Until the first half-hour of Faithless, I had no idea how little I had missed Ingmar Bergman. I don’t mean the director of the great, melancholy love farce Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the haunting dream play Persona (1966), or the most sublime of all filmed operas, The Magic Flute (1975). I mean the solemn, prattling navel-gazer of Scenes From a Marriage (1973)—the pampered genius who sought to elevate narcissistic injuries into proof of the hopelessness of human relationships and the absence of God. I mean the aging artist who, no longer able to get away with rationalizing his egotism, has opportunistically decided to flagellate himself for it. When you’re at Bergman’s time of life, you need to find new ways of attracting attention.
This hushed, whimpery movie—which has been widely acclaimed—is directed by Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s one-time leading lady and lover, who presents his screenplay as if she simultaneously wants to venerate and expose the old bastard. She retains his creaky memory-play framework. Nowadays, Bergman can’t even begin to tell a story without reminding us how difficult it is to tell a story. So the film opens with Bergman himself (played by the elderly Erland Josephson) sitting at his desk and sensing a spectral presence: “Is anyone there? Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” Out of the shadows comes Marianne (Lena Endre), a pertly attractive, mid-thirtyish woman who might be fictional or might have actually existed. It isn’t really much of a mystery: You can find her real-life counterpart, Gunilla Holger (Gun), in Chapter 13 of Bergman’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern (“The voice of genius!”—Woody Allen).
In any case, Marianne is now a sort of muse, and there’s plenty of art-versus-life throat-clearing before Faithless gets underway—or what passes for underway in a Liv Ullmann film. In the “story,” Marianne is married to a famous conductor named Markus (Thomas Hanzon), whose travels leave his wife and Bergman’s alter ego, a moody theater director named David (Krister Henriksson), free to form a “brother-sister” relationship that gradually leads to “incest.” Bergman wasn’t an especially carnal director, and Ullmann is even more sexless, so their eventual coupling is presented almost whimsically; and Marianne’s decision to leave her wealthy and accomplished husband and risk losing her daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo), is a real head-scratcher. Hoping for “a diversion before death,” Bergman presses the ghost of Marianne on why she yielded to David’s advances, but the muse is mute. Or else, more likely, the real Bergman has no clue what Marianne/Gun was ever thinking.
Faithless only snaps into focus when first Markus and then David treat Marianne brutally: the former by demanding that she submit to him sexually if she wants custody of her child, the latter by treating her like a whore when she does. This is the movie’s real business: to show the way in which this lovely free spirit is ground down by two monstrously self-centered men. David proves to be a sufferer of “retroactive jealousy”—he makes Marianne disclose her previous lovemaking experiences so that he can eviscerate her for them down the road. But he’s a piker beside Markus, who contrives a scheme involving the little girl that’s so garishly awful that it belongs in the annals of psychiatric literature.
Ultimately, Bergman’s gaze returns to himself, but not in ways that shed light: Faithless is almost entirely insight-free. Bergman gives no indication that he understands the link between his alter ego’s “retroactive jealousy” and compulsive womanizing, and he seems to regard David’s chief failing to be not having supported Marianne at her most vulnerable moment—not seducing her to begin with. The movie might be framed as a wracked recitation of his sins—with the old man trudging forlornly along a winter beach and into the gray mist—but even his final admissions seem dodgy and self-serving.
It’s significant that, in Faithless, Marianne aborts the child she conceives with David, so that when he takes up with an actress, there are few loose ends. In life, the child was born. But Bergman’s real life on screen would be pretty hard to believe. He abandoned his first wife and child for another woman, then abandoned that woman (and their children) for Gun (breaking up Gun’s family), then left Gun and their child (with whom he subsequently had no contact) for the actress Harriett Andersson. More unions (and abandonments) down the road, he broke up Ullmann’s marriage and fathered another child (Linn Ullmann, a well-known Norwegian journalist), whom he rarely saw and didn’t support.
I dwell on this tabloid material (about which Bergman has written freely) not to consign the old director to hell but to suggest why Bergman’s/David’s inhumanity to Gun/Marianne in Faithless seems, as climactic admissions go, so thin and limited. The movie barely scratches the surface. His treatment of Gun would seem to be the least of his sins—albeit the one that it’s easiest to wring his hands over publicly, Gun being dead and therefore unlikely to show up on his doorstep except as a ghostly muse. (“Is anyone there? Oh, it’s you. What do you want?”) Scandinavia, meanwhile, positively teems with fatherless Bergmans, who have yet to make an appearance in one of the great man’s scripts.