Roger Ebert Home

Interview with Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann in "Face to Face."

Film House in Stockholm - The lunch break always comes precisely at noon, as if Ingmar Bergman has a built-in timepiece, one of those clocks that are always ticking away in his movies. The director retires to his tiny cell across from the sound stage to eat fresh fruit and think about the afternoon's filming.

Liv Ullmann, his leading lady for the seventh time, has lunch brought to her dressing room. It's more like a co-ed's dorm, really, with its paperback novels turned down to mark the place, its letters meant to be answered and, framed proudly on a desk, her award as best actress from the New York film critics. She wears an old white muslin shirt and a full cotton skirt, blue to match her eyes, and for lunch she has ordered open-faced sandwiches and fresh radishes.

We must close the door and not talk very loudly, because Bergman has been...edgy this morning: today's scenes are very difficult ones, and he doesn't want his leading lady talking to some writer during the lunch hour. She should be meditating on the afternoon's scenes, as he almost certainly is.

"It's a terrible scene today," Liv says. "It's a scene in which the character I play has to meet her daughter. My character has just tried to commit suicide. Now she must face her child. The girl who plays my daughter is so trusting, so sensitive, she reminds me of my daughter. It's hell to get through, this scene."

The film is "Face to Face." It is being shot simultaneously in two versions, one for Scandinavian television, the other for worldwide release by Dino De Laurentiis. Ullmann plays a psychiatrist who returns, upset, to the home of her grandparents, has a crisis there and attempts to kill herself. P. A. Lundgren, Bergman's set designer, says the grandparents' house is a dead ringer for photographs of the house Bergman grew up in.

The film marks Bergman's 30th year as a film director. In that time he has progressed from the maker of unexceptional Swedish melodramas to probably the finest director in the history of films. "Face to Face" is going to be a tricky one, he's told his co-workers: It is based on his own discontent, and it uses a lot of dream sequences, and he always feels mistrustful of dreams in movies.

"The film goes a long way down," Liv says, "It goes to the very bottom, she really does think she's killed herself, and then it comes back up again. It ends with real hope. That's something that Ingmar had hardly ever shown in his films, until quite recently. He was always such a pessimist, and now he begins to see a little light.... "In the last scene of 'Scenes from a Marriage,' for example, when the two people cling to each other in the middle of the night, maybe that's not much, but it's something. And at the end of 'Cries and Whispers,' when the maid reads the diary, and the dead woman speaks of her lovely day, how they all smiled at one another, how warm the sunlight was - there's something enormously helpful about that scene. It puts the suffering in perspective."

Something has changed within Bergman, his friends say. Liv, who lived with him for several years and bore his child, says he doesn't look the same when he walks on the set these days: "He's mellowed; in a nice way. He's sweeter (isn't that a funny thing to say about Ingmar Bergman!) He's more tolerant. We've all been through some rough times with him, we've had some fights on the set, but if he was wrong, he apologizes. And if one has been wrong oneself, he takes one's hand...

"It's too bad, you know, that he has traveled so little, He won't make a film outside of Sweden, and he hates to get on an airplane. There's something about the Scandinavians; we don't let our own get the recognition they deserve at home. Ibsen escaped to Rome. In this country, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo are jokes; I made headlines when I made a fool of myself in 'Lost Horizon,' but there was no mention when I won the film critics' award."

She looks at it, and you begin to understand why it is so well displayed.

"And Ingmar, they give him a very tough time in Sweden. Some of the younger critics, they're political; they won't praise any film that doesn't reflect their politics. And Ingmar is hardly political at all; he's more interested in the insides of people. His actors...when we go abroad, we get all the praise and recognition for his films, and he hardly receives it at all. We eat the cake and he sits here reading the Swedish papers."

Her Hollywood experience was just that, she says; "An experience. I worked for three months in Hollywood, and it was an education. But it's so good to be in a Bergman film once again. You just have to face it. You do other things, and then you come back here, and he'll get the very best out of you. In other films...well, 'Lost Horizon' was not good in ANY way, so, well, all I can say is at least I didn't dance naked on Trafalgar Square. How can you make a good performance in a picture that doesn't ask that of you?"

One of the crucial things about "Face to Face," she believes, is that in it Bergman faces death as a reality (as he did also in "Cries and Whispers") and is able to work through it, to prevent it from ending his film: "It will be the same with his film about Jesus," she says, "or maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that - I think it's a secret. He's going to do the life of Jesus. And one day he really will make his 'Merry Widow,' you know."

Bergman announced at one time that he would direct Barbra Streisand in "The Merry Widow" -- certainly one of the most, volatile director-performer confrontations one could imagine. The project fell through. "But he will do it," Liv said. "Not the 'Merry Widow' itself, perhaps, but something to show the warm and sunny things inside of him." And she smiled merrily, before she remembered that now she had to go back to the set and try to explain to her daughter why she had tried to kill herself.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

MoviePass, MovieCrash
The Beach Boys


comments powered by Disqus