I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.
Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.
Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).
In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.
What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh, vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.
I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.
[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]