Back in 1957, Ingmar Bergman gave the world one of his most characteristic and influential films, “Wild Strawberries.” A dreamy, introspective piece about an elderly professor, traveling to receive an honorary degree, whose current experiences and recollections of the past converge to bring about a re-examination of his life, the picture had its moments of harshness and self-accusation, but overall it was luminously ruminative, pervaded by a gentle melancholy and buoyed by the beautiful lead performance of Victor Sjostrom.
Now, in the late autumn (if not chilly winter) of his own life, the 82-year old master, who gave up directing some years back, has penned a screenplay in which a figure obviously patterned on himself looks back on his life and judges what he’s done, just as Professor Borg did in “Strawberries.” But Bergman is far less kindly toward himself than he was to his fictional creation of four decades ago. In “Faithless,” which has been brought to the screen by his frequent star (and erstwhile companion) Liv Ullmann in his own spare late style, he concentrates on a single episode in his past–an affair he had with a woman in the late 1940s which destroyed two marriages–and essentially calls himself to the bar as defendant. Writing the work must be seen as a virtual act of atonement for him, a kind of confession concerning one hurtful act which might serve as an indictment of what he now sees as all the wrong he committed in the past, an apology for what he’s frequently admitted was a general inability to make true emotional commitments in his younger days.
“Faithless” is told from the perspective of an old theatrical and film director called Bergman (Erland Josephson), who’s living a desolate existence in a rambling house on an island (Faro, where the director’s long lived and where he shot many of his films). He’s putting together a script about a disastrous extramarital affair centered on Marianne Vogler (Lena Endre), who, by getting involved with a theatrical director (and would-be filmmaker) of dubious ability named David (Krister Henriksson), destroys her marriage to promising orchestral conductor Markus (Thomas Hanzon) and does irreparable harm to their daughter Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Marianne appears to Bergman to read portions of the script and tell much of her story in long, passionate monologues; it’s left unclear whether Endre is an actress who’s “creating” the role in tandem with the elderly writer, or the ghost of the now-dead Marianne retelling her story in Bergman’s brain. Occasionally scenes from the past are recreated dramatically, either with voice-over from Marianne or in stand-alone form, rather than being simply described by the woman–the emotional moment when Markus discovers the lovers in bed is one, and there are others–but there remains even in these a sense of distancing which keeps them rather remote and chilly.
Though it’s only toward the close that it’s definitively revealed that David is the younger Bergman, that revelation will hardly come as a surprise to even the most unenlightened viewer. It will be especially obvious to anyone who knows much about Bergman’s life, because “Faithless” is in many respects autobiographical. It’s obviously based on the director’s 1949 liaison with journalist Gun Hagberg; there are so many elements of congruence (though also a few dissonances) with the brief account Bergman supplies in “The Magic Lantern” (see pages 160-171 of the Tate translation) that the connection is inescapable. “Gun was the model for many women in my films,” Bergman wrote; and Marianne Vogler is clearly one of them. The personal association is further accentuated by an aural motif–an excerpt from Mozart which plays repeatedly on an old music-box. The tune is not only from “Die Zauberflote,” which Bergman himself filmed so memorably in 1975, but is Papageno’s “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen,” the aria in which the birdcatcher dreams about acquiring a woman, just as he catches birds. (The concluding lines of the second strophe–“Hulf eine mir nur aus der Not, sonst gram’ ich mich wahrlich zu Tod”–are particularly apt to this context.) In this connection Marianne’s surname of Vogler (“Fowler”) is hardly accidental, and the fact that the Bergman surrogate, David, is portrayed in extraordinarily unflattering terms constitutes a clear act of self-abasement as a hapless womanizer on the writer’s part.
If “Faithless” fascinates as an autobiographical document, it also works fairly well as a film, even if it doesn’t match the quality of Bergman’s great masterpieces. Especially in Endre’s performance, it periodically achieves a shattering power, and the ethereal beauty of the child Isabelle is remarkable. The male figures, however, are much less compelling. Markus remains an opaque, unfinished character–one senses that Bergman never comprehended the motives of Hagberg’s husband, many of whose actions are reiterated here–and while Hanzon is a handsome, charismatic actor, he can’t bring the conductor to life. The director’s own substitutes are equally pallid. The younger David is presented as little more than a reckless, insanely jealous fellow, and it’s unfortunate that Henriksson, who plays him, looks rather like the young Tom Ewell–diminishing the plausibility of any woman’s being attracted to him, let alone one with Marianne’s intelligence. Josephson hasn’t much to do besides looking pained and regretful. The transitions from contemporary recollection to re-enactments are handled well enough, but the fact that the latter are also depicted in contemporary terms, without any period touches, is a bit confusing; presumably they represent the filmmaker’s realizations of those scenes in his proposed picture, but that’s never made clear. And, of course, the characteristic deliberation of the later Bergman style, along with the pervasive mood of gloom and self-accusation, makes the film one that it’s easier to respect than to embrace.
Audiences unfamiliar with Bergman’s past films will probably find “Faithless” sporadically powerful, but too long and talky for their taste. Those who come to the picture remembering the director’s past achievements, however, should embrace it as a worthwhile, if imperfect, example of its author’s self-examining, often lacerating approach. Despite the title, it’s a script faithful to Bergman’s long-standing cinematic vision, and Ullmann has been equally faithful in transferring it to the screen.