Close-Up and Personal: Exploring Ingmar Bergman’s Faces

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“The close-up, the correctly illuminated, directed and acted close-up of an actor is and remains the height of cinematography. There is nothing better. That incredibly strange and mysterious contact you can suddenly experience with another soul through an actor’s gaze. A sudden thought, blood that drains away or blood that pumps into the face, the trembling nostrils, the suddenly shiny complexion or mute silence, that is to me some of the most incredible and fascinating moments you will ever experience.” — Ingmar Bergman

More than any other director in the history of film Ingmar Bergman used depictions of the human face as a means to probe the complexities of our innermost thoughts and feelings. How we see the world is a reflection of our lived experience and this knowledge is key to approaching the frequently austere nature of Bergman’s films. Part of the reason his work still fascinates viewers is because of what it can potentially reveal about ourselves as opposed to merely showcasing the lives of others. As such his films often feel like they have a mirror function where dialogue between characters actually stands in for a discussion of ideas between the director and his audience.

The front of the Criterion Collection box set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema presents a still image from the Swedish director’s 1966 masterpiece Persona. An imposing close-up of a woman’s face gazes out at us while the right arm of a child occupies the foreground, as though reaching out in maternal instinct. It remains the single most appropriate image from any Bergman film to represent the scope of this enormous collection — emerging more as a symbol than an image — since hands and faces are equally important devices in nearly every one of his films. Understanding this we might come to see their importance in relation to his vision as a communicator of images and words from across the divide of the cinema screen.

Aside from corralling some of the most influential films ever committed to celluloid, the box set boasts a treasure trove of bonus material that enriches the thirty-nine films contained within, forming a veritable embarrassment of riches for the analytically inclined. Somewhere in this footage is long time Bergman collaborator Liv Ullmann discussing his directing process:

“A film director is often like a cannibal, and a cannibal watches people, listens to people, looks at them…and uses them.”

This somewhat grim analogy feels especially apt in relation to Bergman’s bountiful close-up shots. His films are literally brimming with faces that precede and echo uncertain conclusions. From a purely visual point of view, these close-ups define his work. They are his identification mark, his alpha and omega.

Stock Company

Bergman collaborated with a limited number of actors across his films, building up an ensemble crew that would go to extremes to fulfil his high standards. Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson clocked the most roles with nineteen and fifteen respectively. Yet over time he became known as a director of women and it’s evident that most of the films starring his recurring women actors were written to revolve around distinctly female experiences. It is women who often dominate the course of the film’s action, who make logical relationship choices where men cannot, who band together in camaraderie to support one another where their male counterparts fall down.

Bergman immortalised the women in his films, magnifying their undeniable presence and in turn transformed them into archetypal goddesses of the silver screen. Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and the aforementioned Liv Ullmann came to represent something of a trinity in his stock company. If Bergman teased out the genius in all three then they in turn channelled their extraordinary individual emotional capabilities in response, establishing towering artistic peaks in a Himalayan body of work full of them. Most importantly these women imbue Bergman’s films with a sensuality and tangibility that belies the intellect of the scripts. All three were romantically involved with Bergman at some point, but knowing this somehow only heightens the impact of their performances with knowledge of what might have taken place off camera, behind the curtain.

Ingrid Thulin, Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnel Lindblom also worked with Bergman many times, each contributing something unique and crucial to films such as Wild Strawberries, Brink of Life, The Rite, The Silence and Smiles of a Summer Night.

To be sure, it is women who made Bergman, not he who made them.

Contemporary critics might be quick to point out a directorial style that feels like exploitation of women in the name of art. Yet at the time, Bergman’s depiction of women in film was considered refreshing, allowing them the chance to explore their roles with much more depth than the stereotypical ones being doled out at other film companies. He afforded them multiple lead roles and gave them top billing over their male counterparts in well over a dozen films — a benchmark by even today’s standards for women in film.

