Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann on the set of Cries and Whispers.

A hundred years after his birth, it's time to acknowledge Bergman's debt to his female stars

With their fearless pragmatism and magnetic screen presence, it wasn’t Ingmar Bergman who made stars of his women. It was they who made him
February 19, 2018

Today, as I lean over photographs of my childhood to study my mother’s face through a magnifying glass, I try to penetrate long vanished emotions.”

Ingmar Bergman never hid the clues to understanding his art. The opening pages of the Swedish filmmaker’s 1987 memoir, The Magic Lantern, remind you of his close-up portrayals of women—the detail intimate, his gaze forensic. In his “doglike” devotion to his mother you can also see the seeds of his later—not uncomplicated—relationships with women.

Bergman’s early work displays his teenage crushes—those strong nymphs in shorts manoeuvring rowboats through the Swedish archipelago—before he moved on to the wry mistresses and sad, wise wives. Finally, there are the magnified agonies of Persona (1966) or Autumn Sonata (1978), and the marital conflict in Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Face to Face (1976).

One hundred years after his birth, Bergman is acclaimed as a great director of women. And also as a lover. Many of his most memorable on-screen presences were also his partners—Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann among them, each appearing in some 10 films. Harriet, who was only 20 when she met the older filmmaker in the 1950s, proved the most versatile—the nymph in Summer with Monika (1953), the dying sister in Cries and Whispers (1972) and in his autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982) a tricksy servant.

Harriet always owned her roles. Bergman’s adolescent gaze might colour Summer with Monika, but the final sequence when she stares down the camera restores her autonomy. Bibi’s vitality lights up Wild Strawberries (1957) as much as the following year’s hospital drama Brink of Life. Only the energy and openness of her performance—in conjunction with Liv Ullmann—makes Persona more than a pretentious puzzle.

These women had award-winning careers without Bergman—in fact, Ullmann considered her best work was done in other films. Yet in the public’s mind they remained Bergman’s creations.

In a US television interview in 1971, the presenter Dick Cavett asked Bergman if he preferred to work with female actors. Bergman turned the question around. His passionate interest, he said, was human beings—their faces and souls. But women had more talent for acting. In his experience, they had proved more “open” to experiment with the camera as a mirror, perhaps because “by education” women were more accustomed to gazing into themselves without the kind of self-consciousness that might hinder a man. A woman, he said, was not ashamed of looking at herself.

But how do Bergman’s films play now? For a contemporary audience watching the current BFI retrospective will they seem more like clinical laboratory experiments? A documentary to be shown in Cannes in May promises—or threatens—to shed fresh light, in the era of #MeToo, on the sometimes murky overlap between the personal and professional in Bergman’s life. Expect some revision to the myth.

Bergman was an international figure who was revered by a (largely male) critical community for his fearless dissection of the human psyche. He was unafraid of big themes: life’s struggle in the face of an unresponsive or absent God; the nagging prospect of death. In 1957’s The Seventh Seal, his best-known film, he put Death onscreen—literally. This was tough stuff, a man’s game, like chess.

As his great admirer and imitator Woody Allen—a man with his own troubles with women, to put it mildly—said in 2011, “what I favour about Bergman is the bleak deep dark abysses that he travelled in… the bleak landscapes and the dark themes.” But today it’s hard to watch The Seventh Seal without tittering—even if you’ve never seen the many spoofs, including by French and Saunders and a moody Swedish version starring cats.

The 1960s might have been a time of burgeoning liberation for women, but in Bergman’s films of that era they had less agency than in his earlier work. In The Virgin Spring (1960), Bergman’s 13th-century drama of innocence, rape and faith, the female characters are little more than emblems: whore, servant, virgin or devout mother. (“You mortify your flesh too harshly at night,” says Max von Sydow’s patriarch to his wife. It’s the closest he gets to a compliment).

But how those emblems suffer! Karin, the schizophrenic daughter in 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, seeks God by flinging herself around bare rooms. She finds the deity is no more than a malevolent spider with cold eyes. Eleven years later in Cries and Whispers, the agonies of the sisters closeted in the big house with menstrual red décor are excruciating. For Bergman women are vessels for pain and neurosis.

Film fetishisation of the agonised female was hardly new: its apotheosis was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The Maid of Orléans at least had a cause and some choice in the matter; but in Bergman’s films of the 1960s and 70s, the trouble emanates from within. When he was dealing with an actor as nuanced as Liv Ullmann, whom he paired with Ingrid Bergman play a mother and daughter in Autumn Sonata, it can be illuminating. In the less skilful hands of Bergman’s filmmaking admirers, though, a damaging assumption took hold that great films should be about watching women suffer.

Take Woody Allen’s 1978 Interiors—an almost parodic tribute to Bergman in which three sisters grapple with their parents’ divorce and mother’s depression. Much of the inaction takes place in a Bergmanesque seaside house, where Allen demonstrates that a close-up does not necessarily evoke profundity, even with good actors. Diane Keaton plays the eldest sister, a poet whose distress manifests itself as muttering and hair fiddling.

