With her large, if rare, grin and high forehead, Liv Ullmann was always the least dreamy of the axiomatic New Wave–era actresses—she was no one’s Anna Karina or Monica Vitti—and the most discomfitingly fierce. If any movie star has left her fang scars on our eyeballs out of sheer intensity of purpose and desperate luminosity of gaze, it was she.
Starting in the ’50s, Ullmann quickly gained international prominence with Bergman’s Persona (1966), in which, famously, she barely utters a word but nevertheless emerged a super-cool, intellectually confident demi-goddess in the heyday of second-wave feminism. As BAM’s selective skip through Ullmann’s oeuvre reveals, over the next decade-plus, she was the Dante in Bergman’s every trip through Hell, be it emotional catastrophe (1969’s The Passion of Anna) or war (1968’s Shame) or filial battle (1978’s Autumn Sonata) or Hollywood (1976’s The Serpent’s Egg, Bergman’s obligatory English-language phantasia and a film finally undergoing reevaluation). Pound for pound, the films may be the most vivid showcase for the barn-burning capacities of psychodramatic performance in movies. Ullmann’s full-frontal agony and intelligence are as revealing of our own vulnerabilities as they are of art film’s early allure: the modern self-analytic woman as cinematic spectacle.
As Ullmann diversified beyond Bergman, she became subject to Hollywood and grande dame calcification, but she also began to direct, eventually arriving back at Bergman. She directed the latter half of his scripted family-history quartet, Private Confessions (1996) and Faithless (2000), both throwbacks to the days when imported “specialty films” could be hair-clenching psycho circuses erected upon elliptical symbolism and acres of heartbreaking talk. Fittingly, all Ullmann and Bergman were ever actually doing was the work of therapy: telling painful women’s stories, no holds barred.