The Women Of Auteur Film: Liv Ullmann
What is an Auteur? Well, the technical definition is a simply a filmmaker who has a singular, recognisable vision, though you can guarantee they’ll also be a man as no women have been deemed important or visionary enough to become members of this elite club. As we all know, the singular vision of men is pretty much all that has been written about for basically, you know, ever, so in this column, I’ll be avoiding that completely and exploring the women of auteur film. The muses, the artistic partners, and the long-suffering foils of these sometimes talented, often awful, and universally celebrated men.
In the world of auteurs and their so called muses, there are few collaborations as long and fruitful as Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. Bergman is arguably one of the most famous and lauded European directors in the history of cinema, and his artistic relationship with Ullmann spanned twelve films and fifteen years. Yet, for Liv Ullmann, this was merely one moment out of her fifty-year career in which she has been everything from a European film darling to a Hollywood starlet, a Palme D’or nominated director, and the Chair of a number of film festivals including Cannes, Berlin, and Moscow International Film Festival. Ullmann has a rare career, one so successful and eclectic that it somehow still manages to get lost in the mystery and enigma that surrounds the archaic and romanticised notion of being an artist’s muse.
Born in Tokyo and spending much of her early years in Canada and America, the well-traveled early years of Liv Ullmann’s life were just as unconventional as the rest of it. After her father’s death when she was seven, the family stayed in New York for a while longer until they returned to Norway where Liv would begin her career as an actress, filmmaker, and trailblazer in European cinema. Ullmann studied acting as a teenager in London and Norway and performed in plays at Oslo’s national theatre, including an acclaimed performance in Henrick Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, a piece of work that had a profound impact on Ullmann and one that she would return to her throughout her career.
Discovering Liv Ullman’s work in Bergman’s movies was a revelatory moment for me in my film fandom. I was deep into my expansive exploration of “classic European” cinema and had, for the most part, found it to be empty of much that moved me beyond thinking things were beautiful and tragic. I often found the way those qualities were represented shallow or vapid, without clear intent or authenticity. Ullmann’s work with Bergman changed all of that and opened my eyes to a world of art house cinema which told stories that I found missing from the films I had spent so long watching.
Though Liv had already established herself as a powerful actress, it wasn’t until her first film with Bergman in 1966 that she truly gained international recognition. Persona tells the story of a mute patient and the nurse who cares for her during her convalescence in a cottage by the sea. An intimate psychological thriller, the film crafts a constant tension with not one but two unreliable narrators. It’s also a film that passes the Bechdel test before it was even something to pass, with the two primary roles played incredibly by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Though the story is clearly meant to be unsettling, there’s still something profound about watching a film completely focused on the trauma of being a woman. I was so moved by the complex and artful depiction of two women sharing their stories and lives during my first viewing that I had to watch it again to catch many of the nuances that make the film such a masterclass in tension and fear.
Persona set the tone for Bergman and Ullmann’s decades long collaboration and is still regarded as one of the most influential films that the pair created together, along with Bibi Andersson. Auteurs, from Lynch to Von Trier, have taken huge visual, atmospheric, and storytelling inspiration from this film and its various themes and readings. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive echoes the film’s narrative of “doubling” two women sharing a life, which may or may not at times merge and become inseparable from one another. Though Bibi Andersson was the top-billed actress and won numerous accolades for her performance in Persona, the pair together crafted a chilling and important piece of performance, and Ullmann cemented her place as Bergman’s collaborator for many years to come.
Not only was this the film in which the pair began what would be a decades-long professional relationship, but it was also the setting for the birth of an intimately personal one. Though both were married to others, the pair fell in love on the set of Persona, and in 1966, the pair’s daughter Linn Ullmann was born. Bergman built the young family a home on the Baltic Isle of Fårö, and Ullmann moved in immediately, beginning what would be a tumultuous and ultimately transformative stage of their relationship.
Bergman’s next film starred Ullmann in an award winning role as a woman caught in the middle of a brutal yet unnamed conflict, which sees her and her husband attempting to escape the grasp of the encroaching forces as well as the devastation that war wreaks. Shame threw Ullmann into the spotlight; her performance is an astounding study of the personal cost of war. The narrative is only focused on the trauma of the couple rather than the wider cost of violent and wide reaching conflicts. Liv portrays a woman not only violated and harmed by the act of war, but also by the way that war makes those close to her act. Her husband becomes a violent, bitter man. Ullmann is ultimately an observer, the film often framed from her point of view, though within that role she brings an urgency and humanity which is heartbreaking to watch.
Often lauded as one of the pair’s most important and seminal films, Shame only strengthened the professional and personal bond between Ullmann and Bergman. They filmed two more films within the next two years: Hour Of The Wolf, an under-regarded foray into horror, and The Passion Of Anna, a film originally created by Bergman to save the house portrayed in Shame from being destroyed under local planning laws. Though these films were both relatively successful, they are not remembered as the pair’s best work, though I am personally a fan of Hour Of The Wolf. However, it was the next film that Ullmann did without Bergman that contributed to her continued rise to international acclaim.
