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Bibi Andersson Was a Sunflower Who Saw the Darkness

Seen from the vantage of 2019, the extraordinary actresses who came to prominence in the films of Ingmar Bergman — Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, and the sunny and anguished, incandescent and heartbreaking Bibi Andersson, who died Sunday — enjoyed a relationship with their director that was rooted in a 20th-century male-gaze ethos. Bergman was famously obsessed with these women: with their faces, their personae, the dramatic possibilities they opened up to him. He carried on off-screen romantic relationships with most of them (including Bibi Andersson), and in his movies he placed them on a grand pedestal of extravagant expression. The pedestal was framed not with a medium or long shot but with a starkly penetrating close-up. You could say that Bergman used the camera to probe their very being.

Yet it may be the essence of the partnership between Bergman, the mythical art-house giant, and the actresses he turned into psychodramatic muses that the actresses were the polar opposite of passive. They revealed things that no actress in a movie had ever revealed before: depths of joy and thought and agony and experience. In staying true to their inner selves, they showed the world a new kind of woman. And no actress brought that sense of revelation to bear with more vibrant virtuosity than Bibi Andersson.

She came to the movies with a traditional look (corn-silk hair, flashing eyes, a wholesome sexy overbite), but she became a Bergman surrogate-goddess who forged her own complex identity: spirited and affectionate, with the ability to heal (that serene smile Victor Sjöström’s Isak Borg has at the end of “Wild Strawberries” wouldn’t have been possible had he not been touched along the way by the spirit of Bibi Andersson), but also knowing, questioning, a shade petulant, holding her most challenging thoughts close to the vest, so that it was only those in the audience who could fully see them.

Born in 1935, Andersson was discovered by Bergman for a series of soap commercials he directed when she was 16, and she started off as a ’50s ingenue, playing the sort of Scandinavian-Doris-Day-with-gravitas who invited you to bask in her beauty, like the homespun dream girl she embodied for a single blissed-out scene in “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Yet it didn’t take long for Andersson to develop a moody sensuality that turned the tables on the audience. In “Wild Strawberries,” she played not one but two roles, an idealized heroine and — two years before “Breathless” — a short-haired, short-fused free spirit of defiance who seemed purged of romance. In “The Seventh Seal,” she was a vision of the everyday faith the hero has lost. And in “Persona,” the obliquely disturbing and self-destructing art-cinema head trip that remains one of the key movies of the 1960s, Andersson did what only the greatest actresses can do: She tore off the mask and let you touch what was beneath it.

She was, by that point, a leading Bergman player (unlike Liv Ullmann, who was the new persona on the block), and her role in “Persona” starts off as archetypically Bibi: She’s Alma the private hospital nurse, dutiful and nurturing, assigned to take care of Ullmann’s emotionally fractured actress, who has withdrawn from the stage, and from the world, by refusing to speak.

For a while, the two enact a dance of temperaments: Ullmann the debauched earth mother, and Andersson the right-brain good girl, doing all she can to behave responsibly. But then, in their budding intimacy, they begin to reveal sides of themselves that are the opposite of what we expected. Andersson delivers a sullen, hot-and-bothered reminiscence of group sex on a beach that Pauline Kael heralded as “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history,” and what Kael meant, I think, is that it’s one of the only erotic moments that we can actually believe happened. As “Persona” goes on, Ullmann and Andersson fuse into each other’s spirits, at times nearly trading places, and that bespeaks the yin-and-yang quality of Andersson’s acting. She was a “girl next door” who, at key moments, could reveal the haunted depths of a Vivien Leigh crossed with Sylvia Plath. And she never shone more brightly than when her candle burned darkly.

One of my three or four favorite scenes in any film by Bergman is the opening section of “Scenes from a Marriage.” It’s a dinner party for four, so comfortable and bourgeois, with the hosts, played by Ullman and Erland Josephson, so smug in their contentment that you can’t wait to see what they’re hiding. But you don’t have to wait long, because the other couple, played by Andersson and Jan Malmsjö, are on hand to show us, as a kind of foreshadowing, what marriage is really about: the holding in of secrets, and the repression of rage, which comes boiling over as they trade insults that turn deadly. It’s a sequence that in 15 minutes achieves the claw-ripping power of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and the key to it all is Andersson’s cathartic portrayal of primal feminine rage.

Andersson, like Bergman, found a presence beyond Sweden, appearing in such late-studio-system genre films as “Duel at Diablo” and “The Kremlin Letter” and, near the end of the ’70s, in second-tier Hollywood movies like “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” and “The Concorde…Airport ’79,” as well as Robert Altman’s misbegotten “Quintet.” She also appeared twice on Broadway. But unlike her fellow Bergman stock-company alum Max von Sydow, she never connected as an “international” star. She didn’t pop in those films; she came off as recessive and a touch dour. Yet in the ’80s, she regained her sly humor in a movie like “Babette’s Feast,” and she continued to act on stage and on Swedish television.

The spirit of inclusion now gripping the entertainment industry is all about opportunity in the real world. It’s about women seizing the chance, as never before, to become directors, cinematographers, executives, power players. But it is also, of course, about heightening the opportunity to tell women’s stories, to place them front and center in the culture, as the stories of men have always been. We’ve certainly got a long way to go, yet the movies of the 20th century are part of the wind at the back of that revolution. And Bergman’s films, especially, will go down as groundbreaking expressions of a new kind of feminine mystique. In a movie like “Wild Strawberries” or “Persona,” Bibi Andersson projected the spark of her inner fire and dismay, etching it onto the consciousness of everyone who watched her. She revealed what it was now possible for a woman to feel. Were the emotions new? In a way. But as much as that, showing them was new. And that was the change. She was the actress as alchemist.

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