Based on a script by the 82-year-old Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullman’s Faithless (Trolösa) is a study in desire, regret, and frightening selfishness. It’s clear that Ullman has absorbed much from her former director and lover, in terms of technique and approach: like Bergman’s work, Faithless is at once harsh and beautiful, lucid and dense, delicate and overwhelming. Apparently drawing again from the same events that Bergman described in his memoir, The Magic Lantern, the film tells a story of infidelity, but is less concerned with the act than with its consequences; it is especially focused on the ways that guilt and passion weave intricate patterns.
Faithless opens on an island, Faro, where an old man (Erland Josephson, a member of Bergman’s own acting company) lives alone in a house, all blond wood and sharp angles, with picture windows that look out on a grey and lonely sea. The fact that this man is named “Bergman” in the closing credits is hardly coincidental, though the character is a mix of what the filmmaker wrote as fiction and semi-autobiography, experience both enhanced and reduced to coherence and Ullman’s own filtering and understanding of the man and his self-invention. The old man is visited by a character he partly remembers and partly creates, Marianne (Lena Endre, who is tremendous in the very sort of complex role that Ullman used to play so brilliantly, in Persona , Cries and Whispers , Scenes From a Marriage , and Autumn Sonata ). Marianne is an actress (which grants her metaphorical and allusive weight). She’s also the nurturing mother of 9-year-old Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo) and contented wife of a world-famous conductor named Markus (Thomas Hanzon). Within minutes, Marianne is telling the old man how her happy life came apart, and though he listens attentively, it appears that he’s also anticipating the story she has to tell, as if he knows it all too well.
Lena Endre, Erland Josephson, Krister Henriksson, Thomas Hanzon, Michelle Gylemo
The beginning of the end comes when Marianne decides to have an affair with her husband’s best friend, David (Krister Henriksson), a film director. It’s soon clear that David is also the younger incarnation of “Bergman,” who, in asking Marianne to recount events from her perspective, may also be seeking explanations or at least contexts for his own behavior. In Marianne’s story, she and David plan to spend several weeks together in Paris, thinking that the sex will be “fun” and remain under control. After their tryst, which does indeed look mostly fabulous, the adulterous couple returns to Sweden, where their decision to end the affair doesn’t hold. Tellingly, they fall back into one another’s arms just as David is having a bad day at work on a play he is needy and neurotic, and Marianne loves to take care of him as much as she loves him. They’re found out by Markus. Ugly rages and recriminations follow, as the film spirals into a series of elaborate and refined self-flagellations. All the adults are ripe for blame Marianne leaves her daughter with the girl’s grandmother until she and David find an apartment large enough to house all three of them; Markus refuses to grant any kind of joint custody; David is mercilessly jealous of Marianne’s vaguest contacts with other men; his jealousy is focused, of course, on her possible interactions with Markus, a focus that has severe consequences late in the film.
For all the havoc the adults wreak on one another, the film’s most harrowing moments concern the child. At one point Marianne remembers for “Bergman” the moment when she tells Isabelle that she will have to live with her grandmother while mother moves in with David and father goes on a concert tour. The camera remains on Isabelle’s open, anguished face, almost translucent in the morning light. But the framing scenes underline the focus on Marianne’s feelings, as she engages in a devastating, extended monologue about her own distress on seeing Isabelle’s “straight little back” as she walks out through her mother’s bedroom doorway.
If not for the specter of the child who is traumatized repeatedly, by her mother, father, and David it might be tempting to read the film as a study in gendered differences: both men behave as if they “own” Marianne’s body (and soul), while she is more inclined to forgiveness and tolerance of their bad behavior. You might even be able to extend this reading to encompass director Ullman’s generous treatment of the “Bergman” character, as a man feeling damaged, guilt-ridden, and not a little self-pitying. That Ullman’s film appears to forgive the character, or at least to display his misery as if it’s enough already, is both touching and irritating. And frankly, I found myself wondering, when all the adults had been accounted for by film’s end, what had happened to Isabelle.
Certainly, the film revisits Bergman’s most vaunted and well-rehearsed themes loss, culpability, and remorse. But it also offers up Marianne as his counterpart, a woman so self-centered and incapable of self-examination (at least when she’s in the throes of passion) that her capacity to grant absolution is questionable at best. To their credit, neither Bergman nor Ullman has shown much interest in easy resolutions in the past. In this way, the discomfort that lingers after watching Faithless feels both familiar and appropriate.