The Emigrants reunited Liv with her onscreen husband from Shame, Max Von Sydow, and once again the pair delivered an acclaimed performance in a film that garnered international attention, four Academy Award nominations, and a Golden Globe for Best Actress for Ullmann. Directed by Jan Troell, another lauded Swedish filmmaker, the narrative follows a group of immigrants leaving Sweden for the United States in the early 19th century. Critics and audiences alike adored the film, and it flung Ullmann into the international spotlight, setting up the groundwork for the next chapter of her career.
After the success of The Emigrants, Liv was getting even more acting work, and it would be three years before she would collaborate with Bergman again in the critical and commercial hit Cries and Whispers. After making Shame with Ullmann, Bergman’s other films struggled to hit their mark and had been met with indifference. Yet, as the two joined forces again to create this taught, intimate drama, suddenly people were flocking to heap praise upon the film and its star. Revisiting his early themes of family, faith, and the female psyche, the film saw a return to form for Bergman. Eschewing his usual black and whites for a deep, saturated colour palette, the film is a sumptuous visual experience, held together by the raw and unapologetic portrayals of women facing their own mortality as portrayed by a quartet of actresses.
Cries and Whispers crafts a world built entirely around the four women who inhabit it. When you watch the film, it’s almost as if no one else or nothing else exists outside of the house where they reside. The narrative theme is one that rarely gets explored–female grief–and Ullmann’s portrayal as one of three sisters, two of whom are watching and perhaps willing the other’s death, is nothing short of magnificent. Bergman’s explorations of the human condition were often collaborative processes with the actors, blurring the line between the character and the lived experiences of the person portraying them. A showcase for emotionally honest performances, the quartet of women at the centre of the movie were equally acting their roles and shaping what they would become.
In 1973, Ullmann would reunite once again with Bergman for Scenes From A Marriage, a TV miniseries that was recut as a feature film for international release. It was warmly received and would become one of the pair’s most famous collaborations. Liv won three Best Actress awards for the role and was nominated for two others. After the success of Scenes From A Marriage, Ullmann was in huge demand in Hollywood. She collected another Golden Globe nomination for 40 Carats with Gene Kelly, followed by the underwhelming Lost Horizon, and then joined up with Jan Troell again in his American language feature Zandy’s Bride starring alongside Gene Hackman.
Reconnecting with Bergman in 1976 to star in Face to Face garnered Ullmann six more Best Actress nominations, three of which she won. Ullmann had truly arrived as a force to be reckoned with. Over the next two decades, she would star in nearly 20 more films, including her last with Bergman, The Serpent’s Egg. The director would later ask her to star in Fanny and Alexander. Though it would be his final film, Ullmann turned him down because she found the role “too sad.” She has since said that’s one of the few decisions she truly regrets.
After decades of challenging and complex performances, Ullmann decided to step behind the camera, directing her first film in 1992. Sofie was an adaptation of Henri Nathansen’s novel Mendel Philipsen and Son. It cleaned up at the Montreal international Film Festival, winning all three of its nominations. Her next two films were well received, but went widely unnoticed. It wasn’t until her fourth directorial outing that people truly began to take notice of Liv Ullmann the director.
Faithless was a movie that held a light to Ingmar Bergman’s infidelities and weaknesses. In his old age, he had begun to turn the exploratory light of his earlier films onto himself. Working from a script he wrote before his death, Liv created a painfully honest piece of cinema that was autobiographical and beautiful, and most of all showcased her incredible craft and vision. The film opened to critical praise and was nominated for the Palme D’or at Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Though Ullmann had carved a place for herself as a director she didn’t stop acting, taking roles in seven films all the way up until what could arguably be her most personal film in 2012.
Liv and Ingmar was an intimate documentary that delved into the forty-two year personal and professional relationship between Ullmann and Bergman. It’s a rare thing, a film that can cover over four decades in your life, and the stifling closeness of the pair is hard to escape. There’s an incredible power to this biographical portrait not of a person, but of a relationship. Brave and honest, the film explores the ins and outs of a relationship which traversed the spectrum of emotions, labels, and experience. Told entirely from Ullmann’s point of view, we get a rare insight into the mind and life of a woman who has lived an incredible, prolific, and successful life, and the man that she shared it with. Directed by Dheeraj Akolkar, this atmospheric time capsule of a flawed relationship is something truly special.
Ullmann continues to create wonderful films, and there is such power in a woman who has traversed a male dominated world for decades, been an arthouse muse, a Hollywood leading lady, and an acclaimed director. Unrelenting in her creative vision and dedication to telling honest and important stories, Liv Ullmann has consistently strived to take up space in a world which always tells women to be small and quiet. She began her career collaborating with one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers. She fell in love with him and had a child with him. But she also outgrew and outlived him, never allowing his legacy to dim or take away from her own.