Cracking Up: On Liv Ullmann in Face to Face

Face to Face (1976) | Olive Films
Olive Films

Liv Ullmann received one Oscar nomination for her work with Ingmar Bergman, for a film you’ve likely never heard of: 1976’s Face to Face. The film is perhaps best known from a factoid—it was the Bergman film Woody Allen and Diane Keaton tried to see in Annie Hall. (Allen’s character refuses to go into the movie two minutes late; they see The Sorrow and the Pity instead.)

Face to Face was made as a four-part, three-hour film for Swedish television, and was cut into shorter versions for its international theatrical release. Today, it remains one of the few Bergman titles not scooped up by Criterion. You can order a DVD copy of a two-hour cut in standard definition with terrible sound; the full original version of the film is unavailable in the US.

Face to Face (1976) | Olive Films

Bergman, at the time, was taken with the theories of maverick psychotherapist Arthur Janov, inventor of one of the best-known psych fads of the 70s, Primal Therapy. Janov’s controversial bestseller, The Primal Scream, claimed that repressed pains from childhood can only be processed through a harrowing regression to the moment the pain took place—the moment when we realized our parents didn’t love us for who we were, the moment we wanted to scream out our anger and longing, but kept it bottled up instead. Janov believed that this bottling-up of childhood pain emotionally deadened the patient for life. The cure was to reexperience the pain. In Primal Therapy, the therapist prompts you and prods you into calling for Mommy and Daddy, louder and louder, and before you know it, you are accessing memories you long repressed, triggering traumas you didn’t know you had, and melting into a delirious, convulsive puddle on the floor of the office, emitting what the back cover of the book luridly advertises as the “blood-chilling, terrifying Primal Scream.”

Bergman, long fascinated by his own childhood traumas, thought this all made perfect sense. In his memoirs, The Magic Lantern, he says he was struck by reading The Primal Scream, which he found “fresh and bold, lucidly and fascinatingly laid out.” After meeting with Janov in person in Los Angeles (“immediately we were on the same wavelength”), Bergman, “extremely stimulated,” set about writing “a television film in four parts along Janov lines.”

It’s a weird one. The plot follows the repressed Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Ullmann), who has taken a temporary job filling in as the medical supervisor at a mental hospital while her husband and daughter are away for the summer. While working at the clinic, she stays with her grandparents, who had raised her after her parents died. She sleeps in her teenage bedroom. In these familiar surroundings, a huge, primordial anxiety begins welling up in Jenny, manifesting in the form of a one-eyed old woman who visits her at night. She staves off the fear as long as she can, until she can’t take it anymore, and decides to swallow a bottle of pills one afternoon. From this point on, the film moves back and forth between Jenny’s hospital room and a series of strange dream sequences in which she wears billowing red robes and a medieval hood while confronting painful memories. It all builds to a monologue in which Ullmann verbally reenacts a series of childhood traumas—complete with voices for different characters—culminating in a truly spectacular Primal Scream.

In the letter Bergman wrote to the cast as a preface to the screenplay, he admits that “the kind of film we are embarking on offers dangerous possibilites of artistic idea-diarrhea.” If the film works at all (and there’s an argument that it doesn’t), it’s a testament to Ullmann’s talent. On the page, Dr. Jenny Isaksson is even more cerebrally conceived than a typical Bergman character—less a human being than a walking advertisement for Primal Therapy. The first half of the script seems to call for an almost comically tight-lipped, stone-faced blankness; the second half calls for at least four different coloratura breakdowns. Bergman says she “fought like a lion” in the role, and, just hearing about it, you might imagine that the Oscar nomination was a reward for a kind of athletic stamina, for a heroic stab at an impossible target.

That might have been true. But if it were me, I know why I’d vote for it.

*

The better-known Bergman film about a woman’s mental breakdown is 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, a chamber drama for four players: Karin, a young woman suffering from schizophrenia (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her father David, and her younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård). According to her husband, Karin is “unusually well” after a recent stay at the hospital, and the four of them hope that they’ll be able to have a pleasant holiday at their summer home. But when Karin hears voices calling to her from a mysterious empty room in the house, she can’t resist them. Then, she unravels.

