Like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, some actresses can get too close to their directors and go up in flames. This was certainly the case with Liv Ullmann (she was born in Tokyo, by the way), who met Ingmar Bergman in the mid 1960s on the set of “Persona.” Bibi Anderson was the lead — at the time involved in an affair with Bergman, she warned the 25-year-old Ullmann to be wary of the 46-year-old director’s advances.
By the time the film was finished, Bergman and Ullmann were living together on the island of Fårö, partway into a tumultuous five-year affair (they were both married to others at the start) that ended with Ullmann packing up and leaving for Hollywood with their young daughter. Throughout the years, their relationship morphed from a towering fire of passion to heated, abusive arguing and finally to an enduring friendship.
Unlike Icarus, Ullmann lived to tell the tale and rise like a phoenix from the ashes of her love. In “Liv & Ingmar,” Ullmann takes her place in front of the camera to recount some of the incidents that made up 50 years spent around one of the greatest cinema masters of the 20th century.
Director Dheeraj Akolkar became hooked on Ullmann when he read her autobiography “Changing,” published in 1977. The young Indian filmmaker had never seen a Bergman movie, but he got this project going and persuaded Ullmann to sign on (she insisted that she would give him no more than two days).
The location: Bergman’s estate on Fårö, which Ullmann calls “that dark miserable place” in her book. It was there that Bergman filmed his last work, “Saraband,” in 2003 — starring Ullmann and his long-time leading man Erland Josephson, in a story that mirrors Bergman’s own relationship with Ullmann. Bergman died in 2007.
For Ullmann, revisiting Fårö and the ghost of Ingmar Bergman looks to be a painful task; on the other hand, she recalls the famed words Bergman had proffered in lieu of a confession of love: “I had a strange dream about you: I dreamed we were painfully connected.” Pain, angst, downright misery — such emotions informed the Ullmann-Bergman liaison. The camera lingers on Ullmann’s face, her astonishing blue eyes and volatile expressions that easily switch over to tenderness and love.
In one scene, she describes how Bergman refused to have visitors or let her leave the house, even though he would shut himself in his study to work. In another, she says: “There is one pain which is enormous. That is to be … left. That is a very deep and lonely and hurtful pain.”
“Liv & Ingmar” is an arduous tribute to an extraordinary pair. Akolkar’s enthrallment is clear, and his starry-eyed approach works well when the camera is full on Ullmann’s face and she lays bare her emotions. But as a historical testimonial, not so much. The film makes no mention of Bergman’s five marriages and nine children, that Liv had to care for their daughter on her own and a thousand other incidents in Bergman’s life. This is Ullmann’s version of their relationship and, as such, a little one-sided. The whole thing reads like a love letter — at times from Liv to Ingmar, but more often from Akolkar to the both of them.