The National Catholic Review
Faithless

Many years ago, decades in fact, I was the object of an extraordinary kindness. In the very act of accepting this favor, however, I reacted with a remark of stupefying insensitivity. My benefactor recoiled visibly. The damage once done could not be undone. To describe the exchange in more detail would make the story tedious, and perhaps even trivial to the outsider. My comment was intended as a joke, or so I later tried to convince myself, but it was edged with that blade of brutal truth that made it devastating. To this day I blush to the bone to remember my senseless cruelty that day. My friend died several years ago, and whatever scars remained have since been consigned to the grave. Why this nagging guilt for words spoken long ago and now buried in the past? Why this need to tell once again the story that has been rehearsed over and over in my mind? Any compassionate third party would tell me to walk away from my painful memory. But I cannot.

Faithless, a film scripted by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann, suggests that Bergman cannot walk away from his past either. This story emerges from the great Swedish director’s memory in such a way that detail and event are conflated and compressed. Bergman’s script focuses sharply not on any particular autobiographical events but on feelings of regret, on an old man’s recognition of his callous behavior and his struggle to become reconciled with his past. In a daring conceit, Bergman allows his protagonist’s story to be reconstructed from a woman’s perspective. This deftly feminized version of a man’s life takes shape under the delicate touch of Liv Ullmann, the Norwegian actor who collaborated with Bergman in nine of his most powerful films and whose personal relationship with him over several years included the birth of their daughter. The film thus combines the work of two great artists, and their objectives diverge in such a way that they must be considered separately.

At 82 and long retired from filmmaking, Ingmar Bergman has lost none of the sense of mystery in his narrative technique. In a script that is essentially a series of monologues, punctuated by flashbacks introduced by the voice-over narrator, Bergman rivets the attention by revealing the identities and relationships of the characters in piecemeal fashion. He includes references to his earlier films in such a way that they explain and comment on the present one. For example, he names the narrator Marianne, recalling Ingrid Thulin’s character in Wild Strawberries (1957). In that film, she accompanies her father, the crusty professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), on a journey that is both literal and metaphorical. As the miles pass, he becomes ever more aware of the emptiness of his life, while she becomes a source of regeneration for him.

In Faithless the reincarnation of Marianne (Lena Endre) performs a similar function for another elderly man. In this complex script, she first appears as a shadowy presence in the stark, seaside cottage of an aging writer and film director, named simply Bergman (Erland Josephson). He calls on her to help him with his current project, but it is unclear whether she is a memory, a ghost, a muse or a creature of his imagination. As she continues her narration, her costumes change several times. This could suggest a story told over a prolonged period during several different visits, or it could indicate his changing recollection of her. Marianne is a professional actress, he a director, but their connection in the past could have been more than artistic. Around 40 years of age at present, she remains trim and lively. Her eyes sparkle hypnotically, while the beginnings of lines edging her mouth and eyes suggest a depth of wisdom that comes only with experience. Little wonder Bergman is entranced by her.

Marianne’s own story purportedly provides the spine of the script, but repeated close-ups of Bergman punctuate her words. He tries to decipher their meaning in his own terms. Bergman the author gradually reveals that this is a story as much about the character Bergman as about Marianne. Was he, the author, part of the story, or is he imagining fiction? The presence of a 16mm projector in a glassed-in projection booth behind him in his study continually asserts the proposition that this is only a movie.

As she pushes back through the years, Marianne recalls her happy marriage to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor with a growing international reputation. They have been married 11 years and have a 9-year-old daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). The epigraph during the opening credits refers ominously to the devastating effects of divorce, a stark warning that this ideal marriage cannot last. The best friend of both Marianne and Markus is a writer and film director, referred to as David (Krister Henriksson). He could be the younger Bergman. The three are so close that in Markus’s absence, David and Marianne spend the night sharing a bed as brother and sister. During one of Markus’s prolonged concert tours, however, Marianne and David meet in Paris and enter into the inevitable adulterous liaison. Back in Stockholm, Markus interrupts one of their regular rendezvous. In a rage, he declares himself a victim and their marriage over, while she and David giggle like terrified children caught in the act of some frivolous prank. Marianne moves into David’s apartment, and she and Markus begin a terrible struggle for sole custody of Isabelle. Their daughter, of course, cannot cope with the fact that her world has collapsed around her.

Marianne has entered into the relationship on a whim, as a relief from boredom as she enters her middle years. David has been married three times before and has a child somewhere, in whom he shows little interest. He has artistic talent but seems emotionally underdeveloped. He needs Marianne as one might need a new sports car. As the legal struggles become more distasteful, he offers little support or sympathy. Markus, for his part, reveals a cruel side to his personality. Cynically pretending to offer a solution to their legal battle, he humiliates Marianne sexually and personally. When David learns of her ordeal, he acts as though he were the victim, not she. Marianne is trapped between two narcissistic men, and somehow concern for Isabelle seems to assume less and less importance as these three performers on life’s stage try to sort out their own lives.

The film should have ended at this point, but Bergman the author cannot let go. In what nears self-parody of his dreariest films like Shame (1968), Hour of the Wolf (1968) and The Serpent’s Egg (1977), he piles disaster upon catastrophe until the last 30 minutes of this two-and-a-half hour film become simply lugubrious. He closes his story with a failed suicide pact, a death by drowning, an actual suicide, an abortion, a monumental argument that becomes violent and Marianne’s discovery that her once happy marriage was a lie. Bergman the author has already demonstrated that his namesake has had a destructive effect on people’s lives. Why belabor the point as though the first two hours left any doubt? In these closing scenes each new depressing revelation pushed me closer to the giggles.

The script may have faltered in the final sequences, but the performances Liv Ullmann coaxes from her actors make Faithless a truly memorable film. One of film’s great actors herself, she trusts both the human face and the camera. This kind of acting, quite foreign to stage technique, conveys meaning in the flare of a nostril, the tightening of a lip or the narrowing of an eye. It is patient. It waits for the audience to see, to penetrate the image and finally to understand. Lena Endre, as Marianne, enjoys a love affair with the camera. Under Ullmann’s direction, she is truly luminous, and most radiant when she does least. She stares into the lens as one honestly puzzled by the realization that her impulsive faithless behavior has caused such pain to those around her. As Bergman, Erland Josephson, gray-haired and bearded, looks the part of a wise elder, but his eyes project terror at the realization that his selfishness, his faithlessness, have made him an unfeeling monster capable of casually destroying the lives of those he thought he loved. He nears the end of his days alone in his cottage, with a desk drawer full of souvenirs, a pad of empty lined paper and an unused film projector, perhaps realizing that the full story has yet to be organized, written and filmed. Until it is, atonement lies beyond his grasp.

Bergman’s discovery is shattering: his memories will not die. He cannot change the past. He can only live with it and die with it, and that is his tragedy.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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