directed by Liv Ullmann
Early in Private Confessions, the latest film written by Ingmar Bergman, Anna Bergman (Pernilla August), a young wife, goes to an elderly clergyman named Jacob (Max von Sydow) to confess that she’s been violating her marriage vows by having an affair with a theology student. “Confession,” though, is a slightly tricky proposition here, since Martin Luther long ago overthrew that formal rite, replacing it with what he called “private conversations.” That “splendid reformer,” says Jacob of Luther with a rueful, winking smile, knew precious little of human nature.
What you have here, in other words, is the great Divided Protestant, splayed between the older certainties of the universal church on one hand and the lure of modern heresiarchs like
Ibsen and Freud on the other. To encounter a new work by this ferocious dramaturge of the split modern soul in an American movie theater in 1999 is, to put it mildly, something like a miracle, one that offers certain immediate clarifications: Next to the towering Swede, latter-day Nordic pretenders like Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are the most pipsqueak of melancholy Danes, trendy dandelions blowing neath the granite immensity of Mount Sinai.
Bergman, to shift metaphorical gears slightly, was, more than any other filmmaker, the Moses of the art film, especially to American audiences for whom The Seventh Seal and Wild
Strawberries in the 50s announced film as a form that could hold its own against even the most ambitious and recondite fiction and drama. And so he has continued. As David Thomson wrote, “[L]ooking out from Sweden, Bergman has seen no reason to abandon his faith in a select audience, prepared and trained for a diligent intellectual and emotional involvement in cinema.” Of course there’s now a whole generation of supposed cinephiles, people a decade or more out of college (forget about those younger), for whom Thomson’s prescription probably verges on the incomprehensible. For such viewers, Private Confessions is the closest thing to time travel that the cinema offers: Forget about The Prince of Egypt, your real ticket to the Old Testament is the Upstart of Uppsala.
Nominally, Bergman has been retired for more than 15 years, but you have to wonder whether he regrets that much-publicized departure following 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, because he has shown every sign of chafing under its restrictions. Now 80, he wrote and directed In the Presence of a Clown, which was shown at last year’s Cannes and New York film festivals; an exuberant riffing on old themes of art and identity, the work is a feature film apart from the fact that it was shot on video (and will remain so: Bergman apparently doesn’t wantit distributed theatrically).
But his most notable screen works since hanging up his lens-finder have been two screenplays about his parents’ marriage, filmed by surrogate directors. Both Bille August’s The Best
Intentions (1992) and now Private Confessions, which was mounted by longtime Bergman star (and the mother of one of his children) Liv Ullmann, have the urgency of unfinished business, as if Bergman spent his career examining his personal anguish and then, one morning in retirement, woke up to realize he’d forgotten to peer into a couple of crucial dark corners lurking within the brightly remembered childhood of Fanny and Alexander.
The Best Intentions chronicled the relations of Anna and Henrik Bergman from their first meeting through a courtship made difficult by her family’s interference, and then a marriage
that went from romantic to thorny due to their very different personalities (he prickly and principled, she impetuous and willful) and social expecta ions (while he was happy as a provincial rector, she yearned for Stockholm’s glitter and importance). The focus in August’s film was on the troubled vicissitudes of personality and circumstance, of male and female, viewed from
a perspective that no doubt began with young Ingmar’s memories and continued with his elderly ruminations and inspection of the surviving evidence (much of which is also discussed in his memoir The Magic Lantern).
Rather than extending that tale’s narrative, Private Confessions looks behind the facade it now forms, to find–or conjure–a hidden, more deeply significant reality. Set in the 1920s, the drama’s first section, as powerfully and subtly imagined as anything in Bergman, has Anna confessing her infidelity to the patriarchal Jacob, and being given two stern commands in return: break off relations with the young man in question immediately, and tell Henrik everything.
he balks at both ideas, naturally. She’s in love with the theology student, Tomas (Thomas Hanzon), and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t be happy. But she’s even more resistant to the idea of telling Henrik the truth. He is sensitive and overburdened and the painful, unnecessary revelations could only harm him, she says. What’s most striking in these exchanges, though, is the unexamined tie: the one between Anna and Jacob. Why does she thrust her problems upon him so directly? Why does he respond with such sympathy, a hint of circumspection and those unequivocal dictates? Is everything here as it seems, or not?