The second daughter seems numb and the youngest wears short skirts, talks flirty and takes drugs. Together they embody the tropes of the neurotic females who will skitter through many other male directors’ films of the next few decades: “difficult” women making men do bad things, doing worse to themselves—from the bunny boiler in Fatal Attraction to the manic pixie dream girl, a kooky character whose only job is to help a man discover himself.

Lars Von Trier has admitted that his generation of filmmakers felt bound to prove themselves against Bergman. But Von Trier’s pitiless close-ups are mostly pale imitations of the Swedish master’s work. At their best, they let us observe closely, for example in Emily Watson’s raw performance in 1996’s Breaking the Waves; but in 2011’s Melancholia, the close-ups on Kirsten Dunst proved no substitute for depth of characterisation.

Then there’s the issue of violence. The female genital self-harming in Cries and Whispers has set a dangerous precedent. This act seemed to hold a fascination for male auteurs. Michael Haneke had Isabelle Huppert self-harm in The Piano Teacher. More gruesome and gratuitous was Von Trier’s Antichrist. The academic Peter Schepelern has defined that film’s provocative premise as, “woman is nature and nature is evil.” Which presumably calls for a remedy of rusty scissors.

What these imitators miss is the importance of relationships and character in Bergman’s films. Nowhere are these more apparent than in the earlier work of the 1950s, which have all kinds of interesting female characters. The young dancer in Summer Interlude; the four wives of four brothers considering love in Waiting Women; the smart-talking mistress and the wandering wife in A Lesson in Love; or (my personal favourite) 1955’s Journey into Autumn with the stupendous Eva Dahlbeck as a fashion photographer in a moribund affair. All these are startling, frank performances in often underrated films.

The enduring collaborations suggest the women themselves gained much from working with each other as well as the director—though some recount how they could suddenly fall from his favour, a freeze which might last years. One of Bergman’s least popular films seems to parody this setup. All These Women (1964) is a comedy about a musical genius and his women (Dahlbeck the wife, Bibi Andersson the mistress, Harriet Andersson the sexy, credulous maid). The last laugh is on the artist, though. When he dies, they find another, younger, genius.

Liv Ullmann maintains the films were not ordeals to make. She saw little connection between her tortured screen roles and her life with Bergman—although audiences have other ideas. In her 1978 memoirs, Ullmann, like Bibi Andersson, acknowledged that Bergman had encouraged her to explore places in drama that she might not have otherwise have dared to visit. But it was on the director’s terms. Ullmann recalled that he’d suggested she write a film script, “but when he read it, he said it was too personal, that I knew nothing about dialogue. Thereafter Ingmar would watch me writing as if it was a cause of intense irritation to him.”

It’s clear from her writings and from my interviews with her in person that Ullmann considered her work and life with Bergman as just one chapter among many. His women have deep reserves of pragmatism, beside which the men can seem vacillating, posturing or even ludicrous.

There’s a painful moment in Scenes from a Marriage when Erland Josephson’s character Johan tells Marianne (Ullmann) that he’s going away to consider their future. She (like us) assumes he means for days; then he says, almost casually, that he’s thinking of seven months. She yelps in pain, but carries on.

In Bergman’s final film Saraband (2003), Marianne revisits her husband after more than 30 years. She playfully kisses him as he dozes. They share a bed and a life for several weeks. Then she announces she must be off; she’s a lawyer, and has an important hearing to attend. Johan is confounded. We next see her after his death, contemplating photographs of various relatives, still puzzling over the past but not devastated by his loss, one among many.

Through these fearless female actors, Bergman became cinema’s pre-eminent chronicler of emotional conflict. The battles, though, are rarely fruitless. As Richard Linklater (one of his worthier inheritors) proved in the trilogy culminating in Before Midnight, the couple that stays together, fights better. Bergman’s films are often about the painful knowledge—and even the love—that comes after the fracture.

Women suffer in his films but mostly they survive. Like the quartet in Waiting Women, they draw on a reservoir of experience: life is neither sunlit coves nor gloomy interiors. In the great Fanny and Alexander, women dominate the action: the elegant, pragmatic grandmother; the generous, limping maid; the shrewdly accommodating aunt and the beautiful, preoccupied mother—all find ways of dealing with men. The men stray and fail and are ashamed. The women may seem compliant but there’s a strength in their pliability, and their enduring compacts with one another.

In his last interview, with Marie Nyrerod, he was asked about his demons. He listed “pedantry” and “punctuality” but the chief demon was still “fear.” He was frightened of so much—and of so many people. Perhaps he was still the child Alexander in bed, from his 1982 film, listening to the feral howls of his grieving mother down the hall, terrified and yet impressed. Over the decades, Bergman’s screen women may have interpreted it, but the fear was all his.