In the 1950s Bergman gained a reputation for austere family dramas but in the early 1960s he began exploring themes that were increasingly melancholic as he mined his own despondent childhood experiences for creativity. It’s this bleakness that is perhaps one of the first things that comes to mind with uninitiated audiences. The result is a body of work so personal it feels as though it were written on the skin. Given the (very) long shadow his work casts over the history of film it’s hardly surprising that he remains an enigma to this day, overlooked by even the most adventurous of cinephiles.

These hasty assumptions of Bergman’s work are a symptom of the notion that his work is too serious or too demanding for modern audiences to engage with, that they prevent them from delving deeper. Another common misconception is that his films are too concerned with bourgeois conceits tailored for a special breed of art-film lover (and therefore cannot possibly address ‘real world’ problems).

Yet Bergman’s excavation of the human condition remains accessible to all. It requires a level of willingness and self awareness to arrive at its truths, but it is certainly more relatable than the popular styles of commercial Hollywood blockbusters, both then and now. In stark contrast with an industry that wants us to forget our woes for two hours and sink into something feel-good, Bergman holds a mirror up to ourselves and forces us to search for answers that many would prefer to keep locked away.

In the 1952 film Waiting Women, a group of sisters-in-law occupy a summerhouse and wait for their husbands to return. Over the course of the film they recount stories from past and present relationships and come to reveal intimate details that might otherwise have gone unspoken. The film makes heavy use of flashback and utilises a dining room table setting at the beginning as a launchpad for the women’s anecdotes, combining drama and comic humour in a way that was rare for Bergman’s early work prior to Smiles of a Summer Night.

This foundational scene is a great example of the way Bergman could capture multiple faces in the same shot. As the conversation deepens it allows cinematographer Gunnar Fischer to simultaneously hold their faces from close and afar, panning across and zooming in and out over an unbroken four minutes. As they each confess of relationship dissatisfaction, others within shot are often perfectly still, their gaze downcast or focused somewhere off screen. As such Bergman captured multiple angles (and moods) of different faces at once, representing something of a collective malaise. It’s a technique that was later perfected in the supper scene towards the end of The Seventh Seal.

Through a Glass Darkly

Studies of Bergman’s films often cite a continued fixation with religion, yet only a handful of his films deal explicitly with this subject matter, namely a trilogy from the early 1960s where its characters struggle with faith and the idea of a silent god. We can discern from this and other films that Bergman suggests god is inherent through our relationship with our family and our capacity to love. Therefore if god is absent, it’s because of an absence of love.

An unwritten rule for his characters seems to be that they must make god in their own image; the notion of a world without a god to those who believe can be both a terrifying and liberating experience. His films often draw a conclusion that a life without love simply has no meaning, that familial love is the closest we come to god on earth. Yet the removal of these crutches doesn’t mean we are any better equipped at tackling what life has to throw at us. Love in Bergman’s films — as defined between a man and a woman — is frequently portrayed as a nefarious battleground. Time and time again so very few of his characters are afforded the luxury of love on its own terms.

In Bergman’s films love is never sugar-coated. It is devalued, taken advantage of, contorted. His characters search for meaning in love, for love to give their lives value, to justify their existence. Men destroy women with it and women destroy men with it. They scald each other in vitriolic rages of anger and revulsion. Or they chastise themselves. Recurring existential themes became the director’s trademark: death, social isolation, the intangibility of truth, humiliation, shame, rejection, childhood trauma. Yet it is love and the pursuit of it — perhaps the most ceaseless of life’s endeavours — that is the glue binding most of these themes together.

Bergman shot many of his mid-career films on the island of Fårö, the first being Through a Glass Darkly (also the first in the aforementioned faith trilogy) in 1961. Its central figure Karin (Harriet Andersson) seeks refuge at a family summer house on a remote island along with her husband (Max von Sydow), father (Gunnar Björnstrand) and younger brother (Lars Passgård) after being dispatched from a hospital for psychiatric observation.