The film’s drama comes full circle to answer those questions, or rather, to give us the information and impetus we need to attempt answering them ourselves. It is structured in several sequences that stretch over three decades, each involving a different “private confession.” In the second, for example, Henrik (Samuel Froler) and Anna go off on a vacation in the country where she, as Jacob had instructed, tells him everything about her affair. Her manner is blunt and almost cruel in its unsparing detail. But the scene, the first in which we see Henrik, plays somewhat differently from what we might have expected: Reacting with a kind of stoic dignity and bitter resignation, Henrik’s not nearly as weak and delicate as she portrayed him. Indeed, they both have the rugged, disillusioned familiarity of people who’ve been married more than a decade, and she says she regards him as her best friend.
The real mystery here, we gradually sense, doesn’t involve this marriage’s dynamics, which were amply described in the previous film. Private Confessions is not, in fact, a duet. It centers on Anna and keeps returning to her longings, the abundant evidence of her recurring need to transgress and then confess. In this, Bergman unites a career-long fascination with women and a more recent fixation on the figure of his mother. The outcome doesn’t return him to the womb, as it were; rather, it leaves him contemplating an enigma more universal than personal, and more tied to the premises of philosophy than those of psychology.
The film’s feminine atmosphere is, in any case, beautifully served by its two leading women, before and behind the camera. Joining the extraordinary list of Bergman actresses, Pernilla August has become one of that gallery’s most accomplished and important practitioners, not only as the representation of Bergman’s mother but as probably the last major female character in his work (and how’s this fr spanning the millennia: She next appears in the new Star Wars). Compact, focused, interestingly pretty rather than classically beautiful, she makes Anna both intensely self-involved and intently outward-looking, a woman straining against a cage whose ultimate bars may be not society’s barriers but her own headstrong temperament.
Like many of Bergman’s actresses, August comes from the theater and knows how to occupy and enliven the entire camera frame. In the second sequence, when Anna and Henrik go on their country retreat but before she makes her confession, there’s a scene where she goes to a lake for a quick dip and he follows her to watch. When she comes out of the water, shivering though she’s shouted repeatedly, “it’s so warm!” he tries to embrace her. Her snake-like shrug in eluding his arms is as eloquent as any rebuff you can imagine; it’s like a full-body “no!”
Ullmann, the onscreen muse of the mid-60s trilogy that still looks like the pinnacle of Bergman’s work (Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame), directs Private Confessions with a great sense of balance and delicacy. Shot by Sven Nykvist, the film’s look is poised carefully between the colorful artificiality of old photos and theater sets and the subtleties of a less self-aware realism. Its visual allure, in fact, is such that the period decors effectively become a part of the drama, asking whether the passions Bergman registers are timeless or belong entirely to an era caught between Kierkegaard and Spielberg.
Bergman himself, of course, already belongs to history, which is why it’s so amazing that yet another stunningly fresh creation from him arrives before us at this late date. Looking
at Jacob, Anna says that his hands look like God’s must. There’s a similar biblical grandeur to Bergman’s late work. If we lived in a world where art rather than ignorance prevailed, Private Confessions would open on 3000 screens to Titanic-scale business. As is, the lucky few can line up at Film Forum to see this living patriarch look back at one named
Jacob and find an odd sympathy there, a recognition that behind all the base motives and truths that turn out to be lies, there is still the Truth, touched occasionally by artists.
Ullmann calls the film a “religious drama.” It certainly is that, and one of the rare movies not to dishonor the term.