Liv and Ingmar – lovers and friends over 42 years
Isn’t that how we usually grade relationships without thinking any further? The physical intimacy has the place at the top of the ladder as if this was the closest you ever could get to any other person. But is it really so?
The Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman were lovers for a few years in the mid-60s until Liv couldn’t endure to live so near a man ridden by jealousy, control issues and all sorts of other demons. After living more or less in isolation on an island, where she only got to see other people once a week when she got “permission” to leave their home, she finally had enough and fled.
It would have seemed natural if the point of her escape been the end of their relationship. Who wouldn’t want to stay as far away as possible from such an abusive ex-partner? But she didn’t. Instead their relationship went through a transformation. They weren’t lovers anymore but they were still partners at work. And they didn’t hesitate to reuse painful memories from their time as a couple as material for TV and film projects such as Scenes from a Marriage.
Liv and Ingmar didn’t just work together; they also developed a close friendship, so close that they spoke to each other on the phone more or less every day. It wasn’t until Ingmar died that it came to an end, after 42 years. When I think of the ladder of relationships there’s no doubt that they were at the very top of it. But they didn’t climb it until their divorce was a fact.
Liv & Ingmar is a documentary about this relationship, made by the Indian filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar. After reading the memoirs by Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman he became fascinated by their story and wanted to make a film about it. But it took a few years before he could persuade Liv Ullmann to do it. She thought she had spoken enough about her and Ingmar Bergman over the years, but finally she gave in and accepted to give the film two days of recording at Fårö, where she and Bergman had lived, and in Norway, where she comes from. Apart from interviews with Liv Ullmann, the film also contains readings from books and letters, and a great number of clips from Ingmar Bergman’s movies, which clearly show how much inspiration his art took from his personal life.
As a Swede it felt a little weird that everything in the film apart from the clips was in English. It makes sense of course, considering that the director is from India and the film probably will get a way bigger audience abroad than here. I’ve met very few Swedes who are anywhere near as enthusiastic about Ingmar Bergman as they seem to be in US and elsewhere. Our relationship to Bergman is a mixed one. I think Swedes in general find his movies a bit slow, dull and hard to understand. On the other hand we’re secretly delighted every time we get proof of his international reputation. It tickles our national pride. But while it’s all in good order that the film is English, I still can’t help feeling that something is lost in translation.
The male genius
I suspect that most facts that are presented are well known to those who know their Bergman better than I do. I would still recommend it because it gives a slightly different perspective than we’re used to. As much as it is about Bergman, it’s also a film about Liv Ullmann, who is just as much of an important artist – writer, director and actor – as Bergman was. The only sad thing is that she doesn’t fully see it. At one point Bergman compared her to an instrument. Liv Ullmann’s role was to be the Stradivarius for Bergman to play. Liv Ullmann doesn’t seem to mind; she’s actually rather pleased with the description and I couldn’t help frowning at little at this. It was so typical: once again there was this male genius who is too important to be bothered to take part in raising his children and who uses the women around him as muses to get inspiration from or as instruments to be played on. I’ve never heard about the opposite: a female director who describes a favourite male actor as her Stradivarius and I wonder if we ever will.
It needs to be said though, that Liv Ullmann doesn’t appear to feel inferior or dependent towards Bergman in any way. Maybe she once was, but at this point in her life, she shows confidence, insight and humour as she’s speaking about the past. She’s not a blind fan girl of the director. She’s a colleague and an equal. At last.
Liv & Ingmar (Dheeraj Akolkar, 2012) My rating: 4/5