`Faithless' chronicles a depressing love affair

Review: Ingmar Bergman's story, deftly directed by Liv Ullmann, wallows in the disintegration of an illicit romance.

March 30, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Ingmar Bergman's "Faithless" is unusually smart and serious, well-made and well-acted, and engrossing almost despite itself. But there's a lie at the film's core, and it has nothing to do with the extramarital affair that is its subject.

Instead, it grows out of a failure of vision, perhaps a result of the self-loathing Bergman hints at in his script.

The two-and-a-half-hour film is virtually without a single moment of tenderness or playfulness; seldom has a love affair been rendered with so little joy. The characters - Marianne, the unfaithful wife; Markus, her husband and a world-famous conductor; and David, his best friend and Marianne's lover - are attractive and unlikable, and the connections between them are shallow at best.

The film is based on an incident in Bergman's own life (he was the lover), and that point is hammered home by the film's framing device: A director (named, well, Bergman) is writing a story about a past affair and summons up his memories to resolve questions that have haunted him for decades. But the answers he comes up with ring false; surely the truth is more complicated than he and director Liv Ullmann have presented it. The film never cuts anyone a break, least of all the audience.

Ullmann wanted to make a film about the damage inflicted on a child by an affair, the subsequent divorce and custody battle. She has accomplished her goal, but I suspect the film would have made that point just as strongly if the adult characters had been even a tiny bit sympathetic.

If "Faithless" is an ordeal, it's because the audience is subjected to a world view that's unremittingly depressed. If we come away feeling resentful, it's because that burden seems unnecessary. That said, it's a craftily constructed ordeal that subtly undermines the audience's sense of what's normal.

In the affair and in this film, there literally is no middle ground. Scenes are shot either in claustrophobic close-ups or at a great physical and emotional remove. Similarly, the lighting is alternately very dim and painfully glaring; emotions and actions either are hidden or overexposed. Even the sound is muted.

Because these three people are so narcissistic, Ullmann rarely gives us a sense of the wide world of connections in which they presumably operate. They seem only intermittently aware of Isabelle, the couple's anguished 9-year-old daughter, and David's wife is alluded to only in passing. It's as if she were utterly peripheral to the absorbing, tortured triangle.

The audience soon becomes starved for any life-affirming moment, however brief - the sight of a peach ripening on a windowsill, a joke, a brightly colored item of clothing - anything.

Ullmann clearly has a knack for framing a scene in a visually interesting manner, but she rarely gives in to it. There's one magical shot in which the camera focuses on several lighted candles. It slowly pulls back, gradually revealing the hands of a group of people sitting around the candles. Their arms radiate outward like the spokes on a wheel. The moment is mysterious and sumptuous - and it's telling that it occurs in a transitional scene with no emotional resonance whatsoever.

The acting has been praised, and rightly. Lena Endre (Marianne) is one of those women who seems unaware of her loveliness, putting little effort into her hairstyle, makeup or clothes. All her artifice, all her deceit, is internal.

And the audience would realize that the Bergman character (Erland Josephson) and David (Krister Henriksson) were older and younger versions of the same man even if Ullmann didn't link them so obviously via a music box acquired during the affair; the body language and facial expressions used by these two actors is so similar it's eerie.

The filmmakers don't seem to fully understand what motivates the characters, so we never get a sense of what draws the lovers together - passion, boredom, a perverse urge to self-destruct? But "Faithless" is masterful at depicting what drives the trio apart.

By the movie's end, Markus (Thomas Hanzon) has done something so monstrous, so beyond the pale, that it forces the audience to rethink the affair. The mystery isn't why Marianne strayed; it's that she stayed married for so long. Her great betrayal isn't the affair, it's leaving her child in that man's clutches.

So it's not just odd but troubling that the film's judgments are out of whack, with the harshest criticism reserved for David. It almost becomes a form of reverse egotism. Who would have thought self-loathing could seem so self-indulgent?


Starring Lena Endre, Krister Henriksson, Thomas Hanzon, Erland Josephson

Written by Ingmar Bergman; directed by Liv Ullmann

Rated R (sex, nudity, adult language, violence)

Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films; in Swedish with English subtitles.

Running time 143 minutes

Sun score ***

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