The premise of every documentary about a celebrity is more or less the same: We don't know this person as well as we think we do. In recent years a number of filmmakers have doubled down on this usually correct assumption. These documentarians work entirely from their subjects' own audio recordings and journals, as in I Am Ali, Listen to Me Marlon, and now Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words. Stig Björkman, a fellow Swede, relies on narrated passages from the three-time Oscar-winner's letters and diaries to tell her life story.
This begins with Bergman's recollections of 1929, a most tragic year in the future star's life. She did poorly in school, was sent away to her aunt's in Germany, and several relatives (including her father) died. She was only 14. "All I wish for now is a happier new year," the narrator (Alicia Vikander of Ex Machina and The Danish Girl) recites longingly. "What will the new year bring?"
As with most years of most lives, the answer was a mixed bag. Bergman would go on to be considered among the most enduring screen icons in the young medium's history — officially the fourth-greatest, according to the American Film Institute — first by making a name for herself in the Swedish film industry and then by transitioning into Hollywood stardom with Intermezzo. That kind of trajectory is easy to conceive of now, but almost unprecedented at the time.
Vikander, another actress from Sweden who's successfully broken into Hollywood, reads these excerpts in the original Swedish — if nothing else, In Her Own Words lives up to its title in the most literal sense. These words are set to grainy footage of Sweden, scenes from Bergman's movies of both the studio and home variety, and everything in between. Some of the marginal details are among the most captivating: her fascination with Joan of Arc and misconceptions of certain co-stars (turns out Cary Grant was surprisingly mellow and down-to-earth).
The actress seems to have taken her newfound fame and numerous accolades in stride, humbled but self-aware. (The reaction to her scandalous affair with Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini, whom she later married and had three children with, was more difficult to deal with.) One of these kids was, of course, Isabella Rossellini — the kind of talent who could probably only result from the union of a preternaturally gifted actress and a master of Italian Neorealism. Bergman starred in Casablanca and won Oscars for her performances in Gaslight, Anastasia, and Murder on the Orient Express, but her work in the series of films she made with her husband is something else entirely.
Isabella is among the talking heads discussing her mother, as well as the one who originally proposed the idea of making this documentary to Björkman. "She went where the wind took her," her sister Isotta says after dismissing even the possibility of a Mommie Dearest-like tell-all being written about their mother. Bergman's children are frank about her work taking her away from them, but also understanding of the impulses and obligations that made it necessary. By Bergman's very nature, In Her Own Words is neither the hagiography its ilk often becomes nor the warts-and-all confessional its title implies.
Accessing the inner world of a public figure is an inherently voyeuristic affair, and the best films of this kind manage to be revelatory rather than just revealing. Björkman's best quality as a documentarian is ultimately a double-edged sword: He's too content to let his subject do all the talking.
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words
Directed by Stig Björkman
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema