Pursuits of Happiness

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“You had a good face,” says an elderly intellectual to the quizzical ghost who’s come to haunt him in his office on a remote Swedish island. “A face ideally suited to both comedy and tragedy.” This woman’s sad mouth and merry eyes are marvels that would indeed repay a lifetime of study. Faithless, the new film written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann, powerfully compresses several lifetimes’ worth of insight into illuminating her mystery.

The sage in his office is called Bergman (played by Erland Josephson, a longtime partner in Bergman’s self-portraits since Scenes From a Marriage); the woman confronting him is Marianne (Lena Endre). For a while, it’s playfully unclear whether we’re observing a conversation between an old man and his dead love, or one between a director planning a film and the actress he’s considering for the role, or for that matter one between a psychiatrist and a patient who’s recounting a disastrous love affair of many years ago. The ambiguity works in the story’s favor. Marianne’s tragedy is made to emerge from layers of half-starts and ragged moments too painful to look at squarely, and the film is thus permeated by a sense that all of life is creation, that whether or not there’s a God, we create our comedies and tragedies together in the act of love. In the end we are one another’s afterlives, pestering those who’ve loved us with questions long after we’re gone.

The questions most plaguing Marianne center on her husband, Markus (Thomas Hanzon), her little daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo), and on her lover, David (Krister Henriksson). Before the affair Markus and David were the best of friends; David and Marianne become lovers nearly by accident. Markus, a world-renowned orchestra conductor, is away for long stretches. David, a stormy, manic-depressive film and theater director (transparently modeled on the young Bergman of legend), pops by one night, tucks Isabelle in like a loving uncle and half playfully asks if he can sleep with Marianne. She finds the idea laughably inappropriate, but consents to a platonic night together, and discovers, while he’s fast asleep beside her, that she is overwhelmed by an unnamed, barely tangible emotion. This feeling, which she never calls “love” but which operates with the same greedy, ecstatic certainty, becomes the portal through which their affair begins.

“I wish I wasn’t so clumsy, and complicated,” David complains as they continue (in her lovely phrase) to sink into one another. Marianne, now a convert to adultery, won’t hear of it: “Let’s look at this simply. It’s fun,” she insists. “Life needn’t be a series of disasters.” The series of disasters that nevertheless follows may be read either as a cruel and rather Protestant slap of divine retribution against Marianne for seeking pleasure, or as something far subtler: a tragedy inevitably built into the pursuit of happiness when it comes at the expense of other happiness. For Ullmann and Bergman are careful to show that Marianne and Markus are happy in their marriage, and that the secure, radiant Isabelle has inherited her father’s luminous gifts. Marianne’s downfall is not that she seeks the blessing of a pleasurable love, but that she fails to be true to a blessing already given.

Scenes turn on a dime in Faithless: The sweetest instant of carnal bliss can reverse, without warning, into a blistering fight so physically authentic that you want to look away, so unblinkingly revealing of human nature that you’d be the poorer if you did. In one particularly beautiful touch, we find Isabelle, who knows nothing of her mother’s troubles, enacting them in cross-talk between her dolls. In a far more harrowing moment, Markus comes upon his wife and friend together: What transpires is a species of theatrical event, complete with exits through slamming doors, wittily framed by Ullmann to emphasize a proscenium-like archway.

Bergman’s collaboration with Ullmann began when he directed her in Persona (1966). Here, with the roles nearly reversed, she shows herself as great an interpreter behind the camera: Her staging echoes his; she harnesses her eye with comparable elegance to the fire of the performances. Yet something else enters, too — a generosity of scale. Where Bergman focuses on the destinies of his protagonists, Ullmann attends no less fully to the anguish of those around Marianne. Ullmann and Bergman were lovers, and had a child together: One can feel her getting this man off her chest. Bergman has reached for a woman’s insight his whole career. Ullmann completes this for him.

FAITHLESS | Directed by LIV ULLMANN | Written by INGMAR BERGMAN | Produced by JOHAN MARDELL | Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films At Laemmle’s Royal

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