Admirers of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman will find much to enjoy in this personal and revelatory film about the destructive forces unleashed by thoughtless sexual misbehavior. Bergman’s script, which is structured around the efforts of a film director to write a screenplay based on his experiences, is filled with references to his films as a director and, perhaps, to his life; Liv Ullmann, directing her second Bergman screenplay (after 1997’s “Private Confessions”), extracts every nuance from the tantalizing material. For non-aficionados, the slow pacing, familiar themes and alienating performance of the principal male actor will prove irritants. Film should enjoy respectable, though modest, theatrical runs in some territories and will be a solid ancillary performer.
The story is simple enough. Marianne Vogler (the name resonates with the names of past Bergman characters), beautifully played by Lena Endre, is a successful actress, happily married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), an orchestra conductor much in demand for overseas concerts, and devoted to her young daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo).
The family’s best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a film director with a reckless attitude toward money, family and relationships. Marianne has an affair with David that destroys her marriage and brings grief to all concerned, with the innocent Isabelle suffering most of all.
Augmenting this straightforward premise, screenwriter Bergman has constructed a framing device in which an elderly film director named Bergman, played by Erland Josephson, is attempting to write a screenplay about infidelity and marital breakup. Bergman sits in the sparsely furnished study in his house on a desolate island and invites an actress, who may, in fact, be a figment of his imagination, to create the character of Marianne for him.
For most of the film, Josephson (who in 1974 co-starred with Ullmann in Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” a seminal film about divorce), simply listens with varying degrees of understanding and pity, as the actress develops the story of Marianne. It’s an interesting but not entirely successful dramatic device, which greatly adds to the personal elements in the story Bergman is telling, but seriously slows down the arc of the narrative and is responsible for the film’s overlong 2 1/2-hour running time.
Marianne’s story unfolds in traditional flashbacks. One evening, after the last performance of a play in which she is appearing, and while Markus is away on a concert tour, David arrives to have dinner, and winds up staying the night, sleeping — platonically — in her bed. But this intimacy triggers a basic response in Marianne, who begins to look at her friend with new eyes.
She plans a three-week trip to Paris with David, during which they embark on an affair. His volatile behavior and extreme jealousy when Marianne tells him about her sexual relationship with her husband should set off warning bells.
But back in Stockholm the affair continues, with Marianne visiting David in his tiny apartment. One night, Markus arrives with a duplicate key he’d found in his wife’s handbag. The confrontation between the calm but seething husband and the naked lovers is both comic and tragic, and one of the film’s most potent sequences.
Markus reveals he’d long suspected, even before Paris, that David and Marianne were lovers, and demands a divorce that will give him sole custody of Isabelle. There follows a long legal wrangle, in which Isabelle is the bargaining chip. Film builds to a powerful climax.
Though overextended and a tad indulgent, Bergman’s screenplay is an often powerful and moving one that explores degrees of infidelity with almost surgical precision. There are evidently strong autobiographical elements here, demons the elderly filmmaker is attempting to exorcise.
Ullmann, one of Bergman’s most luminous collaborators and the mother of one of his children, does a solid job behind the camera, though is perhaps a bit too reverential with the material, which merits judicious pruning.
For many viewers, the stumbling block may be the performance of Henriksson as David. The actor is far less charismatic than Hanzon, who plays the husband, making it a bit of a mystery what Marianne sees in him. Beyond that, David is given some extremely unpleasant character traits — violent jealousy, for one — and is, essentially, unlikable.
Maybe that’s the point: Bergman, seeing himself in the role of the reckless lover, imbues David with the ugliest characteristics as a comment on his own behavior.
Endre, onscreen for most of the film, runs the gamut of emotions with a wonderfully in-depth performance, tackling passion and tragedy in her stride. As the Bergman character, Josephson has little to do except react.
Pic has been modestly but efficiently produced, with sometimes striking lighting from d.p. Jorgen Persson.