Face To Face (Bergman) 1976 Imprint / Viavision Blu Ray 2024



After watching Face To Face I was reminded of two great European films that also dealt with mental illness and had marvellous actors.  Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini’s Europa 51 and Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s The Red DesertLiv Ulman’s performance in Face to Face is very different to theirs.  Liv’s breakdown is full on and anguished.  Monica’s is a gradual disintegration.  And Ingrid’s is dazed and drifting.  They are at various stages of psychological disturbance.  All three give us truly great screen acting.

Yet Face to Face stands apart from the other two films.  It does so not just because it doesn’t include the societal, environmental and political forces, present in Europa 51 and The Red Desert, which contribute to nervous breakdown, but because we now have a psychiatrist who is the patient and her condition is almost the entire central focus of Bergman’s film.  Paradoxically this proves to be both the strength and weakness of Face to Face.

It’s not that you don’t get a back story on Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ulman) for this comes through in numerous creepy and beautifully filmed nightmares concerning childhood trauma that involve the doctor’s long dead and controlling parents.  And early on you even have an indirect social critique of psychiatry from one of her male colleagues.  The ‘problem’ with Face to Face is more to do with the centrality of the ill psychiatrist’s personality.  This is magnificently projected by Liv Ulman but it often pulls you away from the stories of the film’s other characters.  Ulman becomes the more commanding auteur: actor upstaging Bergman as director.

Of course both actor and director wonderfully interact and complement each other.  Bergman is partly using Ulman to channel his own traumas (Punishment in the form of your parents locking you in a dark wardrobe is classic Bergman autobiography).  Yet I feel Face to Face could have been stronger if there had been an implication of the political (Bergman did so in The Shame); geographic (Through a Glass Darkly) or even the metaphysical (Persona).  Face to Face is a ‘case history’ film about mental health that, in spite of its insular intensity, doesn’t turn into a conventional psychological journey from darkness to light.  Its story also carries narratives about old age, bi-sexuality (A very new theme for Bergman in the 1970s), divorce and a child’s rejection of a parent.

It all depends on what version of Face To Face you get to see.

Viavision’s blu ray is the shorter theatrical cut of 135 mins.  There’s also a TV miniseries running to 177 mins that’s sadly not included here.  I watched the miniseries during the last major Bergman season at the London BFI Southbank.  In that the plotlines I’ve mentioned are more fleshed out than the feature.  But this is both good news and bad news.

In this shorter version Liv Ulman’s harrowing ordeal is more sensually intact and intense.  And the longer version’s tendency to meander a bit, with some florid and strained dream material, is now gone.  Though even in Viavision’s 135 minute blu ray we still have, at one point, Liv Ulman dressed in a red outfit and wearing a cap that doesn’t work for me – it’s just too self-consciously Red Riding Hood! And the one dream scene that, in this version also fails is when Mother (Ulman) discovers a coffin in which lies her young daughter.  She sets it on fire – a scene that invokes Edgar Allan Poe horrors more than Bergman shocks.

What does succeed brilliantly is the writing (“I’m not your nine year old.  I grew up and took sleeping pills to kill myself.  But it failed.”).  A marvellous panning shot, after Liv Ulman lies down from taking her overdose, where her stretched-out fingers trace the floral patterns on the wallpaper; a remarkably executed failed rape scene (viewed between adjoining rooms) that depicts both Ulman and Mari, the psychiatrist’s disturbed patient, suggesting a divided mind; Sven Nykvist’s superb photography; the use of Mozart’s Fantasia in E minor (Played on the piano by Kabi Laretei); the sensitive restraint of Erland Josephson’s performance as the caring Dr. Thomas Jacobi and the emotionally bristling scene with Anna (Jenny’s daughter) played by Helen Friberg who accuses her mother of never having liked her.  All these moments are unforgettable.

And finally Bergman’s reference to Wild Strawberries is very moving.  An unseen Jenny looks compassionately on at her grandparents who realise that they have to come to terms with the approach of death.  Gunnar Bjornstrand, as the infirm grandfather, is a variation on the Isaac Bjorg (Victor Sjostrom) of Wild Strawberries: the not infirm old man who‘s nonetheless close to the end of his life.

All Bergman enthusiasts will want to see Face to Face.  It’s not one of his masterpieces but contains masterly passages sealed and crowned by Liv Ulman.  Many years ago I met Liv Ulman in London at a screening of Scenes from a Marriage.  I got her to sign my film still from Persona.  I told her how much I was in awe of her acting.  At that time Face to Face was out of circulation, a distant memory.  Now that it’s back again I can imagine thanking Liv for her phenomenal presence in that too.

Alan Price©2024