1970s, 3/4, Bergman, Drama, Review

Face to Face

It’s been a long time since I started writing movie reviews, and what really started it all was my desire to review every film in the 39-film boxset of Ingmar Bergman films that the Criterion Collection released (I think I still haven’t reviewed A Ship to India). It’s not a complete set of his whole body of work, though, and one key piece that was missing was Face to Face, produced by Dino de Laurentiis instead of Svenskfilmindustri, probably why Criterion couldn’t get the home video rights since Laurentiis seems to have sold them to Paramount. Anyway, I finally got this from Netflix DVD, and it was nice to settle in to rediscover why I love Bergman films, even if this ends up being a more minor work that doesn’t hit nearly as well as other films he made around the same time.

Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ullmann) is a psychiatrist working as the temporary head of a psychiatric ward in Sweden while her husband Dr. Erik Isaksson (Sven Lindberg) is attending a conference in Chicago. There is a deep unhappiness about this separation which seems to be rooted in some marital troubles, nothing that ever gets spelled out. In fact, Jenny talks about having taken on a new lover in her husband’s absence that she finds unappealing. At a party for a colleague’s wife where she reveals her new lover to her social circle, Jenny meets Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Erland Josephson), and Jacobi, a noted theorist on love, sets his sights on her immediately, making it clear that he wants to make Jenny a conquest. She is open to it, but she’s also slow going, having dinner with him, going to his house, and deciding that it was a mistake; that she needs to go home.

Home is the house of the grandmother who raised her after the death of her parents. Grandmother (Aino Taube) takes care of the steadily ailing Grandfather (Gunna Bjornstrand) while overbearingly looking after Jenny’s every little need as she moves in her few possessions left over after having abandoned her old house in preparation for a new construction that should be completed in a few months.

There’s a lot going on this film (cut down from a television series like Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander), and I think it ends up too much. The core of the film is Jenny’s mental break from reality, but there’s a lot of stuff swirling around it, in particular around the past. Her disgust with old people gets contrasted with her quiet observance of the love between her grandparents. Her emptying out one house, having to live in the apartment she grew up in for a time, while her husband is away, their child is at horse camp, and she’s waiting for the future, her new house, to come upon her. Her whole life has been disrupted, and it awakens something inside her. There’s talk early from one of her colleagues where he damns the entirety of psychanalysis, saying that they can’t help anyone and that anyone who does get better under their care was going to get better anyway.

Jenny ends up consumed by things she sees that aren’t there. There’s a woman with a whole black eye who appears in her room, and there’s a whole event where one of Jenny’s patients (who should be locked up in the hospital) ends up at her house with two men, one of whom attempts to rape Jenny but fails. It’s never really brought up again except by Jenny as she explains it to Jacobi right before she has a complete break that ends with her trying to commit suicide. And this is where the film gets surreal with Jenny finding herself in some kind of afterlife, decked out in red (the echoes of Cries and Whispers from a few years earlier is obvious), and it’s where the film gets as explicit as Bergman did. It’s the sort of free-flowing dialogue that Bergman wrote where people can actively contradict themselves and even outright lie, but I just never felt Jenny’s plight in these moments like I did in similar moments of something like Scenes from a Marriage. I get it, but I just didn’t feel it.

I wonder if that gets addressed with the longer television cut. Maybe I’ll try to find it out one day.

This film version builds to the point where Jenny gets to choose between trying to rediscover the regularity that gave her comfort or pushing further into a kind of debauchery that Jacobi represents. The regularity of a normal life seems to have been the only thing keeping her from succumbing to her own insanity, and…it’s interesting but not really involving. I recalled more than once Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes, another look at insanity from Bergman. There’s a similar distance from the subject that, I think, prevents the kind of clear-eyed view of the characters that Bergman’s work on divorce did. This was also, apparently, the final film Bergman made before his self-imposed exile from Sweden for tax purposes, so he obviously had this sort of stuff on the brain.

Still, Liv Ullmann anchors the whole thing, and this is a showcase for her through and through. She has highs and lows, and it’s all supported by Bergman’s strong (even if it seems to be missing the mark) writing. I can easily see why she would be nominated for an Oscar for it.

Still, it’s late Bergman, and it really reminded me of why I love that period. Told mostly in closeups on intricately designed sets, it’s about the faces and the people, and I think it mostly succeeds. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but even when he didn’t entirely succeed I can find a lot to grasp onto and enjoy.

Rating: 3/4

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