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Liv Ullmann & Ingmar Bergman: Redefining The Muse
Brian Quinn , January 25th, 2019 08:45

With the release of Jane Magnusson’s Bergman: A Year in a Life, we take a look at one of cinema’s most prolific partnerships and consider where the myth of the muse fits into 2019.

‘Behind every good man is a great woman’ is a phrase that hasn't aged well. Overlooked and undervalued, these wives, lovers and discounted companions all stand, shadowed by that figure in front. The politics of art have always favoured men. From the ubiquitous nudes of the renaissance to Lucien Freud’s blotched beauties, women were – and still very much are – positioned to be looked at. Like the armless pillar of flesh that is Venus De Milo, women have been handicapped and stripped for millennia. If they ever do discover her marbled limbs it would seem fitting to find them sporting le bras d'honneur.

To have a muse has mostly been a male privilege. A symptom of artistic genius, its role, according to the feminist academic, Germaine Greer, is “to penetrate the male artist and bring forth a work from the womb of his mind”. It’s a rather captivating interpretation where gender roles are flipped and power is forever shifted. But when we start to unpack its baggage we find a lack of autonomy beneath the glamour. An icon without the ‘I’.

“You are my Stradivarius” the great Ingmar Bergman once told his ‘muse’, Liv Ullmann, who, up until his death in 2007, shared over forty years, twelve films, and a child with the auteur. Their kinship was one of cinema’s most fruitful and fascinating alliances. Part-time lovers and life-long friends, their turbulent relationship often bled onto the screen, smudging the borders of reality and fiction into a scalding blend of Scandinavian sensuality. Now, Ullmann, tired of the crooked politics of being a female director, can be found trekking through festival retrospectives, documentaries, memoirs and interviews, all the while accounting for a man’s genius.

But by no means does Ullmann begrudge the muse moniker, she embraces it as a gift. “Being seen by Ingmar Bergman changed me”, she told CBC Radio. “I found out that there is more to me, there's more in who Liv is, and what she understands.” Though it wasn't just Ullmann’s life which was altered, Bergman’s work with the Norwegian actress represented a shift in perspective. At first he looked from above, with moral fables like The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960), but soon glanced up to the heavens with the spiritual quandaries of Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963). It was only after the introduction of Ullmann that Bergman began to look inward, a self-reflexive meditation spanning decades.

With Persona (1966), as noted in his 1990 book, Images, Bergman “touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover”. One of those secrets is undoubtedly Ullmann, with her mute performance quietly simmering beneath vampiric desire, we can’t help but fall under her spell. Sucked into a vortex of gazes, we swim between two shores, two women who embody the tangled conscience of Bergman’s cinema. If Bibi Andersson represented a forgotten innocence then it’s through Ullmann we endure the trails of adulthood, the complexities of human connection.

“So many of Ingmar’s movies are about a little boy looking for safety”, Ullmann told TIFF director, Piers Handling at last year’s festival. This echoes the lasting image of Persona, that of the bespectacled youth caressing Andersson’s projected face as it morphs into that of Ullmann. As if a glimpse into the future, these few seconds encapsulate a forty-two year relationship. Trapped behind a blurry backdrop and caged inside a frame, Ullmann would go on to become an on-screen vessel of infinite neurosis. “He didn't know who I was”, the actress told an audience at BFI Southbank, “But I understood one thing, I was Ingmar.”

Forever defined through a lens, the muse must abandon all sense of self. Only then will they become the blank canvas on which to project the male fantasy. When first introduced to Anna Karina – another great ‘muse’ of the 20th century – in Le Petit Soldat (1963), we don't see her, instead Godard describes her. She’s “chic” and “has a mouth like Leslie Caron”. Who is this woman? This Frankenstein of fantasies. Even when she appears on screen she’s kept from view as Godard teases us into a game of peek-a-boo. Then, the eagerly awaited close-up in which she shakes her hair lose and with it unfurls a frenzy of sensuality. With one orgasmic motion, Karina flexes the freedom and style of La Nouvelle Vague, sealing herself into the everlasting memory of cinema.

Karina’s career stretched beyond Godard’s grasp yet will be forever tethered to his genius. A pop-star, novelist and director, it could even be said that as an actress her role in Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) towered over anything she encountered with Godard. Similar to Karina, Ullmann left Bergman’s herd in 1970, swapping the misty mounds of Fårö Island for the Hollywood hills. Her efforts however went largely unrecognised as films like Lost Horizon (1973) and 40 Carats (1973) proved critical and box-office hiccups.

After returning to Europe, landing a string of successful roles, Ullmann stood behind the camera for Sofie (1993). It’s a directorial debut searing with a unique sensitivity throughout, a quality largely overlooked at the time. ‘Inevitably’, wrote Stephen Holden of the New York Times, “Sofie, has a strong Bergmanesque ambiance… Like Mr. Bergman, Ms. Ullmann has a particular fascination with people's eyes”. Constantly comparing and contrasting her work with the Swedish maestro, it seemed the world wasn't ready to view Ullmann as an artist in her own right.

Faithless (2000), arguably Ullmann’s finest outing as a director, shuffles memories of life and art into what Ebert calls, “the kind of truth seeking that movies and life rarely allow”. Penned by Bergman himself, the production offers an intriguing power reversal. It might be his words, but it’s Ullmann’s story to tell. The film in many ways is Bergman’s confession, making strong allusions to the pair’s rocky past, it weighs the price of heedless passion, a price that only time can measure.

Now in 2019, time has rendered the ‘muse’ defunct. With the #MeToo movement highlighting the uneven power structures across the media industry, such antiquated terms of objectification seem like rusted relics of a bygone era. The once associated glamour has turned to grime, the metaphor for creativity now a broken tool of male control. And although dozens of articles lazily attempt to corral such pairings – like Diane Keaton/ Woody Allen or Uma Thurman/Quentin Tarantino – under the muse/artist banner, the term holds little meaning for these actresses. “It's great if he finds me inspiring”, Thurman told a Rolling Stone reporter in 2004 “But it [the muse label] doesn't really relate to what I did."

Carefully unpicking such tired terminology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) weaves a playful deconstruction of male power. We align ourselves with Alma (Vicky Krieps), her wants and desires, her need not to be looked at but listened to. It’s through her we become an accessory to obsession, suffering the polite violences of fixated stares and domestic ritual. The film threads mainstream myths through a feminist perspective, asking us to consider the psychological cost of being placed on a pedestal.

And like most mythology, the muse dates back to Ancient Greece. Beloved deities of song, dance and memory, these Goddesses were summoned by men in order to spur imagination. Now, seeping through to pop culture, these crusted fables of divinity, according to the writer, Manthia Diawara, “mask history and addict us to voyeurism, fetishism and mystified social relations”. Attach these myths to Ullmann, Karina, or any other person anchored by the 'muse' tag, and not only will you dismiss the artistry and grit, you ultimately ignore their humanity. Having severed the monosyllabic shackle holding them captive to celluloid, they've undeniably earned the right to be called artists. But with their directorial work grossly under-seen or unavailable, they patiently wait for the world to catch up.

Jane Magnusson’s Bergman: A Year in a Life is at UK cinemas from this weekend