Few filmmaker/muse love stories are quite as captivating as Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann began her career as a stage actress in Norway in her teens. Married in 1960 to a Norwegian psychiatrist, her life took on a blistering change when she met the Swedish director (she was 25, he was 46), which quickly evolved into a passionate affair that would launch a 42 year-long relationship packed with dizzying highs, extreme lows and an enduring friendship. Their roller coaster relationship was tantamount to an addiction, Ullmann said in filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar's documentary Liv & Ingmar, which opens this weekend at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The feature, which screened at the 50th New York Film Festival, unfolds through a collage of images and sounds from Ullmann-Bergman films in addition to rarely seen footage, photographs, passages from Ullmann's book Changing (1977) as well as Berman's love letters to Ullmann.
“At first I didn't agree to cooperate, but then I met with [the filmmaker and producer] in Norway. [Dheeraj Akolkar seemed] sincere and talented and convinced me to take part in his movie,” said Ullmann. “But in the end, they convinced me. I didn't know everything they were going to do. I was only with them for two days of interviews and [recording passages] from my book. I have done many interviews about Ingmar and me in the past, but this movie goes so much further than I thought it would.”
While Ullmann gave her time and voice, she didn't promise to support the doc if she felt the film ran afoul of the truth. Now supporting the film, she apparently agree with how it describes their time together, though it doesn't necessarily mean all of it is congruent to her personal recollection. Now 74, Ullmann said she found aspects of their relationship something of a surprise, but said the film is nonetheless “wonderfully correct.”
Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv & Ingmar.
“I told [Dheeraj Akolkar] at the beginning if it wasn't true, I would not cooperate and say it's a lie,” said Ullmann. “But I think that if Ingmar would have been able to see it, he would like this interpretation of our story. I don't think I would have said it exactly the same way, but it's a wonderful telling of [our lives]. I'm not saying that if I did this, my telling of the story would be any more true, just my way of telling it.”
Ullmann and Bergman's relationship began to blossom on the set of the 1965 film Persona. The pair lived together, however, in what could be described as a virtual exile on the Swedish island of Fårö where their passion, jealousies and rage were nevertheless overshadowed, at least publicly, by an enduring creative partnership that continued even as the romantic side of their partnership faded. She starred in some of Bergman's most acclaimed films including The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), Face to Face (1976), which earned Ullmann her second Oscar nomination, and Autumn Sonata (1978). Their 1973 Swedish TV series Scenes from a Marriage is one of a number of Bergman-Ullmann films Akolkar teases throughout the doc tying parallels of their on-screen collaborations with their often fiery off-screen relationship, though Ullmann mostly denies the films are direct glimpses into their lives together.
“I was surprised by this because I didn't see our films as being the same as our lives together, but that is part of Ingmar's brilliant storytelling,” said Ullmann. “I think people can look at his movies and see truth about their lives in them, but I don't look at those movies as [insights] to our relationship.”
The film spends a good amount of time exploring the house, which Bergman built on the quiet Baltic island retreat the couple shared with their daughter Linn (born in 1966). In one tender moment, the film shows a door to Bergman's office, where the pair had drawn hearts and sweet messages to each other, a touching relic of their time together that Ullmann had not seen since she left the island decades ago. Ullmann today and in her first autobiography Changing recall those light-hearted moments, but also contrast with darker memories of life on Fårö, which she also characterized as “suffocating control.”
“Violent and without bounds,” Ullmann wrote in Changing as quoted in a 2009 article by W magazine. “Nothing existed outside ourselves.” She added in the article: “We had a little child there, and he didn’t want people to visit, and he didn’t like me leaving either. It was very tough.”
Post Fårö, Ullmann received a Golden Globe and her first Oscar nomination in Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971). While she segued to Hollywood, her movies there were mostly forgettable. Ullmann noted that her L.A. period, which included such titles as Lost Horizon (1973) brought down a studio or two. “My time in Hollywood didn't [coincide] with my best roles, but always remembered I had some of Ingmar's great movies under my belt,” said Ullmann. Some moments of levity of her L.A. period include appearing on the cover of Time magazine and footage of her appearing on Johnny Carson show, in which the legendary late-night host appears to gush over the actress.
“[Laughs] people say that to me a lot when they see it. My husband [at the time] thought so too when he saw it, but I didn't think he was flirting. I don't think he wanted me on [the show] actually, but we did get along well and he had me back. At first he thought I'd be too serious, but was eventually talked into it.”
Ullmann became a director in her own right, beginning with Sofie (1992) and returned to Fårö for her 2000 film Faithless from a script by Ingmar Bergman said to be based on his own adulterous experiences. In another touching moment, Liv & Ingmar recalls a letter she wrote to Bergman while filming the project. The letter re-surfaced following Bergman's death in 2007 after a housekeeper discovered it inside a teddy bear that belonged to the filmmaker.
“If this movie had not happened, I wouldn't have ever known that he kept it,” said Ullmann. “It was very touching and in his way saying the letter — which was a kind of friendship letter — meant something and he was going to keep it in his teddy bear.”
[Dheeraj Akolkar's documentary Liv & Ingmar, which opens this weekend at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.]