First, the cliché: Liv Ullmann is Ingmar Bergman’s muse. One understands the actor-writer-director’s resistance to such pigeonholing, but Ullmann has acted—gloriously—in more than a few Bergman classics, and she’s also directed two of his screenplays. Now she pops up in Bergman’s Saraband
—her first acting stint in 10 years—and joins co-star Erland Josephson to reprise their characters from the 1973 Bergman classic
Scenes From a Marriage. The Swedish master, who turns 87 next week, seems to mean it this time when he says this is his last film.
Tellingly, the director gives Ullmann—literally—the last word.
It’s two words, actually—in close-up, spoken directly to the camera, and to devastating effect.
Saraband, Bergman’s latest HD video work (first broadcast on Swedish television two winters ago), is characteristically dark, but as Ullmann tells it, the film’s origins were surprisingly jokey.
During down time on the set of Faithless
(the second Bergman script she directed), Ullmann and Josephson amused themselves by improvising comic bits of dialogue as
Marriage‘s Marianne and Johan, now 30 years on.
“It was so funny,” says Ullmann. “Johan was already gone in the head and I had to explain everything to him.”
They told Bergman about it, who used it as a jumping-off point for his Strindbergian meditation on parent-child relations.
In other words, Saraband is no sequel to Marriage. True, after several decades, Marianne has decided to visit her ex-husband at his country house, but once there,
she becomes a passive observer to a three-generation drama. Even by Bergman’s standards, the mutual humiliations and abuse are harsh.
“I don’t understand such hatred,” says Ullmann, but her gently watchful Marianne counterbalances the dire proceedings.
“Ingmar knows that we look at life in many ways very differently,” she continues.”So subconsciously, I think that is why he liked me there—as a Greek chorus, to question things.”
Saraband is dedicated to Ingrid, the director’s fifth wife, who died in 1995, and Bergman continually returns to the haunting image of Henrik’s deceased and loving wife, Anna, whose influence on the household is palpable.
Ullmann muses, “It would have been impossible [to make the film very soon after she died]. Now she is alive, a full person, but in spirit, and it takes a while before you are that.” But what of the film’s heart-wrenching final two words (no spoiler, really): “My child . . . “? Surely the master’s last dramatized utterance—put into the mouth of Liv Ullmann, no less—wasn’t arrived at casually.
Ullmann only offers hints: “It’s personal, that story between Johan and his son; something similar may have happened in Ingmar’s life.”
But then her expression changes radically. “Maybe Ingmar is the child [and he is saying], ‘All the movies I have done have been about being a child not understood by my parents, trying to find love and failing.’
And he finally allowed one person—Marianne—to finally say, ‘I understand you, I see you, I recognize you.’
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful ending for a great filmmaker?
I think that would be a lovely goodbye.”