The End Of The Affair

Liv Ullmann talks about finishing her 'marriage' with Ingmar Bergman

New York-

My shrink is fond of saying that there are six people in any marriage: the two spouses and each one's parents. The trick to having a good marriage, the therapist continues, is getting the undesired elders out of the house, as it were--or at least their undesired parts. (And if you can't get them out of the house, you might at least keep them out of the bed.) But marriage--as I believe anyone who has been married for more than an hour knows well--possesses an almost supernatural power to provoke sudden visitations by the spirits of ancestors. And these familial ghosts are not often friendly.

Ingmar Bergman is a man who knows marriage, having been married six times. And Liv Ullmann is a woman who knows Bergman, having acted in 10 of the Swedish master's movies, including the new Saraband, which premiered in the United States two weeks ago at the New York Film Festival. (Ullmann also directed Bergman's semi-autobiographical screenplay for Faithless--and gave birth to one of his many children.) A 30- years-later sequel to the classic Scenes from a Marriage (which screens at Oak Street this weekend in its stunning five-hour version), Saraband quite literally dramatizes the proven theory that marital scenes continue to play out well after divorce or even death. (The old line that ends with "do us part" hardly tells the whole story.)

The way they were: Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman in 'Scenes from a Marriage'
Cinematograph AB
The way they were: Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman in 'Scenes from a Marriage'

As befits the subject, this latest union of director and star appears haunted by their earlier one. Revisiting Marriage's long-divorced couple (Ullmann and Erland Josephson), who meet for the first time in decades to deal with what their failed partnership has left in its wake (besides damaged children), Saraband has been widely announced as the veteran filmmaker's final work for the screen. (Sony Classics plans to release it sometime next year.) Bergman, now approaching 90 years of age and keeping largely to himself on the remote island of Fârö, didn't make the trip to New York. But, like the body of work to which his final film alludes, he's here at the festival in spirit--with Ullmann as his medium.

"There was a magic to it all," Ullmann tells reporters at the Saraband press conference, speaking of how her uncannily ubiquitous director appeared to remain seated before her during takes even as his cumbersome digital-video setups kept him apart from the action. "He would be far away in a corner, and I would think, 'Oh, for this long monologue, I really would like to see him close.' But then suddenly it was like there were secret smoke signals going on between us. All the technicians [on the set] were doing their [own] thing, so when [the scene] was over, no one else knew that [the two of us] had been like Indians [laughs]. I'm just telling you this because it's symbolic of what it means to work with Ingmar. You feel you're part of something more exceptional than just working with another person."

Ullmann's abiding love for the director is palpable--as is that of seemingly everyone gathered here to glean the details of his mysterious methods. But love isn't what Marriage and its sequel are about. Much to their credit, these films--which carry additional weight at a time when history is busy repeating itself in the cruelest ways-- have more to do with the nagging persistence of anguish through generations. Which isn't exactly a new topic for a director who has long been known--lovingly, of course--as the King of Pain.

"Like all great artists--like Beethoven-- [Bergman] has things that always come back [in his work]," says Ullmann. "You put somewhat different colors on them, and they change somewhat with the years, but they are the same themes. I think only the really great artists dare to stay with a theme and explore it until their last..."

Ullmann's lengthy hesitation is more than an actor's dramatic pause. It seems to reflect, yet again, the endurance of pain above all else--even above one's innate impulse to be rid of it. Until their last...? Finally, quietly, she finishes. "Day."

The final passage of Bergman's monumental Scenes from a Marriage ends with the feuding couple in bed together, having determined to enjoy--at least until morning--the resolution of another excruciatingly candid exchange of words. The dramatic climax of Saraband (a film Bergman has dedicated to his late wife Ingrid) carries a faint echo to the earlier Scenes. Here, Josephson's Johan drags his deteriorating body down a darkened hall to the room of his visiting ex-wife Marianne and raises a clinched, quivering fist--either to knock on her door or break it down. Literally howling in agonized indecision of whether to risk forging some new connection with a woman to whom he's already said too much, Johan falls to the floor and sobs--at which point Bergman's camera suddenly, shockingly pulls away, seeming to leave the old man alone with nothing but the inevitability of death. Bergman, to whom the harsh Young Turks of the Danish Dogme movement would seem to owe almost everything, isn't going gently into film history.

As further evidence, perhaps, that even unmarried human beings gravitate toward pain like moths to flame, a festival reporter rises from his seat to pose the punishingly obvious question, the one we're all pondering. Was the final day of shooting Bergman's final film difficult for the director and his muse?

"It was very emotional," replies Ullmann. "Because I believe he isn't coming back to the film studio. I'm sure he isn't. And he knew that. At the end [of the shoot], we were going to have a big party; people had already started decorating. And Ingmar wasn't going to be part of that party. He said, 'I have a headache.' He wanted to leave. He didn't want to be part of saying goodbye. Most of the people in the studio that day knew they'd never see him again. And he knew he'd never see them. When he was finished working, he just stood in the doorway of the studio and said, very quickly, 'Bye-bye. We'll see each other.'"

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