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Cries And Whispers
Cries And Whispers© AB Svensk Filmindustri

Liv Ullmann: woman on the edge

“I never played the wife, I never played the girlfriend” – as the BFI’s retrospective launches, Bergman’s muse reflects on her magnetic bond with the director

Celebrating the mammoth retrospective at the British Film Institute this spring, we explore the world of cult auteur Ingmar Bergman – from his groundbreaking depictions of mental health to his collaborations with his number-one muse, Liv Ullmann. 

Face to Face, 1976: a woman wakes up, gets herself ready for the day and calls a lover to arrange a date, before recoiling at a vision of an old woman in the mirror. Autumn Sonata, 1978: a woman is asked by her mother if she actually likes her, and answers honestly for once. Persona, 1966: a woman stops speaking altogether, because she is simply tired of giving herself up to others, as all women must.

In Ingmar Bergman’s cinema, it’s fair to say that the emotional truths are more important than the plain truths; your heart gets it before your mind. The same could be said for the director’s relationships with women, which encompass five marriages and multiple extra-marital relationships with his actresses, but also, more significantly, a series of interdependent muse-director relationships that produced some of the most empathetic, electric, total depictions of women ever seen on screen. Actress Liv Ullmann, who starred in countless Bergman projects across five decades of collaboration – classics like Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Cries and Whispers (1972), Shame (1968), and Saraband (2003), along with those already mentioned – was undoubtedly the Swedish director’s leading muse. But that sticky word doesn’t feel like it quite adheres to the central, active role she played in shaping the cultish director’s vision.

“I never played the wife, I never played the girlfriend. I was always the main character,” says Ullmann when we meet in-person, adding wistfully, “I would have liked to have been some really sweet, wonderful grandmother in some movie, but no!” It’s a January morning in London and we’re sitting in a room at the BFI. Later today, Ullmann will give a talk to hundreds of rapt Bergman aficionados at the cinematic institution, but right now, she’s starting her day with a coffee. Whereas the characters she has played across her career have been marked by their anxieties that brim at the very surface of their expression – never more vividly than in her first Bergman movie, Persona, where she remains mute almost throughout – today 79-year-old Ullmann does come across as though she’d be the best grandmother ever. Throughout our conversation, she’s all spark, generosity and care; she also sits on the very edge of her seat, as though I’m a Bergman reel and she’s the viewer.

For the public, the story of Ingmar and Liv begins with postmodern masterpiece and document of fraught femininity, Persona, about an actress who falls mute (Ullmann) and the nurse who is assigned to help her recuperate (Bibi Andersson). But it really began, in Larry David fashion, with a ‘stop and chat’. “I was in Stockholm with Bibi Andersson, who was a very good friend of mine. We happened to meet Ingmar on the street and he stopped. He said, ‘Oh, I know about you, I would like to have you in one of my films.’ And then he was to do a movie with Bibi and me, where I just had two pages and she did the lead. I was so excited.” Ullmann, who was 25 at the time, was already an experienced actress in her native Norway and was set to be one of the first foreign actresses to be entrusted with a Bergman part.

As often transpired, however, Bergman got sick before they started filming – and Ullmann’s dream was put on hold. But his time in the hospital gave him the headspace to conjure the modernist fever dream that would alter Ullmann’s trajectory forever. “Bibi and I were on holiday in Czechoslovakia,” recalls Ullmann. “The Embassy got hold of us and said that while Ingmar was in the hospital he got an idea because he was (looking at) pictures of the two of us. He thought, ‘You are both so alike.’ And he wrote a script within 40 days in the hospital. A movie will be made and he’s gonna call it Persona. So, we left everything, came to Stockholm, and Persona happened. There was very little time to prepare. But he had this incredible idea and I think it had to do with his life situation. I think he was very sad about life, he wanted to stop talking. He wanted to isolate (himself) in a very strange way.”

“We kind of fell very slowly in love as well,” Ullmann continues. “So to me, that was the memory of the movie. Just before the end, he said ‘You and I are very painfully connected, in a way.’”

From there, the relationship would develop in fast-forward: Bergman and Ullmann each walked away from their respective marriages, began living on Fårö island in a house Bergman built, had a child together, and then separated five years later. In that time, they made Shame and Cries and Whispers. “I knew that once we left each other, nothing was changing except that the ‘romance’ was over. But it’s something really beautiful, that it went on to be a friendship and we continued creating together.”