The film’s isolated vistas and shorelines are captured by cinematographer Sven Nykvist who floods the scenes with natural light, injecting a realism that was a revelation to Bergman’s films. Many of its outdoor scenes are caught in the twilight of the long Swedish summer, drawing on a palette of grey shades that blurs the distinction between dusk and dawn. These landscape panoramas highlight the isolation of the island and its key wayfarers but they also serve as a marked contrast to the black and white monochromatic expressionism of Bergman’s earlier films, which favoured controlled studio lighting under the command of Gunnar Fischer’s iconic cinematography.

The film features no more than four characters and was initially conceived as a chamber play. As such, Bergman imagined the four characters as adopting the role of a string quartet. Given their already fragile associations, this raises all sorts of fascinating questions about the interplay of the characters and their ability to function as a unit. It also allows the audience to get to know their stories in much more depth than they would in a film with a larger ensemble (think Fanny and Alexander, which resembles an orchestra with dozens of characters all contributing their bit).

In one of the film’s most critical scenes, Karin wakes in the middle of the night by a foghorn and is drawn upstairs to an empty disused room. As though caught in a dream, she hugs the wall closely and turns to gaze out of the window behind her. By doing so she also peers directly into the camera, which now operates with dual purpose by bringing the viewer into an uncomfortable — perhaps unwilling — tryst.

Karin’s attention is diverted sideways as she imagines voices emanating from a crack in the wallpaper across the room. Her wide eyes, parted lips and controlled breathing convey distress but also a desire to submit to what she believes is god beckoning her from beyond the wall. Sure enough she gravitates to the centre of the room, falls to her knees and begins to writhe almost sexually as though offering herself forth into the unknown.

Harriet Andersson’s astonishing performance is captured in close-ups from a number of angles, suggesting a mixture of fear and unbridled eroticism. With this performance and in others such as Sawdust and Tinsel and Summer with Monika, Andersson stakes a claim for the most physically aware of Bergman’s frequent collaborators. The professionalism with which she tackled the emotional complexity of her roles is emboldened by a bodily confidence and hunger in the face that one feels would be otherwise difficult to impart in words alone.

Andersson famously stared deep into the camera whilst smoking a cigarette towards the end of Summer with Monika, preceding — and galvanising — Bergman’s move towards a more female-centric orientation the following decade.

Persona

Nowhere is this more explicit than in Persona (so named to reflect the Latin word for “mask”) in which Bergman oscillates between direct close-ups of faces that break the fourth wall and long shots of shoreline vistas, creating a visual style that seems to wax and wane with the shifting relationship of its two leads — the selectively mute stage actress Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) and her overly chatty care nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson). Isolated at a beach house rehabilitation facility, the two women form a bond that feels increasingly inseparable and — according to general consensus — ‘become’ each other over the course of the film.

In the documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander we are given access to discussions between Nykvist and Bergman over how to shoot particular scenes, where the aim was to never allow the viewer to be aware of the camera. With Persona it almost feels like the opposite is true as well as a departure from what came before. It is a film dominated by close-ups, more so than any they made before or after. If we can discern anything from the narrative of Persona it’s a preoccupation with dualities — of real and imagined, of what is hidden and revealed, of silence and language — suggesting that not everything we see is to be taken plainly at face value.

In the film’s most iconic scene, Elisabet and Alma stand side by side and begin to ‘absorb’ each other through a series of gestures that feel almost performative in nature, all the while observing themselves in a mirror to study each other with marked fascination. Bergman splices the two together and emphasises their physical similarities — their so-called respective “bad sides” — perhaps suggesting that none of us exist in the world without outside influence; who we are is shaped and moulded by those around us. The gaze into the mirror can also be seen as a means of looking back — into or through the camera and ultimately back at the viewer. Suddenly we are all in on the act, as though the two women were pulling us across the barrier of the screen and into their world.

The film was a radical left-turn for Bergman whose career had slumped followed a series of high watermark achievements at the turn of the decade. It’s been poured over by professionals from across the spectrum (and not just the creative arts) ever since, perplexing audiences and critics alike in much the same way Mulholland Drive has over the last two decades. Indeed, the similarities between those two films is striking. It’s a film about itself — about cinema — which sounds dubious at best. Perhaps ultimately it wants to be left without literary interpretation or understanding. To simply watch and feel Persona is more important than any definitive explanation.

