Faithless is directed by Liv Ullmann, but the screenwriter is Ingmar Bergman, so, of course, it immediately enters the Canon of the Gloomy Swede. When Bergman announced in 1982 that after Fanny and Alexander he wouldn’t direct any more movies, most people assumed he was a tease, pulling a premature, Frank Sinatra-style fadeaway. But Bergman has stayed true to his word; although he’s directed a number of films for television and much theater, he has resolutely stayed away from feature filmmaking except for the screenplays he has contributed, such as Sunday’s Children, directed by his son Daniel, and Private Confessions, also directed by Ullmann. The films he writes are as intimately keyed to his lifelong obsessions with death and alienation and loneliness as any of the movies he has directed; by farming them out to his son and to trusted long-term artistic associates, he is, in a sense, preserving not only his voice but his way of seeing. Not that there would be much chance of mistaking a script like Faithless for anybody else’s. It begins with a quotation from Botho Strauss that could serve as the multimarried Bergman’s own: “No common failure, whether it be sickness, or bankruptcy, or professional misfortune, will reverberate so cruelly or deeply in the unconscious as a divorce. It penetrates the seat of all anguish, forcing it to life. With one cut, it slices more deeply than life can ever reach.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Faithless is almost abstractly spare in the way it isolates its suffering characters, and so we are made to feel, as we often did in the Bergman-directed films, that we are viewing the essence of sorrow. It begins with the image of an aged, watery-eyed film and stage director, whose name is Bergman and who is played by Erland Josephson, as he conjures his dead muse. This muse, the actress Marianne (Lena Endre), sits with Bergman in the cryptlike silence of his study, with a mournful oceanscape – what else? – visible in the distance. He encourages her to recount her long-ago infidelity with David (Krister Henriksson), a director and the best friend of her famous conductor husband, Markus (Thomas Hanzon). David, as we realize from the many flashbacks issuing from her remembrances, is the younger, 40-ish Bergman; Marianne’s recounting serves as both expiation and a torment to the old man.
Liv Ullmann does not appear in Faithless, but her offscreen presence inevitably casts its own shadow on the proceedings. Ullmann not only was Bergman’s cinematic vision of femininity both idealized and harrowing but also had a daughter by him before he separated from her. It may be that in giving her this script, drawn in part from an autobiographical passage in his memoir, The Magic Lantern, Bergman was seeking forgiveness for damages done to her – while still controlling the terms of the penance. But Ullmann apparently has shifted the emphasis of Bergman’s script to Marianne and Markus’s daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo); it is she who sits in silent judgment on her parents and their best friend.
And yet, though Faithless is touted as the rare movie in which the agonies of infidelity and divorce are convincingly visited upon a child, Isabelle is not the emotional focus of the film. She is too symbolic a presence, too much the hurt, watchful conscience of the piece, to ever fully draw us into her despair. To some extent, all of the people in Faithless are too symbolic of suffering, as they often are in Bergman. He can be a master psychologist, but his ambitions are loftier; he wants his characters to represent states of feeling, especially anguished feeling, that render them iconic. The byplay among Marianne and David and Markus is almost always momentous; we rarely get the little fillips of affection and ditheriness and boredom that can make marital relations and infidelities seem more humanly true on the screen than all this high-toned caterwauling punctuated by a soundtrack of Brahms quartets. There is no helping hand to lift us up, no redemption for the characters’ sins. Only an artist who truly gloried in ingloriousness would so obsessively work out his themes of anguish across an entire career.
Bergman has been far better at working out these themes than anything in Faithless would suggest. The cast members don’t expand the movie’s meanings, as they often did when the actors Bergman used truly were iconic: not just Ullmann and Max von Sydow but Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin and many others. The actors in Faithless don’t hold the screen in the same way; if Erland Josephson, a Bergman regular, seems to be out of a mood-memory play that is fading before our eyes, the other performers, at least visually, never seem larger than themselves, and Ullmann doesn’t frame them in ways that set off the imagination.
What she does achieve is a couple of scenes of lacerating power, particularly a sequence in which Markus confronts Marianne in bed with David, and her nude lover, with a mixture of fear and levity, scrambles to keep himself covered; and a spritz of venom toward the end when Markus sexually humiliates Marianne in return for his giving up custody of their daughter – a moment made ultimately even more venomous by David’s unsparing response to her humiliation. In scenes like these, we are too caught up in the frenzy to register that we are in Bergman country (though, of course, we are). Instead, for a brief burst, we’re captive in that puzzling, awful terrain of recognizable people clawing through their real and very uniconic misery.
In brief: The Invisible Circus, set in 1977, is about the younger sister (Jordana Brewster) of a hippie-ish free spirit turned terrorist (Cameron Diaz) and her attempt to make sense of her sibling’s mysterious death. Blythe Danner plays the girls’ mother, and even though she’s not around a lot, she gives her role such a moment-to-moment richness that her presence only confirms what, even before Meet the Parents, I long bemoaned: One of our three or four greatest actresses is frittering away her gifts playing cameos.
Directed by Liv Ullmann; screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Erland Josephson, Lena Endre, Krister Henriksson, and Thomas Hanzon.
The Invisible Circus
Starring Jordana Brewster, Cameron Diaz, and Blythe Danner.