A treasure trove of home movies is the main reason to see Stig Bjorkman’s loving documentary “Ingrid Bergman — In Her Own Words,” which mines excerpts from the Swedish-born star’s letters and diaries as well as archival interviews. Fans are unlikely to learn anything new, and the docu may disappoint others with its rather too-frequent focus on Bergman as mother rather than on Bergman’s craft as actor, suggesting a missed opportunity to explore a complex stage and screen presence. Still, the actress’s evergreen popularity means the film will be well traveled, though audiences catching the 58-minute small screen version may be equally satisfied.
The lack of any significant investigation into performance styles is acutely felt, particularly given the very different methods of her major directors: George Cukor, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Jean Renoir, Stanley Donen, Ingmar Bergman. There’s some light personality analysis — she was driven, she was shy, “love came through the camera lens,” she was courageous – and all four children paint an appealing portrait of their largely absent mother. Yet in terms of psychological depth, Bjorkman, maker of docus on Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier, barely goes beyond the level of a Biography Channel portrait.
It seems otherwise at the start: Via Alicia Vikander’s first-person voiceover (as Bergman), the docu opens in 1928 with the 12-year-old’s concern about her beloved father’s health. His death the following year, along with that of several loved ones, was a tremendous blow, though immediately cutting from this to black-and-white newsreels of Bergman at a film premiere seems to imply that death haunted the actress throughout her life — a concept not quite supported by the docu as a whole. Certainly her father’s delight in photographing and filming his daughter left a lasting impression, and it makes sense when Bergman’s children say that their mother’s relationship with the camera was a way of reconnecting with that lost paternal warmth.
Perhaps because of the uproar following Bergman’s relationship with Rossellini, her personal life is better known than those of many others from the era. She was a fast-rising star in Sweden with a doctor husband, Petter Lindstrom, and daughter Pia, when she received a contract from David Selznick to appear in a remake of her first big role, “Intermezzo.” Already more interested in acting than in playing mommy (or wife), Bergman was in relationships with Robert Capa and Victor Fleming by the mid-1940s.
However, it was only when she left Lindstrom and daughter for Rossellini that the wrath of Puritan America turned her into a pariah. She had difficulty adjusting to Rossellini’s neorealist style, and in interviews described their films together as noble failures — of course, those films are now part of the canon, though Bjorkman’s focus on the woman rather than on her movies passes over any discussion of the films’ critical fortunes.
When the marriage crumbled she took to the stage, making magical visits to her children in Italy (Pia started becoming reacquainted with her mother only in 1956), yet largely placing work first. Most of her kids seem to have made peace with their mother’s priorities, and while Pia certainly felt abandoned, even she speaks kindly about Bergman’s palpable charm.
Bjorkman highlights Bergman’s intense drive, and her unceasing interest in working with challenging directors was certainly unusual (though she could be resistant once outside her comfort zone, as with Ingmar Bergman). Isabella Rossellini says that Hitchcock taught her mother to lighten up, though how? Is there nothing in her letters or diaries that address her working methods with Renoir as opposed to, say, Lewis Milestone? Also, Lindstrom’s managing of her early career receives no mention.
Fortunately, the exceptional home movies, many shot by Bergman herself, are an unending source of pleasure, visually reinforcing her children’s warm-hearted reminiscences: Their mother was fun to be around. Judging from the letters she wrote to Ruth Roberts, Irene Selznick and others, she was also a good friend (seconded in several memoirs). “In Her Own Words” boasts solid tech credits and a Michael Nyman score whose unmistakable “ostinatos” hark back to the composer’s best-known film music.