It's my first Ingmar Bergman film. More precisely it's directed by Liv Ullmann from an Ingmar Bergman script, but I think that counts. You could hardly find a better proxy for him, since Ullman had played the lead role in nine of his films and is the mother of one of his children.
Let's first set the stage. In case you've never heard of Ingmar Bergman (haha), let's pull a few quotes. "Probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera." "I believe Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini are the only three filmmakers in the world who are not just artistic opportunists." "His love for the cinema almost gives me a guilty conscience." I could go on forever, but that'll do. Incidentally those quotes were from Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg.
I was surprised to find a Bergman film from 2000, mind you, since his films go back to the 1940s. Little did I know. The man's contributions to cinema cover 1941-2005, although in his later years he turned to theatre and (yes) TV. Mind you, the latter would often get a theatrical release too. Incidentally he was also a Nazi sympathiser during the war years while still a stupid teenager, then was married five times and had a good few mistresses on the side. His favourite topics as a filmmaker would be death, illness, faith, betrayal and insanity, for which it would seem he could could draw on plenty of autobiographical material. This film's title translates as "Faithless" and it's about infidelity. Apparently his later work became increasingly about himself, but it's hard to imagine him being able to top this for self-examination.
The film's about an elderly filmmaker called Bergman (Erland Josephson) who thinks he's drawing near the end of his life and wants to examine his past. He conjures a woman (Lena Endre) out of thin air and starts questioning her. That's the framing story. What happened to Endre in the past involves her husband (Thomas Hanzon), another man (Krister Henriksson, apparently playing the younger Bergman) and her nine-year-old daughter (Michelle Gylemo).
Sure enough, the real Bergman's life provides parallels. Apparently these events are similar to something that happened to him in 1949, according to his own book The Magic Lantern. I don't know how I feel about that. Theoretically it shouldn't make any difference, especially given the fact that the film's so intelligent and emotionally honest that it's basically playing as real anyway. However it does add another layer of interpretation. Instead of it merely being a film about the self-examination of the fictional Bergman, it's also a public and brutally analytical dissection of the real one by himself. However that said, I'm now at the limits of my knowledge on this and I'm about to drop this line of argument anyway. Maybe he's simply writing about what he knows? I don't think we can necessarily read too much into a writer lifting real-life incidents from fifty years earlier, despite corroborative evidence (e.g. the names). From now on, I'll be treating this just as fiction.
In summary: a slog. It's long and it feels it. I was aghast to find on checking the clock that I wasn't even halfway through. The finale's strong enough to make it all worthwhile, but the only way I got there was through sheer bloody-mindedness.
However now I've finished, I'm glad I watched it. It's at a level that makes the rest of cinema look infantile.
Firstly, the story. In the first half, Endre sleeps with Henriksson. In the second half, this destroys her life, albeit not in the ways you're imagining. That's it. Is it exciting? Hell, no. There's very little action in this movie, which is mostly filled with people talking. There's a ton of narration, with several key scenes being related rather than shown and all the flashback scenes playing over a soundtrack of Josephson interviewing Endre. It's not about what people do. It's about why people do it and the emotional effects this has, which is why (for instance) we're quite likely to see the spoken confession of adultery instead of the actual deed. Last Tango in Paris this is not.
However what's interesting about all this is the intelligence being brought to bear. Everyone's thoughtful, self-aware and capable of questioning their motives and actions. "A has sex with B" isn't in itself an interesting story. However what Bergman's doing is using his characters' detachment and honesty to examine what's going on in psychological detail. Furthermore, it's not just sturm und drang. They're in reasonable control of themselves and they're clever enough to be aware when they're ridiculous. The film has an irony and a light touch that makes much of the movie a slow burn rather than a sledgehammer, keeping you waiting for the emotional payoffs.
This ties in with the acting. Wow.
These performances astonished me. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say I'd never seen anything like them before. It's practically its own medium. The film's sufficiently passive and philosophical that the actors didn't have any choice but to talk like real people instead of movie characters, but even so I was fascinated by their flexibility, clarity and suppleness. Look at the big confrontation halfway through. Look at the actors' reactions. Look at how many unexpected notes they're playing. There's more range and colour in a few shots there than you'll find in some actors' entire careers. I'm going to use the word "supple" again, because that's where you'll find its greatness. I was riveted. I want to see this played at drama schools. Yes, it really is that good. I haven't talked much about Liv Ullmann, but in its most important aspect (the performances) she directed the living daylights out of this film.
It's also interesting to see how clearly Bergman's stacking the decks against his characters' choices. Hanzon is an obscenely talented musician whose only career problem was choosing which field to specialise in and so is rich and internationally famous. In addition he's a dream husband who adores their daughter and gives Endre the best sex she's ever had in her life. Meanwhile Henriksson has emotional problems, no money and massive debts. He's a self-admitted screw-up and his latest stage play is farcically awful. (We see one of its rehearsals.) It would be ridiculous to choose Henricksson over Hanzon, which of course Endre knows. However she can consider her actions dispassionately and even dissect them. You can't just dismiss her as an idiot.
The framing story makes it richer too. It gives us a bit of distance, which is a relief, and gives another dimension to the themes. Josephson also looks a bit like Christopher Lee.
I've said the ending is good. In fact it's better than that. It blindsided me enough that it made me forget how hard going I'd found the preceding two and a half hours. It's startling, although I'm not sure how I regard it in the light of the film's neo-autobiographical nature. Is Bergman trying to say something here? I think (and hope) the answer's "no".
Would I have watched this film if I'd known beforehand what it was going to be like? Yes, but only because of the ending. I'd have also watched it when I was better prepared, instead of blindly jumping in it off the back of... okay, I can't even say the film's name
in this review. I'd known this was 152 minutes long, all in Swedish and written by Ingmar Bergman, but even so I'd never thought it might be this hard going. It's not the tone. That's intelligent and often even light. It's the fact that it's so surgical about studying the psychology of people doing something they shouldn't, which you know is going to have consequences even if we have to wait two hours for them. It's devastating, but in slow motion.