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A sensitive exploration of the tragic irony of the psychiatrist suffering with mental illness. Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ullman) is a psychiatrist married to another psychiatrist; both are successful in their jobs but slowly, agonizingly, she succumbs to a breakdown. Jenny is haunted by images and emotions from her past and eventually cannot function, either as a wife, a doctor or as an individual.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Face to Face - Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Berman's FACE TO FACE on DVD
The robust competence she exudes, already sustaining a bit of physical dislocation when the physical landmarks of her stable world are removed, undergoes another jolt when she encounters a forbidding old woman on the staircase of her grandparents' stolid old bourgeois apartment building. This figure keeps returning at intervals, staring at her more and more menacingly through her good eye (the other is glass), until it becomes unmistakable that she's a stand-in for death (a symbolic sister to the pale, hooded, cassocked medieval chess player in The Seventh Seal). Soon Jenny's warm reception from her solicitous grandmother (Aino Taube), who installs her in the same room she occupied as a little girl, but is preoccupied with caring for her increasingly senile husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand, The Seventh Seal squire). Being returned to her childhood bed contributes to destabilizing, then unhinging, Jenny. Her - until now - equanimity has, it is clear, come at the cost of much repression of disquieting memories and feelings, rather as if she's been immersed in a sea, trying to hold a giant beach ball underwater, until she no longer can, and it breaks the surface.
Far from feeling nestled in reassuring comfort, she finds herself plunged into nightmares arising from her grandmother's then-stern child-rearing practices, which included locking the little girl in a dark closet when she misbehaved, terrifying the child. Essentially, she reverts to the helplessness and anxiety she experienced as a girl, spending more and more time in dreamland, chasing and being chased by her nightmares and unsettling memories. The deeper she plunges, she's seen wearing a scarlet costume of vaguely medieval appearance, complete with embroidered scarlet skullcap, beset by more and more recollections of her mother, frightened of being anything but rigidly correct, and father, a weak but affectionate man. And the old death crone's appearances keep things baleful and stoke the foreboding.
Jenny's only relief, at first, comes at the hands of another psychiatrist, (Erland Josephson), a half-brother to her most unreachable patient. He picks her up at one of those parties where everybody's trying too hard, especially the aging divorced woman who's footing the bill, and her much younger gay lover and his companion. There's a bit of sophisticated, blunt sexual parrying between the two shrinks, which deepens to a sensitive, simpatico friendship, especially after Josephson's doc lets her in on a secret about his personal life. After recounting a near-rape that may or may not be imagined, she sleeps in his bed, relaxed. But the floodgates have begun to open, and she seems ever more vulnerable. She dreams of her patients, surrounding her en masse in a room of the clinic. Her dreams become darker and stranger (making one wonder, given the scarlet costuming and labyrinthine darkness, if Bergman had perhaps been influenced by Don't Look Now (1973), Nicolas Roeg's supernatural horror story set in Venice). Another nightmare scene of her being nailed, alive, inside a coffin is right out of a similar dream in Wild Strawberries.
Ensconced in her childhood room and a resurfacing of her terrified childhood feelings of helplessness, bathed in bright sunlight, she reaches for a bottle of sleeping pills. As the camera does a 360-degree pan around the nursery-like decor, she swallows them all, not merely attempting suicide, but embracing it. Cut to Jenny seen lying in a hospital bed with a breathing tube in her nose and an anxious Josephson hovering over her, informing her that he has summoned her husband from Chicago. When her spouse arrives, he's no comfort. The obvious gap between them hints at the heightened sense of isolation her marriage has brought her. However they may have begun, the only thing this couple now shares is distance. When he says he must fly back to the US next day, she's relieved. She's only comfortable enough to speak frankly to her new friend.
When a nurse enters, we're ready for her to undergo a personality exchange, as Ullmann's actress in Persona did with her nurse (Bibi Andersson). But all of Bergman's handling of his themes here is literal, and in the end superficial, from the too-overt symbolism, to the convenient key to her self-generated recovery upon viewing, when the story's trajectory needs her to, the loving intimacy between her grandmother and dying grandfather, supplying her, presumably, with a reason to go on. The film's symbolic elements seem too literal, too apparent, never something elemental, boiling up from beneath the mental floorboards with the depth of something implied or mysterious. Much seems almost too pat, including Jenny redirecting herself toward love after she conveniently sees her grandparents no longer looming large and powerful, but human-sized and vulnerable. A glint of real feeling and complexity arrives when Jenny frankly tells her teenaged daughter of her suicide attempt, and the girl says, with a sad smile, "I know you never liked me." One of the reasons the moment is so piercingly immediate is that it's unexpected.
Much of the rest of Face to Face plays like Bergman pillaging and recycling himself. Jenny's struggle back from the brink has less impact than we want to feel because we never have any doubt she can survive. What we feel from her is not fragility, but intensity, at times hysteria, always strength. We don't merely wonder at the suddenness of her breakdown. We wonder that at this point in her personal and professional life she hasn't grappled with these sort of standard and easy to recognize demons and at least begun to come to grips and resolve some of her conflicts. the story doesn't compellingly support the physician-heal-thyself storyline, even if we accept as a given that Jenny is a stand-in for Bergman himself, with his famously chronicled emotional hell of a loveless childhood. Still, he's worked these themes more deeply elsewhere, and one can't attribute the film's lack of depth to the fact that he made it as a 200-minute TV movie trimmed to 136 minutes as a feature film. (Bergman completists, the likeliest audience for Face to Face, might note that it's Lena Olin's debut film - she plays a shop assistant.)
Scenes from A Marriage (1973), also made for TV with Ullmann and Josephson and also heavily trimmed for the big screen, was lacerating, suggesting little of the compromise associated with the literalism of TV production or the extensive cutting. It might have helped if Josephson was given fuller scope with a more complex character more central to the story than he is here. Ullmann remains the chief reason for seeing Face to Face. Her emotional range is jaw-dropping, all the more so because she doesn't emote in big arias, but works with tiny gestures and hesitancies that tell a story of implosion, of slipping the moorings. Her tentative little smiles that express a range of emotions, none having to do with happiness, are themselves extraordinary. Bergman was shrewd to just stand back and let Sven Nykvist photograph her finding her way to more than you feel Bergman the screenwriter gave her. She can't make Face to Face not seem like Persona lite, but you'd hate to sit through it without her.
For more information about Face to Face, visit Olive Films. To order Face to Face, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jay Carr
Face to Face - Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Berman's FACE TO FACE on DVD
Originally a four-episode TV series: 1. Separation; 2. The Border; 3. Twilight Land; 4. The Return. A total of 200 minutes cut down to 135 minutes.
The Country of Sweden