Feelings first 

I had a friend who was a nurse in one of Detroit’s major hospitals. She told me that her patients, when faced with serious illness or even their own death, never said things like “gee, I really wish I had gotten that promotion” or “I should have invested more wisely.” It was always “I never told my son I loved him” or “I married the wrong person.” They always spoke of matters of the heart, of choices of a profoundly personal, intimate nature pertaining to family and relationships, and the resulting consequences that reverberate throughout a lifetime. This landscape of the soul is also the territory explored in the films of Liv Ullmann.

Born in Japan in 1939 to Norwegian parents, Ullmann spent her early years in Canada and New York, until her family returned to Norway after World War II. Her theatrical debut was in The Diary of Anne Frank in 1957, and she went on to craft a distinguished career on the stage. But ultimately, Ullmann became best known for her work in the films of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

She played a remote, withdrawn actress who retreats from life in Persona (1966), the wife of a mentally unstable artist in Hour of the Wolf (1968), one of two sisters keeping a vigil at the deathbed of a third sister in Cries and Whispers (1972), the betrayed wife in Bergman’s chronicle of marital dissolution Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and the emotionally abandoned daughter of a concert pianist in Autumn Sonata (1978). But Ullmann has said, “the whole 40 years of being an actress have just been a school for this” — “this” being her second career as a director.

Her first film, Sophie (1992), received accolades at the Montreal Film Festival, while her second film, Kristen Lavransdatter (1995), is the most successful film in Norway to date. The script for her third film, Private Confessions (1998), was written by Bergman and is a thinly fictionalized account of his parents’ marriage, while her current film, Faithless (2000), which will be shown at the Detroit Film Theatre this weekend, is also scripted by Bergman and explores the consequences of marital infidelity.

The story of Sophie covers a 20-year period in the life of a sensitive, cultured, lively Jewish woman in late-19th century Copenhagen. In the opening scene, Sophie is shown writing in her diary: “Human lives appear, sail for a while with or against the current, and then the current closes around their lives again.”

Though almost 30, Sophie is still not married. She tells her aunt, “It’s as if I’m waiting for something or longing for something that may never come.” One evening at a party, Sophie meets the painter Hans Hojby. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for love and passion, but Hojby is not Jewish and her parents pressure her to marry Jonas, an introverted, depressed, Jewish shopkeeper.

Sophie acquiesces to her parents’ wishes, but she and Jonas are ill-suited for each other and the union is not a happy one. She has a son, who brings her joy, but Jonas becomes increasingly withdrawn and is like a stranger in his own home. Sophie then finds solace in the arms of Jonas’ brother.

Set in 14th century Norway, the epic Kristen Lavransdatter is based on a novel (considered a national treasure) by the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), who is known for historical novels that deal with women’s lives. Kristen is the young daughter of the modest landowner Lavrans and his wife Ragnfrid. As is the custom, Kristen’s parents select a husband for her, but she is reluctant to marry him and asks permission to enter a convent. A compromise is stuck and Kristen is to stay in the convent for one year.

One day during her stay, Kristen goes to Oslo. There, in the teeming medieval city of gutters flowing with sewage, among quarreling merchants and unfettered livestock, she encounters the knight Erlend Nikulausson. Thus begins one of the greatest love stories to ever grace the screen. Terrified, Kristen confides to her girlfriends that it’s as if she “was swept away in a wild river.” Nothing, not even her beloved father’s strenuous opposition, her pre-existing betrothal, or Erland’s questionable past, can dissuade her from her love for this man. As the wisewoman Ashild tells Kristen, “Love creates no laws — it breaks them all.”

Private Confessions is structured around five intimate conversations that occur at different times and are presented out of chronological order. Anna is locked into a difficult marriage with Henrik, an emotionally immature, demanding minister. In the first conversation, Anna confides in Uncle Jacob, her spiritual adviser, and tells him she has embarked upon a passionate affair with a younger man. Troubled yet deeply in love, Anna feels no remorse for her actions.

Jacob advises her that she must break off with her lover and confess everything to her husband. Not wishing to hurt her husband and believing he is not strong enough to hear the truth, Anna is extremely reluctant to follow Jacob’s advice. But she does so and must endure the consequences of her confession.

Ullmann’s directorial style is characterized by meticulous attention to re-creation of time and place, loving evocations of the incidental rituals of daily life, and an unhurried pace which allows for a deep emotional richness. There are those who claim she owes too much to Bergman, and his influence is certainly there. But her sensibility is all her own, and if he is an undisputed master, she deserves a place at his side as his equal.

Deborah Hochberg writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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