Sep 23, 2015

New York Film Festival Screens a New Documentary about Ingrid Bergman (First in a Series about NYFF)

Ingrid Bergman was an avid photographer and maker of "home" movies, footage of which appears in Stig Björkman's documentary. (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)

In Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words, which will screen at The New York Film Festival, an archivist observes that the radiant star of so many memorable films saved her photographs and “home” movies, as well as her school assignments, and her children’s school papers, because early in her life she had learned the value of such mementos. Orphaned as a young adult, Bergman went to live with relatives who died three months after her arrival.

Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words is organized chronologically, moving from the actress's girlhood to her early work in Swedish theater, to her triumph in Hollywood, which began when Bergman was brought to the U.S. by David O. Selznick to make Intermezzo (1939). After working with Victor Fleming and Alfred Hitchcock, she went to Italy to realize her dream of working with Roberto Rossellini. Her affair with the director resulted in a swift and stinging rejection by the American public.

At first puzzled and then deeply wounded by this sudden withdrawal of admiration, Bergman would not return to Hollywood until 1956 when she appeared in Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia. Her final theatrical film, before her death from cancer, is also discussed in the documentary. It marked Bergman's return to Sweden to appear in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).

The documentary begins with charming photographs of Bergman as a child, which were taken by her father, a photographer who obviously adored her. These lead to an interesting insight from her daughter, Pia Lindstrom who says that for the rest of her life Bergman felt the camera’s gaze as an expression of affection. Lindstrom is the actress’s first child, the one who suffered the longest separation from her mother as a result of the divorce and custody battle between Bergman and her then husband Petter Lindstrom. Pia bears no ill feelings toward her famous mother, nor do any of Bergman’s other children who also spent very little time with her. All four are interviewed in the documentary, which mainly focuses on the actress’s private life.

A close look at Bergman's face in this photograph is visual evidence of a sentiment expressed in the documentary, that after two months spent with her children, she longed to get back to work. (Photo courtesy of NYFF.)

The great treasure in Björkman’s documentary is his access to the “home” movie footage that Bergman herself shot. For devoted fans of the actress, there will be no new revelations, although the film may make her more accessible to a younger generation of filmgoers. Bergman's brief reflections on her craft, for instance that she was disappointed with acting in Rossellini’s neorealist films, and happy to be directed by Jean Renoir, are enticing but remain unexplored by the filmmaker. 

Readings from Bergman’s girlhood diaries, and from her letters—ironically, not written to her children but to lifelong friends, including Irene Selznick—are voiced by the talented young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina, Testament of Youth), often with great emotion. While visually satisfying, the documentary’s musical score is mixed too loudly and used too lavishly, although for fans of this mercurial artist, who says her life was ruled by a “bird of passage inside me,” the film is a “must see.” It screens at NYFF on October 5th and 6th: