Liv Ullmann says she did not want to make this movie. When she was approached several years ago about the idea of appearing in a documentary about her romance, friendship and working relationship with the legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, she had one question: Why?
“I felt like I’d answered so many questions about Ingmar, about our films and about our times together,” she says, sitting in a posh Old Montreal hotel. “I’ve become a bit bored by these questions over the years.”
But filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar persisted, and Ullmann finally agreed to a meeting with him. “I’m not easily charmed,” she says. “But I liked the way he talked and his enthusiasm. I thought perhaps it would be an adventure to go back and return to the memories.”
The result is Liv & Ingmar, a feature-length documentary chronicling the relationship between the man many regard as one of the greatest filmmakers and one of his muses, which had its Canadian premiere at the World Film Festival this week. Their beginnings were the stuff of scandal: Both were married to other people when they first met; they fell in love when she was in her 20s and he in his 40s. They had a daughter together, collaborated on 12 films – among them such landmarks as Persona (1966), Shame (1968), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Autumn Sonata (1978 – and maintained an intimate friendship even after their romance ended.
Ullmann recounted much of her romance with Bergman and their working relationship in her 1977 autobiography, Changing. Akolkar came across the book in a library in India in 2006: “It really stayed with me,” he says. “I think when you’ve gone through so much in life, it takes a certain kind of person to tell their story with such dignity. It’s such an honest book, but never sensational.”
Akolkar says he was committed to making the documentary with or without Ullmann’s participation. But she finally agreed, and spent two days in and around Bergman’s old house in Sweden, where she goes into detail about how their lives intertwined. As well as her testimonial, there are passages read from Bergman’s autobiography The Magic Lantern, and clips from his films.
“I had never thought about how connected the films are to our actual lives,” Ullmann says. “But when I saw this movie, I saw that connection clearly. The film is actually a very different one than I would have made. I am very happy with the way it turned out. It made me see things I hadn’t before.”
While Liv & Ingmar does reflect their profound and resilient bond, it also shows the darker side of Bergman. Ullmann recalls how controlling he could be, how for years she lived in what felt like seclusion in their home, and remembers him having huge walls built around the house. “While we lived together, he asked me to keep a diary about my life. He used those diaries later for Scenes From a Marriage. It was very much based on me. I gave him the diaries because I wanted him to see who I was when he wasn’t listening to me.”
And while they did have one daughter together, Liv & Ingmar makes scant mention of Bergman as a parent. “He was a warm parent, but he wasn’t always there. He was a father who was more involved with his films and his actors. He was very caught up in his art, and those who were doing the art with him.”
If there is one outstanding surprise, it is Bergman’s clownish side, something one wouldn’t guess from watching his oeuvre, which is generally pretty dour. There is footage of Bergman and Ullmann joking around on set in between takes. “The thing people don’t know about him is how big and childish his sense of humour was,” Ullman says. “When I was directing a film, he came on the set on the last day of shooting. We were shooting a scene set in a bedroom, and the actress was to get into bed. He asked if he could hide under the covers and surprise her. When the actress arrived there was no way she couldn’t see him – it was obvious someone was under the covers. So we all had to pretend we didn’t notice him. He thought this was hilarious.”
And that, argues Ullmann, is part of what made Bergman the artist he was: “What was beautiful was, he was childish in the best way. That was part of his genius, because he kept in touch with the child within him. Unfortunately, that child was scared, and things happened to him, which is why his films were so dark.”
And during the two days Ullmann spent being interviewed for the film, she had one unexpected surprise. While at Bergman’s residence, the housecleaner pointed to his teddy bear, and told Ullmann there was something hidden in it. “I picked it up and realized he had kept a note I had sent to him 15 years ago. It was a letter I’d written thanking him, a touching note. He had kept it in his lucky teddy bear right up until he died.
“I guess this film made me realize that I’m not tired of talking about Ingmar and our times together. He said I was his Stradivarius. I was very lucky to have him, and to have our friendship.”