Rushing away from life's pleasures

MOVIES

October 15, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Some weeks back I wrote that everybody wanted to be Martin Scorsese. That's not quite true. Take the Swedish actress Liv Ullmann. She wants to be Ingmar Bergman.

Evidence of this yearning is on display at the Westview, where Ullmann's directorial debut film "Sofie" opens today. Like much of Bergman's work, it's long, dark, sexual, brooding and very, very Scandinavian. Not surprising, since Ullmann made 10 films with Bergman. But unlike Bergman, it's also Jewish and feminist.

Essentially a biography of a 19th-century Danish Jewish woman named, obviously, Sofie (Karen-Lise Mynster), it watches as Sofie spends her entire life in the "happy submission" of love, denying all her own talents and sexual impulses. She marries a mother-haunted man in a far village in Sweden, who cuts and sells drapes. Gradually, as his mother sickens and dies, he recedes further and further and she takes over more and more of the business and becomes the primary care-giver to their son.

Her one indulgence is a memory: When she was a young girl, an artist painted her and tried to seduce her. Though in her loins and imagination she yearned for him, in her commitment to the structures and roles society has established for her, she could not permit herself to even imagine yielding. She rushes away from a life -- or even an experience -- she could have had that she never did.

The tone of the film is ironic bitterness, cut again and again by Sofie's love for those dear to her, particularly her parents and her child. A century would pass before concepts would be formulated that could even give a vocabulary to Sofie's malaise. Thus the movie has a kind of thunking didacticism to it, and not a lot of the spontaneity and complexity that might be seen to represent actual life.

Additionally, Ullmann is hardly a fluid director. Everything in the film resonates with the earnestness of her political purpose and the movie hasn't any feel of technique. The scenes are all flatly photographed from the most obvious angles; it's as if she's sublimated everything.

This continues also through her sense of the past. For a period piece, "Sophie" is surprisingly thin, and its evocation of 19th-century Copenhagen lacks any sense of the teeming vitality of city life; it appears to have been photographed in a historic part of that city on a Sunday morning early, before the cars came out.

Still, as a work of performance, the movie is first-class. Mynster is one of Denmark's most accomplished actresses, and the role of her character's father is played by Erland Josephson, one of Bergman's old stalwarts. Throughout, the cast is uniformly superb.

"Sofie"

Starring Karen-Lyse Mynster

Directed by Liv Ullmann

Released by Arrow

Unrated

** 1/2

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