With their fearless pragmatism and magnetic screen presence, it wasn’t Ingmar Bergman who made stars of his women. It was they who made himby Francine Stock / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
“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…