While much is made of the meta-narratives one can project on Bergman’s work during this period according to Ullmann and Bergman’s stormy relationship, the men in these films are mainly voyeurs to what they cannot understand, not active protagonists – just look at the strained sisterhood of Cries and Whispers, where the husband’s narratives are literally book-ends to the women’s struggles. “There are a lot of theories that are not really great. They are more about themselves than they are about the movies.” says Ullmann of the public’s theory-weaving, adding, “I do believe that that is what art is about. Sometimes it comes from (the artists) in their soul and (the viewer) can’t even describe it.“

“He would meet ordinary women, (and) he would be interested in what her life was about! There were very few people that met him who didn’t really fall in love with him because they were recognised. They were seen” – Liv Ullmann

In a time when genuinely multifaceted roles for actresses on-screen are still dispiritingly rare, Ullmann’s showreel could strike jealousy in even the most storied of actresses. Through her collaborations with Bergman, she has been a voice for bringing the inner lives of women into cinemas and, through the director’s extensive and groundbreaking television work, even into their living rooms. For any woman watching Bergman, that brutally honest mirror is why these films are freshly relevant across generations – but how does a man, middle-aged when he met Ullmann, access those interiorities? For Ullmann, the key is her former partner’s empathy. “He had been surrounded by good women (growing up), or not necessarily only good women, but women who were verbalising who they were,” she says. “He loved to talk to actresses. He would meet ordinary women, too, who were at home and didn’t work. But he would be interested in what her life was about! And there were very few people that met him who didn’t really fall in love with him, because they were recognised. They were seen.”

At the same time as she understands the importance of the kinds of women she portrayed, Ullmann doesn’t get too hung up on gender differences; in fact, she believes much of her role was to be an avatar of Bergman himself. She talks explicitly about Persona in this way, but also believes it to be a thread connecting much of her work with the director. “In The Seventh Seal, that man playing chess with death says, ‘Don’t take me yet, I’ve always just lived for me.’ Now you see, a woman could have said that in many of his films. Later, somehow, he felt women could say it better, and that’s why he chose me instead of Max (von Sydow).”

It’s tempting to presume that Ullmann, who has played so many women on the edge, may have found herself somewhat destabilised by these wrenching roles, which often occurred in quick succession of each other, on small, intimate sets. But Ullmann is keen to emphasise the nature of her performances as performing, not embodiment. “I’ve never been that kind of actress that goes home and it still lives with me. Acting you do in front of camera. Acting you do on stage. And then it’s over, you have to live your life.” What’s more, with Bergman she found the kind of security that, even when the romantic relationship was over, allowed her to forge her own path as an artist in a way she speaks of, even now, with emotion. “What Ingmar gave me was a lot of safety as a human being,” she says. “Because he liked what I said, when I said something. And he liked the way I listened, and understood, because he saw he reached me. And he gave me such trust in my acting and that was one of his genius things; he made (one) feel that one was the only actor at that moment he would work with. (By Persona), I had (acted) for some years, but the biggest director in the world wanted to work with me! I felt safe. Nobody could harm me.” She pauses, her mind turning to recent events in the industry. “And (unlike) the times we are living in right now, nobody did. Harm me.”

Sometime after her romantic relationship with Bergman ended, Ullmann would leave Sweden for Hollywood, striking out on her own to feel the sun of American filmmaking in its golden years. In an era which always seems more fabulous than our own, you’ll spot a still-young Ullmann on the cover of magazines, and photographed countless times with coiffed hair and dressed in silky all-beige loungewear. She landed project after project there through the 70s, some more successful than others: most significantly, she won an Oscar for her role in Jan Troel’s The Emigrants. (My only regret of the interview is failing to ask Ullmann her memories of being party to the biggest Oscars scandal pre-Moonlight mix-up, that of presenting an Oscar to Marlon Brando only to be confronted by his replacement in protest, Native American Sacheen Littlefeather).

“In the United States, when Erland (Josephson) and I were there, we sat in a taxi cab, and the driver turned and said ‘You are behaving badly to your wife!’” – Liv Ullmann on the impact of Scenes from a Marriage

Perhaps surprisingly for a former lover who only recently had wanted Ullmann to stay in utter isolation on Fårö island with him, Bergman was more than happy to see Ullmann go. “He didn’t like his actors, the women or the men, to go to other countries and make movies. (But) I think because he knew I was shy, he loved the idea. He hated to travel, but he would even travel to the United States to see something when I worked there on Broadway. He would come for one day and then he would go back again! It was because we were so much alike, he thought, ‘I would never do it, but she’s doing it.’”