Cries and Whispers

The same could be said for the colossal gut-punch of Cries and Whispers from 1972 where what is captured in the face supersedes dialogue. The film takes place in the late 19th century at a Swedish mansion house where two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), keep vigil over their terminally ill sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Maria and Karin are more concerned with self-loathing and their own hatred of one another to afford Agnes the care and attention she needs.

The house’s humble servant Anna (Kari Sylwan) is the only one who caters to Agnes with care, unafraid to provide her with continuous emotional and physical support. As such she is pitted between the cancer-stricken Agnes and her emotionally unavailable sisters. Maria and Karin’s husbands are occasionally present, along with Agnes’ doctor, but they are mostly consigned to the fringes of the picture. When they are present on-screen they are portrayed as weak and ineffectual, completely unconcerned with the emotional requirements of the women in their lives.

Unlike Persona, Cries and Whispers is a film rich in texture and elaborate costume design, forming much of its visual identity around a saturated palette of blood red. Shades of crimson were chosen to convey internal pain, death and suffering as well as to provoke a mix of dread and passion that confounds the viewer’s senses. What plays out is a portrayal of grief rendered through a series of compelling close-ups, fades to red and chilling encounters often lacking in dialogue. In Cries and Whispers, what is not spoken feels more important than what is.

Once again women are portrayed as intuitive where men are not, continually searching for meaning in their suffering like in almost all Bergman films. In doing so they share a profound agony with one another both physical and emotional that can be fixed by neither faith nor medicine. That they cannot reconcile this shared agony — indeed, even acknowledging it seems too painful a cross to bear — is one of their many afflictions, collectively or otherwise. Karin and Maria’s internal trauma is just that: internal. They never find a way to express their anguish. As such their strife is mostly implicit and depicted by masterful use of colour and costume as a visual guide and guise. Agnes’ pain is of course physical and it’s one that she unleashes in torrents of unbearable agony in some of the most disturbing and terrifying portrayals of sickness ever depicted in the history of film.

Removing the mask

Bergman spent his life mining his own experiences for inspiration, giving life to the cinema in the hope that cinema would give life back. He once said that “old age is like climbing a mountain,” and that “the higher you get, the more tired and breathless you become, but your views become more extensive.” Advancing into his own old age he said he could no longer watch his own films as he found them too miserable. Perhaps he journeyed through his own Dark Night of the Soul, arriving on the other side with renewed vigour to make a film as opulent, heartwarming and allegorical as Fanny and Alexander.

Bergman approached every film as though it was his last, but Fanny and Alexander represents something of a real parting gift to his audience that had never been seen before. In a strange way it’s often cited as the perfect entry point into his vast filmography. Whilst it’s true that it revives a little bit of everything from across his films due to its massive ensemble cast, it could also prove a confounding toe-dipper. It wasn’t the first Bergman film I watched and it wasn’t the last. Instead I caught it just around what I consider a turning point: the transition into really beginning to understand what his work was about and how it functions in reflecting our own psychological questioning.

In realising this I also understood that my fascination with Bergman’s work stems from an unquenched desire to interpret more of myself. It’s a level of self-awareness that I’m only just beginning to comprehend as I settle into my thirties. It certainly wasn’t present ten years ago when pursuit of the pleasure principle was the primary means of assessing my happiness and self-worth.

For Bergman the human face was a source of fascination because it represented the mask that we wear to protect ourselves from the horrors of the world, yet he was convinced that sooner or later the mask slips — whether we let it or not. The removal of that mask is aligned with self-awareness and through its removal we can begin to live our lives differently than we did before. Bergman’s work is often challenging to navigate for various reasons, but above all because it confronts you with yourself. You only really get out of it what you put in— much like life itself. It’s there if you want it.

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