Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Here's Bergman's 19th Nervous Breakdown

Film: Face to Face (Ansikte mot Ansikte)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Geek out enough on movies, and eventually you’ll wind up watching Ingmar Bergman. Whether or not you’re watching his actual movies or just the legion of films and directors who were inspired by him, you can’t escape the massive shadow he has cast on the film world. There’s a reason, though, that Face to Face (or Ansikte mot Ansikte as it is called in Swedish) isn’t listed in the same breath as films like The Seventh Seal or Persona (or about a dozen others). This isn’t a bad film, but it’s one that more or less hinges entirely on the performance of Liv Ullmann. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Persona, but not nearly the same film. It’s telling, in fact, that while it was nominated for both Best Director and Best Actress for Bergman and Ullmann respectively, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

Essentially, this is the story of a woman’s mental and emotional breakdown. The interesting level of meta that is superimposed on this is that the woman in question, Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Ullmann), is a psychiatrist. It is, more or less, the same ground that Bergman trod with Through a Glass Darkly and Persona both with this added wrinkle of the sufferer being more acutely and professionally aware of her own neuroses. It’s also longer than both of those films, which makes it a much harder sit.

Like so much of Bergman, one of the main themes here is suicide. That means that the first part of the film is going to get us to the point where suicide becomes an option and then the second part of the film is going to deal with that potential conclusion and the repercussions of it. And that’s pretty much it. Where we run into stumbling blocks is that in Face to Face, Bergman seems to have forgotten that so much of what he does is better when we have to work our way through it instead of having “the answer” slap us across the face for what are intended to be symbolic moments.

But, as just mentioned, this is the story of Dr. Jenny Isaksson, a successful psychiatrist, who undergoes a complete mental and emotional breakdown due to whatever is bubbling up in her subconscious. On the surface, she seems like an unlikely candidate for such an episode. She is professional and intelligent, and appears to care deeply about her patients. Her husband is away at a conference in Chicago and will be gone for a few months. It may well be this, a sudden sense of abandonment, that triggers the events of the film.

As the film progresses, Jenny deals with her grandparents, moving to a new home that is currently empty, an attempted rape (which honestly seems like it was there for absolutely no reason), and casually cheats on her husband, something that is evidently widely accepted as the norm in this society. A great deal of her time is spent with Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Erland Josephson) who would evidently like to have an affair with her (but doesn’t really want to, but maybe does), but whom she uses as something like an emotional crutch. About mid-way through the film, Jenny swallows a couple of massive handfuls of pills in a failed attempt at suicide (it is almost exactly at the midpoint), and the rest of the film deals with what happens after that attempt.

Face to Face lacks completely the subtlety of Bergman’s best work. Everything here is overt. We get glimpses of an old woman dressed in black who appears to be a figment of Jenny’s imagination. Is she a specter of death? Probably, because what else could she be? She seems to serve no other purpose than to grab the audience by both shoulders and scream, “Look! Death! Death, dammit!” A great deal of the film is spent in dream sequences that are clearly meant to give some sort of insight into Jenny’s mental state and again, are about as subtle as a headbutt.

The saving grace here, in fact the only real saving grace of this film at all, is the performance of Liv Ullmann. I can’t claim to have seen everything in Ullmann’s repertoire, but it would be difficult to think that she could have ever been better. Her performance is completely magnetic and absorbing. While she frequently looks impassive, it’s so evident that she is running deep under the still waters of her surface.

I’d really like to have liked Face to Face more than I did. I’ve seen a good amount of Bergman’s filmography (not enough to make me an expert), and am sadly forced to conclude that this is lesser Bergman. It’s certainly not lesser Ullmann, though, and is essential viewing for anyone who considers him- or herself a fan of her. The full truth, though, is that I was ready for this to be over about half an hour before it ended, and that’s not something I’m used to saying about Bergman’s films.

Why to watch Face to Face: Liv Ullmann.
Why not to watch: Persona is better.


  1. I haven't seen this, but I think you left the why not to see the same from your prior post (unless you did read a book that went along with this.)