I venture that her time in Hollywood, marked as it was by high and low(-brow) moments, may have made her appreciate the Bergman roles more for their inherent complexities. But even in America, Ullmann’s reputation preceded her. “By the time I came to the United States and did movies there, I had my luggage. Even there, I (played) women who were often nervous, anxious… I would have liked to be more straight and normal, but I never was.” She did, however, learn the hard way at some point that even playing complex women doesn’t pay the bills like playing dull men. “I first knew in the theatre. I remember a play I starred in with a man, he got almost double my salary. And I said, ‘I can’t understand it. I have a child.’ I was a lonely mother at this time. And the head (of the theatre) said, ‘He’s a man, he has a family.’ And somehow the way my generation was brought up, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he has a family. Well I have this child, but you know, I don’t have a wife.’ At that time, nobody thought that was strange.”

In a career of films that painstakingly dissect society’s ills – issues of war (Shame), mental health (Persona) and suicide (Face to Face) – there is one that Ullmann seems to be the most proud of for the direct effect it had on beliefs at that time. Scenes from a Marriage (1973) was Bergman’s uncompromisingly honest portrayal of a seemingly happy marriage broken up by infidelity, starring Ullmann alongside regular collaborator Erland Josephson. It was made for Swedish TV, screened globally and later released as a theatrical version. “In Sweden, it was on TV for six weeks and no one was in the streets. It had an effect on the divorce rate, because people started to talk to each other about these things. It had an effect (on) the communication between men and women. People forget that about Ingmar, because they think he is a dark, dull man.” Alternately hopeful and hopeless, the realism was like nothing else seen before – to the degree that certain viewers thought the couple were real. “In the United States, when Erland and I were there, we sat in a taxi cab – we were going to some event – and the taxi driver turned and said, ‘You are behaving badly to your wife!’” she laughs.

While Ullmann likes to deny the roles she played as having anything beyond an artistic effect on her in these first decades of collaboration, she admits that playing the character of Marianne – a role she would reprise in Bergman’s final film, Saraband – switched her on to the feminist movement in a way that no other role had. “This woman evolved and became a great lawyer, and the man just got more and more angry and frustrated. It’s a wonderful picture of a woman going from reading a letter and feeling humiliated, from (playing) this kind of innocent, accepting, feminine role – to leaving all that and saying yes to that other part of you, that can grow and succeed.”

“I see now how easy it is to find anxiety where it was not there when I was younger. I mean, we have Trump!” – Liv Ullmann

Perhaps more indicative of the centrality of Ullmann to Bergman’s world are her directorial efforts, which saw Ullmann entrusted with Bergman’s most personal screenplays: Private Confessions (1966), which addressed his relationship with his mother, and Faithless (2000), which confronted a past relationship in which he had wronged his partnerBy this point, Ullmann was surely used to the baldly autobiographical elements of the roles she was asked to take on by Bergman – the plot of Scenes from a Marriage enacted her own failed romance with the director. But the act of taking on Bergman’s screenplays in a directorial role registered in a more intense way. In fact, as it becomes clear in the course of our conversation, the anxieties that abound in these latter-day projects are something that is only registering with Ullmann now. “I see now how easy it is to find anxiety where it was not there when I was younger. I mean, we have Trump!” More than current political disasters, the fact that Ullman has now caught up to, and surpassed, Bergman’s age when she first met him, means her mindset has necessarily altered when she looks back at his doomiest films. “Playing chess with death! I will never forget those scenes. At the time, I was so overwhelmed by the artistry, it was incredible. But now, I’m only thinking of this simple thing: I’m just lying in my bed, and I’m going to die – please give me one more chance so I can do something real for somebody else. I think it’s so beautiful and profound. It affected me then, but it affects me much more later.”

As the hour wears on and we discuss her decades of collaboration with Bergman, Ullmann displays an astounding ability to bring him right into even this soulless function room with us, with a kind of cinematic clarity. It’s a journey that spans a romantic as well as professional relationship, but clearly one that has been the most important of her life. Ultimately, Bergman’s lens was one that refracted Ullman’s self in the most life-giving way possible: a tender, often turbulent collaboration that proves once and for all that no man – or woman – is an island (even if you live on one).

These days, Ullman opts to reread Bergman’s scripts rather than watch the films back. “Working with him was profound. But (it’s) his words now (that) have really become true to me. Really! And I say that in spite of, you know, being the actress. Oh, I was the one who gave life to it, but the truth is I gave so much of me, and the other actors gave so much of them, so it was about them too, and what they had understood. But if you just read it, a new clarity will come. And that’s really magical, I think.”

Ingmar Bergman season is on January through March at the BFI.