Friday, 30 March 2018

Autumn Sonata and Ingmar Bergman’s actors

I’ve just watched again Autumn Sonata, which was the 1st Ingmar Bergman film I watched several years ago. My feeling is now slightly different, I no longer relate, but it’s still a very good film. Liv Ullmann in the film looks clumsy and uncomfortable in her walk and gestures, in the mother’s presence, as though self-conscious of every single of her own movement, as though still a scared and vulnerable child. She plays the daughter with a deep trauma and anguish and an intense hatred we don’t often see on screen. Whilst making us sympathise and share her pain, she also makes us wonder if some of her charges and accusations might not be a bit unfair, if she is self-pitying and blames her mother for everything in life. 
Ingrid Bergman plays the mother with great subtlety, switching between the 2 sides within her—a human being who has flaws but can feel pain and guilt, and a performer who deep down is selfish and often puts on a nice mask, and runs away from things. 
(The interesting part is that in Persona, if Alma’s analysis is anything to go by, Elisabet Vogler is very similar to Ingrid Bergman’s character of Charlotte in Autumn Sonata—an artist who is selfish and incapable of love, who chooses her career and runs away from her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Liv Ullmann plays the mother in Persona; in Autumn Sonata, she plays the daughter of such a mother). 
Both actresses are fantastic. Somebody who dislikes Autumn Sonata has called it an acting showcase. In a sense it is; it’s a minor Bergman, and almost the entire film is about the confrontation, mostly in close-ups. But so what? The performances are mesmerising and wonderful to watch, the characters are convincing and complex, and the film is great in its psychology. 
I can’t help wondering how Ingmar Bergman got the best out of his actors. I share with him the fascination with people and their inner lives, and the love of the human face—he called the human face the most important subject of cinema, and recently when I watched Light Keeps Me Company, a documentary about his long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist, Bergman called the camera a remarkable instrument that could capture a lot more going on in a face than our eyes could see. 

CU in Cries and Whispers: Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin 

But let’s be blunt, what is there to capture if there is nothing to capture? It depends on the actor and their talent. This semester in directing class, we’re learning about how to work with actors, so I want to know how Ingmar Bergman communicated with them.  
I once watched Bergman’s documentary about the making of Fanny and Alexander. He’s the controlling type, telling actors how to move, where to turn, and what to do, when saying certain lines. He’s also demanding, almost ruthless. It’s strange to me that it works because that method forces the actor to remember the lines and the movements, whilst acting, which might easily makes it all forced and unnatural. But it works—I have always loved the acting in Bergman’s films. The documentary, however, only shows what’s happening on sets, when the actors had known their characters inside out, and prepared well. It doesn’t show the way he worked with them, the way he talked to them and built the characters with them, the way he got the best out of them. That’s something I would be interested in. 
Here is the list of the key actors in the Bergman universe:
Among the actors, I haven’t seen much of Erland Josephson, but I love both Gunnar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow. 
Gunnar Björnstrand is more versatile, and can transform into very different characters. His most haunting performance may be in Winter Light, but I particularly like him in The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night
Max von Sydow isn’t as versatile, but he has a sensitive face—his acting is subtle and nuanced, suggesting a lot more beneath the surface. I would vote for either Hour of the Wolf or The Seventh Seal as his best performance, but the tree scene in The Virgin Spring is iconic and unforgettable, and I have a soft spot for his sensitive, anguished but loving and patient face in Through a Glass Darkly
Among the actresses, the versatile ones are Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson. It’s hard to say whom I prefer between the 2, as both are excellent actresses. In a sense, I tend to like Liv Ullmann in duos, in confrontations, especially with Bibi Andersson in Persona and Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata, perhaps also with Max von Sydow in Hour of the Wolf and with Ingrid Thulin in Cries and Whispers; whereas I usually like Harriet Andersson on her own, for her beauty and her ability to transform into very different characters—compare Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander
I also feel that Liv Ullman acts more with her face and Harriet Andersson more with her own body. It’s not absolute, Liv Ullmann for example has a distinctive walk in Autumn Sonata, and one of the most images of Harriet Andersson is the close-up in Summer with Monika, when she breaks the 4th wall and fixes her gaze on the audience, as though teasing us, mocking us, asking what we’re looking at. But generally, Liv Ullmann acts more with her face, especially in Persona, when she doesn’t say more than 5 words in the entire film. She has great emotional range, and when we watch her in close-ups, we follow every tiniest change of expression on her face and forget that she’s acting. Harriet Andersson tends to use her entire body and all movements—she becomes the wild, sensual, childlike and loveable but also impulsive, frivolous and selfish Monika just as she later becomes the petty, pathetic servant in Fanny and Alexander
Bibi Andersson tends to have a persona, or at least, in the pre-Persona period, she often plays someone warm, charming, innocent and vivacious—her characters in The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Magician are not remarkably different. In Persona, she appears at 1st with the same persona, the same look of warmth, sweetness and happiness, and then breaks that persona by exposing the intensity and instability underneath that façade. Liv Ullmann has a demanding job in the film because, not having words, she has to convey everything with her face, but it’s Bibi Andersson that carries the weight of Persona. She does a fantastic job. 
Those are my favourite actresses in the Bergman universe. I don’t like Ingrid Thulin personally, because there’s something hard about her face, which makes her so perfect for the role in Cries and Whispers, a cold and rigid woman who doesn’t want to be touched. Nevertheless, she’s a great actress—painful to watch but moving and haunting in Cries and Whispers and Winter Light. My favourite is her performance in Wild Strawberries
Oh how I envy Ingmar Bergman’s band of actors. How did he work with them? 


  1. Bergman discusses his relationship with his actors in The Magic Lantern, quite a lot as I remember it. They were all close friends, working together in the theater as much or more as in Bergman's film. They would gather on Bergman' island each summer to make a movie. Bergman mentions stopping filming to, for example, watch a flock of migratory birds go by.

    Not typical film-making! I should note that it has been a long time since I read this book, and I may be incorrectly remembering some things.

    1. That's good then, because I have the book. I've read a bit of it but haven't got to where he talks about the actors yet, except that I was looking for something about Autumn Sonata and found the passage about his "clash" with Ingrid Bergman.

  2. In my late teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with Bergman... All these years later, the movie that returns to me often is "The Silence." Not long ago, I wrote a small story set in Timoka. I would not have guessed, years ago, that it was the one that would be the one to recur to mind. I think it is the focus on language and Ester's painful loneliness and desire to communicate--her collection of words from Timoka that she bestows on Johan. Or maybe it is also the fairy tale quality of the dwarves-with-Johan and the two women who seem like halves (as sometimes happens in fairy stories) of a wholeness that will never be.

    1. Interesting.
      I saw that one several years ago, but at the time I didn't quite get him yet.
      Might watch it again at some point. I don't like Gunnel Lindblom very much though.