which he used to hide one of her love notes. We learn how his anger as a lover often fueled the way he directed, that he was psychologically violent toward Ullmann, that he held her in the position of both his mother and his child, and that he was so unbearably possessive he built fences around their house as a way of telling Ullmann not to see her friends nor ever go home to Norway. Ullmann knows her suffering isn’t special, but the kind of universal mechanism that renders heterosexual femininity possible, even if always as the inhabitant of someone else’s dream. What’s most fascinating is how a cinema that so lucidly understands woman’s predicament such as Bergman’s, and even sympathizes with her impossible condition, can come from a man who, in his private life, thrived in the constitutive selfishness of the traditional heterosexual male.