Bibi Andersson’s face hasn’t really changed. It has the natural lines of a woman in her seventies, but the wrinkles lie like intricate, soft cobwebs on her cheeks; her bone structure remains intact. Her slightly slanted eyes are wary, even wounded. As she waits to introduce her most famous film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, I notice her solid body in grandmotherly clothes, her still blond hair. She’s very Swedish, in every sense. When the audience applauds her, Andersson takes a small, theatrical bow, as if to say, “What’s the fuss?” The novelist Jonathan Lethem asks her a few questions about working with Bergman, and she starts to talk about him in the present tense, then corrects herself. “I have to remember that he’s gone,” she says, again, with no fuss, no sentimentality.
Andersson tries to get comfortable in a high-backed chair, but can’t seem to find a place to put her feet; Letham doesn’t seem to notice her unshowy but very funny dismay. For a time, she speaks about the genesis of Persona, how Bergman had been tired and wanted to improvise a bit on a script he wrote for her and Liv Ullmann. They worked like that for only a little while, then abandoned these methods, though Bergman let her modify her famous speech about an orgy on a beach so that she could deliver it more from a woman’s perspective. Andersson revealed that Bergman never touched liquor, then smiled to herself. “I’m not an alcoholic, of course,” she said to the audience, as if she first needed to clear her name. But Bergman noticed that her face was very pale, and she was about to do the great orgy speech. So he sent out for a bottle of red wine, and she did this scene, one of the sexiest in film history, half-drunk.
In her first films with Ingmar Bergman, fifties work like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Andersson has small roles suited to her pretty, milkmaid-like, unformed character. She’s blond and sunny, in possession of a natural vitality that Bergman cannot use at the center of his films yet. She has one real Bergman lead before her breakthrough in Persona, an under-seen, enjoyable comedy called The Devil’s Eye, where the director gives her a real star turn, highlighting her eminently ravishable sexiness and childlike personality. When Bibi Andersson cries in an Ingmar Bergman film, it really seems to hurt her. This makes her different from the sneaky Liv Ullmann, the masochistic Ingrid Thulin, the hearty Harriet Andersson. This vulnerability makes Bibi Andersson the most touching of his women and the center of Persona, his finest film.
“I did ask him, ’Why do you want me to play these naïve women?” Andersson remembered. “I wanted to be complex…sophisticated.” But Bergman knew her intimately. What Andersson didn’t mention at BAM was the unusual personal circumstances of the Persona shoot. She and Bergman had been a couple, and on the set, the director turned his attention to Ullmann. Andersson sees this in her own way. Discussing the main dynamic between her Nurse Alma and Ullmann’s mute actress Elizabeth Vogler, Andersson said, “He almost made it into something between a man and a woman! Whereas… with two women, there really isn’t that complication,” she insisted. (Naively?)
“Liv and I had worked together before and we were very close,” she continued. “He saw our friendship, and he wanted to get… inside of it. Involved.” Thus, the boy at the film’s beginning, touching a huge screen of their faces. Thus the famous, beckoning close-up of their faces merging, a defining image in twentieth century art. Andersson’s Alma is a simple woman, but she’s a simple woman laboring under a few small pretensions and bookish affectations; it’s in her wanting to rise above her own simplicity that she destroys a part of herself. Just turned thirty, adrift in uncertainty, a fan, a guilty explorer of sexual pleasure, Andersson’s Alma is all these things and much more. She is also Bibi Andersson confronting her own limitations and being stripped bare of all her former happiness and optimism. Bergman offers her an actresses’ triumph in return for this sacrifice. (Time usually does it, anyway, of course.)
Andersson played much darker roles for Bergman after Persona. “Have you seen how ugly I am?” she asks Max Von Sydow, in The Passion of Anna. “Have you ever had a more dreary love partner? Say I’m wrong,” she pleads, winningly. The last time we see her in that film, Bergman overexposes her face and slowly fades to white; his warm feelings for her essential beauty and humanity are clear. Off to the side in Scenes from a Marriage, Ullmann’s big showcase, Andersson does a brief Strindberg-number with her husband, all the while holding onto what must be the longest spiral of cigarette ash in all of cinema. And she continued to collaborate with Bergman in the theater, his true métier.
Letham asked Andersson about working with John Huston and Robert Altman, but there’s not much to say about The Kremlin Letter and Quintet, arguably the worst films those directors made. And the American cinema could only offer her the likes of The Concorde—Airport ’79. No matter. Bibi Andersson is Nurse Alma in Persona, a strong moral force rising out of ruined, Jamesian innocence and trusting good nature, a girl-woman whose disillusionment stands in for everyone who has ever been disappointed, i.e. everybody. I managed to thank Andersson briefly as she left the theater. She looked directly into my face with her kind but burned-out eyes, and she gave me the same dazed, rueful look she gives to Liv Ullmann’s Elizabeth when Alma is taking over the actresses’ wifely duties with Gunnar Björnstrand. Being so close to that great, sensitive face of hers made me feel like Elizabeth Vogler, or Bergman himself: confronted by its warmth and melancholy, there was truly nothing left to say.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.