A young actress in an enchanting dress sits relaxed on a couch. She looks around and beautifully smiles. Gradually, her wavering glances narrow down as she composes herself and looks straight into the camera. The simple gaze has such a profound, indelible impact on us. This footage (a screen test) was one of the earliest ones, showcasing the blossoming phase of one of World cinema’s greatest actress, Ingrid Bergman. Director Stig Bjorkman’s documentary “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” released last year to commemorate her 100th birth anniversary is less about the naturally ravishing on-screen face of the star. We get to know more about the women, who was too shy and uncomfortable in her own skin that she craved acting to survive. Similar to recent biopic documentaries like “Listen to me Marlon”and “Amy”, Bjorkman’s work too relies less on famous talking heads and tries to resurrect their personality through primary sources like personal home-movies, diaries, etc. Bergman have documented a lot of moments in her personal life (saving everything from letters to mementos) as this restless spirit seems to have seen her own life like an adventure film in progress.
This comprehensive portrait of the icon’s off-screen personality is compiled of treasure trove of footage and diary entries, which are read in a persuasive manner by the current generation Swedish/Hollywood star Alicia Vikander. The other major input for the documentary comes from Bergman’s four grown children: Pia Lindstrom, Roberto, Ingrid, and Isabella Rossellini. We learn of Bergman’s sad childhood: her mother’s death (she has no memory of mother), death of two elder siblings. The young Bergman adored her father, who taught her the love for photography. Her father brought the 16mm camera and vividly documented their happy life together. Unfortunately, he too passed away (afflicted by cancer) when Bergman was only 14 years. The elder daughter Pia incisively argues at some point that it is the unbridled lover for the father (and the sudden loss) propelled the star to often choose men on the other side of camera: war photographer Robert Capa and directors Victor Fleming, Roberto Rossellini.
The letters Bergman wrote to her friends chronicles the early success she had in Swedish theater and films (in early and mid 1930’s), and eventually the invitation from iconic Hollywood producer David O Selznick (in 1939, at the age of 24). In those days, she was shy but also a passionate and confident individual. As Bergman’s diary entry says, “I was the shyest creature in the world but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t keep quiet”. In the next decade, she made timeless classics like “Casablanca”, “Gaslight”, “Notorious”, and starred opposite Hollywood’s royal actors Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Gregory Peck, etc. In the late 1940’s, she has written a wonderful to-the-point letter to neo-realist Italian director Roberto Rosellini (“If you ever need a Swedish actress who speaks very good English and a little Italian…”).
Bergman’s humongous fame came crashing down when her affair with Rossellini (she was married to a Swedish surgeon Petter and had her first child Pia with him) turned into a big scandal, making her an outcast in Hollywood (“Joan of Arc” flopped partly because it was below average and mostly due to her affair). Bergman was even denounced in the floor of US Senate as she moved to Europe. She married Rossellini and had three children – including actress Roberto Rossellini. Looking back now, the infamy and hypocrisy she faced seemed to have been dwarfed by timeless quality of her on-screen presence. While neither the director nor the children try to glamorize or overlook Bergman’s actions in those times (she left Pia with her first husband and spend little time with her, until Pia turned 18), the documentary looks into her unique independent nature and firm convictions over the decision taken. But, it is the independent nature (like a bird that doesn’t want to be caged) made Bergman to flee from comfortable American offers to go to a remote island for a European movie.
The grown children speak with wonder and regret about how much fun they had when she was around and the long gap in which they regretted her absence. It is also distressing to see the footage Bergman’s children being followed by frenzied paparazzi photographers. The sight of her eldest son Roberto (as a small boy) covering his face from the camera flashes shows the emotional hurt they endured. But, they don’t show remorse towards the ‘star’, but only regret. Pia wonders “Why didn’t she want to live with us?” and brushes off the thought with “the reality is that children aren’t all that interesting”. The restlessness and the indomitable spirit of Bergman (and every other great artist) is what makes them scale the great heights. The very same nature also brings bouts of misery in personal life. Director Bjorkman, in a way, subtly pushes the viewers to identify the ego necessary for great stars like Ingrid Bergman and with a nuance the documentary suggest it (the ego) is worth it.
The documentary deliberately skimps a lot when it comes to assessing Bergman’s movies, since the primary intent was to give us a perception of her steely will and free-spirited individuality. At nearly two hours, some of the words and private footage gives a monotonous tone at times. However, the interviews with Liv Ullmann and Sigourney Weaver plus the elegant linking of past footage and present footage (linked by objects and people posing) makes us for an emotionally resonant ending. Just like the unforgettable screen test, we saw of young Bergman at an earlier point, in the end we see one of the star’s most captivating on-screen image – the sad gaze from Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Autumn Sonata” (1978). Be it the innocent young face that radiated while sitting on Selznick’s couch or the playful face in home movies or the weary, aged face in the legendary director’s film, Ingrid Bergman was an irresistible force in the cinematic medium. While “Ingrid Bergman: In her Own words”, testifies to the greatness of the star, it also underlines a simple message: to pursue a career and live a life on our own terms.