a well-known producer oncesaid, in all seriousness, that if an actress finds her personal/professional relationship with her director unravelling on a remote location shoot, the smart play is an affair with the cinematographer. At least she'll look great in the film, whatever happens to her performance.The stakes are even higher when the star is the director's leading lady off-screen as well. Relationships like these go back to the earliest movies, and Cinematheque Ontario's new series, Bergman/Ullmann -- Master & Muse, gives us a chance to appreciate one of the greatest when it screens all the collaborations between the dour Swedish director and his greatest star.
For more than half the time they worked together, they were lovers -- Ullmann's daughter, Linn, is Bergman's -- and the director's intimate understanding of his star allowed him to draw from her some of the most emotionally intense performances in all of cinema.
But Bergman and Ullmann aren't the only famous director/actor duo. There's Woody Allen with both Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Jean-Luc Godard with Anna Karina. Claude Chabrol with Stéphane Audran. David Mamet with Rebecca Pidgeon.
Critic David Thompson notes in The Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema that the most interesting thing about the 20 or so films that director Chabrol made with Audran is that you could look at them and have no idea that Chabrol and Audran were married. Much the same could be said of Mamet's relationship with Pidgeon.
By way of contrast, when one looks at Anna Karina in her films for Godard, one is plainly seeing an object of absolute obsession. And for all the talk about the political shifts in Godard's films, the pivotal moment in his filmography arrived with the end of his relationship with Karina.
For all the rancour between Allen and Farrow, I don't think either has made movies since their breakup as good as their work in tandem.
Bergman and Ullmann's remains the most famous of these relationships. They made nine films together, from Persona in 1966 to Autumn Sonata in 1978, and were together as a couple -- they never married -- from Persona until Bergman remarried in 1971.
Watching several of their films this past weekend -- Persona, Shame, The Passion Of Anna and Cries And Whispers -- I was struck by the evolution of Ullmann's performances.
She's in her early 20s in Persona, cast because she had a certain facial resemblance to co-star Bibi Andersson, and what's remarkable is that she barely "acts" at all. Playing an actor who has chosen not to speak, all her work is in reaction shots, and almost all of it has an inscrutable, mask-like quality. She forces the audience to try to "read" her, much as she forces Andersson's Alma to do. By the later films, Bergman is pushing her much harder, into the emotional meltdowns of Autumn Sonata and Face To Face.
The deeper we get into their joint filmography -- even after their love relationship had ended -- the more intense the performances become. Part of it is the maturing of Ullmann's talent, but part of it is Bergman's insight into that talent and its reach.
It's too bad he didn't see that The Serpent's Egg wasn't a place for her talent to go. Unlike Ingrid Bergman, who plays her distant mother in Autumn Sonata, Ullmann doesn't take any particular pleasure in playing whores -- she looks uncomfortable smeared with lipstick, and even more embarrassed to be playing opposite David Carradine.
Bergman's films become documents of how well he knows his star, while Godard's manifest the director's utter mystification at the woman with whom he shares his life.
What Ullmann and Karina have in common is that neither was ever as good for another director as they were for Bergman and Godard, a plight that echoes another famous director-leading lady relationship. Marlene Dietrich was known to mutter, "Joe, where are you?" in the films she made with directors other than Josef von Sternberg, and to instruct camera operators in how to light her to give her that Shanghai Express/Morocco/The Devil Is A Woman look.
Ullmann and Bergman met at exactly the right moment to produce one of the cinema's most striking series of collaborations, but one suspects that the end of the relationship was inscribed in its beginning. How long could anyone bear being the vehicle for such extreme emotional voyages?
It wasn't like Karina showing up to be worshipped by Godard's camera,
or Pidgeon turning in one of those uninflected performances that Mamet is so fond of. Ullmann's character breakdowns in The Passion Of Anna and Autumn Sonata are among the most harrowing performances in the cinema, and there is only so far one can push anyone.
It's a two-way street -- if Ullmann was Bergman's muse, then he gave her the greatest parts she would get to play. That's probably why she has turned to directing rather than continuing to perform, and even so, her new film, Faithless, is from a screenplay by Bergman. She can surely see that in other directors' films she often seems blobby and ill-focused, inclined toward a certain empty placidity that is never on display in her work for Bergman.
I wonder if Cinematheque ever considered using one of Bergman's own titles for the series -- Scenes From A Marriage. email@example.com