Wendy Everett considers nostalgia and self-reflexivity as two distinctive features of European art cinema, and the exploration of subjectivity and the writing and rewriting of the self as its main preoccupations (1). Liv Ullmann’s fourth feature film, Trolösa (Faithless, 2000), accomplishes a difficult feat: it is both full of distancing, self-conscious effects and intensely human and emotional. Based on a script by Ingmar Bergman, which was loosely inspired by an affair described in his 1987 autobiography Laterna Magica (The Magic Lantern), it narrates the devastating impact of adultery on the three adults involved, as well as on the daughter of the married couple (2). Actress Marianne embarks on an affair with theatre director David, who is a friend of her husband Marcus, a conductor. But this narrative is contained within a frame in which a director called Bergman, living in isolation on the island Fårö, conjures up the character of Marianne, and both character and director piece together the way in which the affair unfolded and the shifting sands of the characters’ feelings for each other. The film therefore is both about the affair and the creative process, as well as about the porous boundaries between fiction and reality, art and life.
This is enhanced by several extra-filmic and intertextual references: Marianne is also the name of the character played by Ullmann in Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From a Marriage, 1973), the five-hour drama series directed by Bergman for Swedish television which charts the trajectory of a marriage in several vignettes over a number of years. In Scenes From a Marriage, Ullmann’s husband is played by Erland Josephson, who is Bergman in Faithless, and the series is also partly set on the island of Fårö. The music box that figures in both the film’s framing sequence and the inserted narrative, and the description of the affair in The Magic Lantern, suggest that David might represent a young Bergman. The photos of Marianne and her daughter Isabelle in the drawer of Bergman’s office desk in his Fårö home, and the tune from the music box which opens and closes the film, also signal how the reconstruction of adultery and its aftermath might be an act of unearthing painful memories, with the purpose of finding some sort of inner peace. Faithless shows a recognisable Bergman universe containing intense psychological exploration, numerous cultural references to the wisdom and consolations of music, theatre and literature, and close-ups of the human face upon which feelings glide like the clouds in the sky. Ullmann’s direction focuses intensely on Lena Endre’s extraordinary performance, and Josephson’s subtle acting provides the mirror for Marianne’s emotional outpourings.
Contributing significantly to the film’s self-reflexive bent, Faithless consistently foregrounds the acts of writing and performance. The film’s framing story takes place in Bergman’s office, and there are numerous shots of his writing tools and his notebooks, which he shares with Marianne. Early in the film he states that he is looking for answers for which he needs her help. Her recounting of the affair, and her minute dissection of all the feelings involved, for many of which she cannot find the appropriate words, becomes a catharsis for the director. At one point she compares him with the “lousy dramatist” who hopes a talented actress might give his mess and confusion some meaning and shape. So Marianne becomes a conduit for Bergman’s inner anguish until the moment of forgiving himself. This happens in the latter part of the film, when he reaches out to David, who also visits Bergman in his office, after he has acknowledged his betrayal and guilt, and strokes his face. This scene mirrors an earlier one where Marianne performs the same gesture on Bergman. Just like the motif of writing and storytelling that runs through the film, the characters frequently refer to themselves as performers, and to “the rotten scenes” they are acting. The mise en scène of the Paris bedroom scenes is theatrical, with red velvet curtains that echo the concert hall and theatre scenes elsewhere in the film, and which stand-out from the cool colour scheme elsewhere. Markus at one point tells his wife and his friend that treachery is not written into their script, although it later becomes clear that he is also involved in a performance of pretence. And while the adults’ fabrications and play-acting unfolds in twists and turns, Isabelle, the imaginative child, also lives in a world of imagination and fearful dreams which she shares with the audience of her toys.
After the title sequence, a quote from a book by Botho Strauss offers the opening gambit that of all the events in someone’s life, nothing takes as much toll as a divorce. Marianne’s narration charts the emotional map of the affair, which she calls a “jungle of impulses”: the naiveté of hoping for an affair without complications, the excitement and joy, the jealousy, the fear, anger, confusion and guilt, the affinity found in misery, which eventually turns the relationship into a “friendship of damnation” and what Marianne calls the death of all emotions. Ullmann’s measured, slow burning direction gives us a levelheaded, clear-eyed anatomy of adultery in pale, cool colours, punctuated by images of the lonely Fårö landscape. But its added impact lies in the foregrounding of the labour involved in transforming memory and experience into meaning, self-knowledge and art.
Trolösa/Faithless (2000 Sweden 154 mins)
Prod Co: Nordisk Film Prod: Maria Curman, Kaj Larsen, Johan Mardell Dir: Liv Ullmann Scr: Ingmar Bergman Phot: Jörgen Persson Ed: Sylvia Ingemarsson
Cast: Lena Endre, Erland Josephson, Krister Henriksson, Thomas Hanzon