An icon of the modern European art movie, Liv Ullmann made her first film with Ingmar Bergman when she was 27. Persona, in which she starred with the directors former lover, Bibi Andersson, sparked Ullmanns own short-lived intimate relationship with Bergman (never married, they have a 34-year-old daughter, Linn, a novelist and film critic) and transformed the young Norwegian actor into an international symbol of sensuality and emotional truth. She subsequently starred in some of the directors greatest work, including Scenes From a Marriage, his 1973 masterpiece of love and suffering.
Now 61, Ullmann has previously directed three features, none of which prepares you for the shattering force of her latest, Faithless. Written by Bergman, it stars Lena Endre and longtime Bergman associate Erland Josephson in a story of an adulterous affair gone cataclysmically wrong. What makes it Ullmanns film, perhaps, is that it is a child who suffers the most. In Scenes From a Marriage, children are just part of the married couples emotional noise, but here the child is both witness and victim. I spoke with Ullmann in October, while she was visiting Los Angeles.
L.A. WEEKLY: You have a directors statement in which you describe the relationship among the adults as a game.
LIV ULLMANN: In these love dances that we do, we know the rules and we know what we will have to pay. But too often children are brought into this. They are the only real victims, because they carry all the secrets, they are playing some game that they dont want to play and dont understand. So many people have been part of adultery, or at least have tasted it, you know. Im not condemning anything, and neither, I think, is Bergman. But I think the film shows that if we dont tread carefully, there will be consequences. Ive done that. I never knew what would happen later.
What are you teaching yourself as a director?
For so many years when I acted, Id think without thinking Id be a director I wonder why they are doing it that way? When I started to direct, I was much further than I knew. I see things in frameworks. I didnt try to develop a style, I just show what I find interesting in human relationships. Even when I gave birth, I had all the happiness and pain, but at the same time, I thought, Oh, thats how you cry, I have to remember that. You become, what do you say . . .?
A cannibal so many images that Ive had in life Im now able to put in film, words Ive heard.
Can you talk about the process of making this film your own?
It wasnt a shooting script, it was a monologue. I said [to Bergman], You should do it yourself. He didnt want to. When he gave me the script, it was important for him to see somebody elses images and visions, so thats what I did. I didnt want to discuss it with him, and he showed great dignity. He didnt ask me, What are you doing? Can I see it? Hes a very controlling person, but he really was great.
Where does the writer in the film live?
Well, because the writer is Bergman, he does live on an island, Fårö, but we built the interiors in a studio in Stockholm. For the exteriors we did go to Fårö, but not around his house. The beach and the ocean that I know are so important in his life, the solitude and isolation thats how it looks.
The movie is complicated in that the woman is named Marianne, which is the name of your character in Scenes From a Marriage, and the actor who plays Bergman here is played by Erland Josephson, who played your husband in Scenes From a Marriage, which is dizzying.
They are the same people, really. The husband in Scenes From a Marriage is Ingmar. The same man who left in Scenes From a Marriage is the same old man in Faithless who is thinking of the time he left his wife and went to Paris and had this love story.
To have one story told in one moment in time, then to revisit that same moment, is pretty astonishing.
It is astonishing. Ive done little things that only Ingmar will understand. When the husband comes in in Scenes From a Marriage and says, Im leaving you, she has this striped nightdress on that is the same nightdress I put on this Marianne when she decides to go to Paris. That doesnt mean anything. Its for me. And maybe its a love letter to Ingmar. And maybe somebody who studies the film will find these things.
Is it difficult for you to revisit material like this?
Well, you see, it wasnt my story. Scenes From a Marriage wasnt my life with him, although a lot of the character he built on my character. The painful thing is that Im in his world again, and his world is very dark and tough at times. Maybe I want things to be more life-affirming and positive, and thats why he gave it to me.
Bergman, the character, is like a light-dimmer he constantly wants to turn the light down.
Youre right, because at the end when she comes to his table, she puts on the light.
Are you like that? Do you want to make it lighter?
I want that, and he does not. You have to forgive yourself.
How old is the script?
I got it three years ago, but he has written about the story in one of his books, how he left one wife and went to Paris. How he got a baby with her, went off to make this movie and fell in love with another woman, and came home and ended it with the wife. That I would not forgive myself for. That I would have put in the movie.
Are you already on to another feature?
I will do something, but I have to wait until Im finished with these travels and have silence. I have several options, but its at least two years of your life, and I dont have too many two years. I want to make sure that its something that I personally . . . I want to be her [Marianne] a little more.
What do you mean?
I dont want to be a light-dimmer. Its important to be a light-dimmer, we need to know those things, but I also want to make a movie where blessing comes in at the end.
Do you think women are more resilient than men?
We are quicker to draw lessons. When I sit and talk with girlfriends, we will laugh, we recognize what happened to me happened to you. When it was over with Ingmar and me, I didnt want to go to Sweden but had to. I went to the airport and saw people with signs. This was during Vietnam, and I thought, Oh, theyre demonstrating. Then I came closer and it was Bibi and Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom. Their signs said, Welcome home, Liv. We love you. We went home with Bibi and were lying on the floor the whole night telling stories, and some were crying and some were not, and we got drunk. It was incredible.
Can you tell me about when you showed the film to Bergman?
Well, I wasnt there. [Laughs.] I wouldnt have wanted it, and he wouldnt have wanted it. It would have been embarrassing for both. It was sent to the island, and it went well, but I dont want to talk on behalf of him.
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Does it take bravery not to worry about him? Theres an expression in America, an 800-pound gorilla how do you bring someone that big in the room?
Well, he was somewhere there, but I tried not to think about it. He had entrusted me with this and [she looks for words] I was not faithless to him, and I knew that. There is nothing in this movie that is faithless to his script, but it is the way that I read the script. Whatever he thought, its not a betrayal.
Faithless opens today at Laemmles Royal.