Face to Face

Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): *** 1/2

If movies are the art form that comes closest to replicating our dreams -- sounds and images dancing before our eyes in the dark -- then, ironically, very few filmmakers have come anywhere near to capturing the elusive rhythm of dreams. David Lynch, Orson Welles, and Luis Bunuel have all succeeded from time to time, and especially Ingmar Bergman. A short nightmare sequence in Wild Strawberries (1957) is quite chilling, and the whole of Persona (1966) has the possibility to move in any direction, at any time.

It's a shame, then, to see Bergman's late-period Face to Face, which is devoted largely to dream sequences and hallucinations, and to realize that it's not very effective. The dreams here feel as if some lesser director were vainly trying to copy Bergman, using surfaces and designs rather than moods or instinct. Thankfully the movie's waking sequences have enough power to get by, and these are mostly thanks to the showcase performance by Bergman's frequent leading lady Liv Ullmann. (Bergman and Ullmann both received Oscar nominations for this film.)

Ullmann plays Dr. Jenny Isaksson, a psychiatrist who begins the film by moving out of her current office. The bare rooms contain little more than a phone, resting on the floor. Jenny moves in with her grandparents, a temporary arrangement meant to last a couple of months until Jenny's husband returns from some extended business trip. She attends a party and meets Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Erland Josephson, who co-starred with Ullmann in eight Bergman films). He flirts with her, and she responds, but refuses to let him sleep with her. She flirts with him some more, and then loses her mind.

She begins to see a creepy old lady with one black eye (death?) lurking around her grandparents' home. Soon after, she finds herself in a full-fledged dream world, but one filled with cinematic symbols rather than emotions. She wears a red cloak/gown. She is warned not to enter a certain door, but enters anyway, etc. She finds herself in a room full of mental patients, all scrambling for her attention. It's all very heavy and literal; it never haunts or has any kind of below-the-belt effect.

Face to Face is a surprising misstep, coming between two Bergman masterpieces. Cries and Whispers (1972) sharply used color and space to match its claustrophobic, emotionally wrenching story of three sisters; and Fanny and Alexander (1983) was one of the director's warmest, most personal films. It seems Face to Face is the awkward transition between these two phases; it shows Bergman thinking too hard, perhaps knowingly searching for something and being unable to find it.

But then there's Ullmann, who would have been in her late 30s here, sublimely beautiful, with constantly searching, thoughtful eyes. Bergman stays close on her face for long portions of this 136-minute movie, and she finds its key: she never acts crazy. She merely acts like she can't understand or believe that these things are happening to her. She tries to navigate the insanity with as much sanity as possible, which puts the viewers on her side. Nevertheless, the material gives her plenty of big moments to build up and break down, which inevitably attracted the attention of the Oscar voters. (She had been nominated once before, for The Emigrants in 1971. In 1976, she lost to Faye Dunaway.) Regardless, her overall grace saves the movie.

       

Face to Face has been one of the most difficult to see among Bergman's movies (along with Summer with Monika and After the Rehearsal). Now Olive Films has rescued it from the Paramount vaults with a new DVD. According to some reports, the movie was originally shot as a TV miniseries (as was the case with many other major Bergman features), and so the picture is a bit on the soft side, but otherwise it looks luscious. There are no extras. (Apparently, young Lena Olin has a bit part as a shop assistant, if you look fast.)

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