Published February 1, 2001
Liv Ullmann’s direction of the screenplay of her former director, “mentor” and lover, Ingmar Bergman in Faithless (Trolösa), is remarkably competent—remarkably Bergmanian—in all kind of technical ways, but I wonder if she was fully alive to the subtleties built into this story of a broken marriage? For that matter, I wonder if Bergman himself is? Like his Scenes from a Marriage (1973) which starred Miss Ullmann and Erland Josephson, the man who plays Bergman himself in Faithless, this is a talking movie. Talking about sex may be actually more fun than doing it for Bergman, and this story of an adultery gives him plenty to talk about. But among all the other words, the word “sin” does not appear.
This is hardly surprising. Bergman is not a religious man, and we can hear what I take to be his authentic voice in the line he gives this film’s adulterous wife, Marianne (Lena Endre), about her continuing to sleep with her husband after she has taken a lover, that she would have found it pleasurable if she had not been morally “indoctrinated” to feel guilty about it. Like so many others these days, when she messes up her life by ignoring moral precepts she blames the moral precepts! And yet there is also a curious insight into sin, I think, in this film. It lies in its understanding (if that is what it is) of the extent to which sin is self-dramatization. Certainly this adultery, as recounted in the film, is a case of self-dramatization, and neither writer nor director make any bones about it.
Like them, this adulterous pair are a theatrical and film director and an actress. Their story is set in the framework of a re-enactment directed by another director, identified as Bergman himself—who at some level is clearly also Marianne’s adulterous partner, David (Krister Henriksson), years later, since Bergman has advertised the story’s autobiographical aspects. The old director summons up the young actress as a ghost from the past and, in the privacy and loneliness of his Baltic island retreat, runs through with her the story of her adultery, which is also their adultery, as if it were a rehearsal for a play. The Marianne who is alone with Bergman tries to maintain a distance from the Marianne of the flashbacks, insisting even at one point that she doesn’t much like her, while David confines his appearances to the flashbacks and only once materializes in the present, on which occasion his aged alter ego reaches out and tenderly touches his face.
To me this moment is the essence of this picture: it is Bergman bestowing upon himself, as creation, his creator’s forgiveness and benediction. But in fact the scene is redundant, since David/Bergman was forgiven already by Bergman/David when the idea for the script was conceived. For what else is it but self-absolution, all this wallowing in the emotional hot water that our appetites land us in? “I have never known such pain,” says Marianne at one point in the sorry saga, obviously congratulating herself for the sufferings she endures as a consequence of her own sins—as if there were some merit to herself in such sufferings; as if they were a cruel trick that the universe had played upon her instead of the natural outcome of the things she chose to do.
It is also a way of avoiding the question of why she chose them. For all Marianne’s tireless self-analysis, she is remarkably uncurious on this subject. Once she calls the affair “a diversion before death,” which seems rather flippant in the circumstances. “What am I doing to Isabelle?” she moans in connection with the pain such as she has never known. Isabelle is her nine-year-old daughter, hauntingly played by Michelle Gylemo. Her face as she reacts to the misbehavior of her parents—together with that of the aged Mr Josephson, whose intense immobility of expression as he listens to Marianne’s narration of the affair are almost corpse-like—is the most unforgettable image in the film. The answer to her mother’s question about what she is doing to her is hardly obscure, yet it seems to be intended rhetorically, as if just her asking it were somehow a sufficient excuse for what she is doing to the child.
The odd thing about a film that is so dominated by people who share a narcissistic fascination with their own pain is that they are cheerfully self-conscious about their own self-consciousness. Bergman seems to know, as a good director must, when his characters are posturing and striking attitudes. He himself participates in and orchestrates the literal dramatizing of their hurt, and he cannot be unaware that this dramatizing is a way of excusing themselves for very bad behavior indeed. But he is willing to accept that excuse and grant them his forgiveness because it is what he himself has been doing throughout his career. It is certainly what he is doing here. Anything is permitted if it can be turned into art. But art with Bergman has perhaps less often been real art than it has been the kind of narcissistic self-indulgence that it is here.