Film Review: Liv & Ingmar

Forget Liz and Dick or Brangelina, for true art-house fans—who could be called the Criterion Set today—Bergman and Ullmann are the couple we want to know all about, and this doc really delivers the goods.

Of all the great director-actress collaborations in cinema—Griffith and Gish, Dietrich and von Sternberg, Hepburn and Cukor, Ozu and Setsuko Hara—none were deeper than that of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. They made ten films together and were also intensely personally involved, and their relationship is explored in Dheeraj Akolkar's unusually intimate documentary, Liv & Ingmar.

Akolkar achieved the complete cooperation of Ullmann herself, and here she is, her always radiant, completely natural beauty unblemished by any cosmetic "improvements." She once told me in an interview that she was "far too vain and interested in what God had planned for my face" to ever have plastic surgery, and this is a particular boon here as, recounting her own story, she's more emotionally expressive than she has ever been in any fictional film.

Most of the documentary was shot on Faro Island, Bergman's starkly beautiful private retreat where he built a house for him and Ullmann after they met doing Persona in 1966. She was 25 and he was 47, and they both left their respective spouses for each other. What was initially a cozily sequestered paradise for two became a nightmarish prison for Ullmann. Bergman, completely content to be there with his books, music and work, forbade her to leave and partake in the outside world and other relationships, literally walling her in. The birth of a daughter, Linn, proved somewhat of a blessing, for it at least afforded the actress some companionship. Bergman's complexities, controlling rage and neediness eventually helped break down the relationship, but the two remained close, if often difficult, friends until his death in 2007.

Akolkar profits from the many home movies taken on sets and photographs of the couple to flesh out the past. But the most telling evidence of their coupling is the actual films themselves. So autobiographical was Bergman's work that when Ullmann describes his anger, their fights or rarer moments of bliss, movie clips illustrating precisely these moods, with Ullmann acting them opposite either the great Max von Sydow or Erland Josephson, are abundantly apropos. Seeing moments from Persona, Shame, The Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage remind you of the groundbreaking, intelligent ferocity of the filmmaking and make you yearn to see them again. They recall a wonderfully smart movie-mad time, now somehow gone forever, when seemingly all of New York City—old and young alike—looked forward to their latest collaboration, and would run to see it and feverishly discuss it afterwards.

Ullmann is a marvel of empathic candor, whether recalling scathing arguments, her own guilt over leaving her husband, or lighter moments, like when, after their breakup, she was greeted at the Stockholm airport by fellow actors Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin, who immediately sped her off to a drunken hen party during which Bergman was thoroughly dissected. In the post-Bergman years, her brief glamour stint as the newest Hollywood Golden Girl is also featured, with a droll appearance on the Johnny Carson show and her amusingly rueful statement that, having made four films there in one year, she effectively managed to close down two studios.

The doc is blessed with unusually beautiful cinematography by Hallvard Braein, capturing the sylvan loveliness of Faro Island as well as the equally lovely terrain of Ullmann's visage. Here, she is every bit as much a muse to her director as she was to Bergman who, in what she says is the greatest compliment ever paid her, said, "You are my Stradivarius."