Early in the film, we get to see what a schizophrenic episode looks like for Karin. We follow her as she slips up the steps to her secret room, the one covered in peeling wallpaper. Her robe falls from her shoulders, leaving her in just a thin white nightgown; she lists to one side, landing softly against a wall. A chorus of whispers calls to her from inside a gash in the wallpaper, across the room. In a closeup, we follow her eyes as they slide toward the sounds; we can hear the whispers too, though we can’t make out the words.

Through A Glass Darkly | Criterion
Through A Glass Darkly | Criterion

The rest of Karin’s reverie takes place in a long shot. We watch as she takes slow, dancelike steps toward the center of the room, looking toward the camera, her fixed on the gash in the wall. Once in position, she clasps her hands as in prayer; she whispers back to the voices, more words we can’t hear; she sways, running her hands through her hair; and finally, she falls to her knees in a sensual ecstasy, pulling her nightgown down between her legs.

We find ourselves entranced, just as Karin is entranced; we’re pulled in as she’s pulled in. But we don’t know what to feel, because we don’t know what Karin feels—and neither does she. Karin’s schizophrenic episodes take place in a dissociative fugue. When she lapses into one, we’re not in her head. We’re watching, worried, from across the room.

One of the first things you might learn in an acting class is the paradigm of objectives, obstacles, and tactics. The idea is that, as an actor, you should always know what your character wants, what’s in the way, and what they’re going to do to get what they want. It’s a simple tool to make sure the actor stays active and engaged in a scene, and, understood broadly, the system works for pretty much the entire range of human behavior. And as long as the audience can track with the character’s objectives and obstacles, they stay engaged, too, curious to see what tactics the character will use.

It’s clear Harriet Andersson knows what Karin—at least the schizophrenic part of Karin—wants in this scene, and what might be in her way. But the objectives, obstacles, and tactics of a character in the midst of a psychotic episode are, by definition, not easily understood by those outside of it. They’re difficult for an actor to convey, and difficult for an audience to interpret. In Through a Glass Darkly, we mostly can’t, and aren’t meant to. Instead, we can take on the objectives of her little brother, who wants to understand, or her husband, who wants to help, or her father, who simply wants to watch. When it comes time for Karin to panic and scream, the horror we feel is not so much with her as for her, and for the ones with her.

*

Midway through Face to Face, Liv Ullmann does the wildest thing I’ve ever seen an actor do, on film or stage.

Jenny’s come home with Thomas (Erland Josephson), a gynecologist. They’ve been on a second date of sorts, and he’s agreed to keep her company through an anxious night, as long as he isn’t interested in having sex with her. Jenny has been suffering from nightmares, and is trying desperately to keep the doors of her mind shut against the demons: “If you force everything to be as usual then it will be as usual,” she tells herself. Thomas lends her some Valium and Mogadon and a glass of water. She takes them and they go to bed.

Thomas is reading by the light of the table lamp, and Jenny is half-awake, face down in a brown bathrobe amidst the very brown sheets. The monologue she gives next is an acting challenge in itself, and not something I’m going to try to unpack—in a lifeless murmur, she tells Thomas about the stranger who sexually assaulted her earlier that day, and describes several disturbing thoughts she had during it. It would take another essay to talk about what the speech says about Jenny’s psychological state, and about whether there’s anything potentially irresponsible about the way it’s written (there is). What I want to talk about is the insane feat of acting technique that happens next.

Bergman’s script asks the actress to dissolve into a laughing fit that turns out to be a panic attack, in which “wild laughter turns into wretching sobs”—all the while periodically insisting to Thomas that she’s okay, and calmly asking him to call a taxi. It’s one thing to write a scene with this many key and tempo changes; it’s quite another to play it. But in a single, uninterrupted seven-minute take, Ullmann does.

Here’s the scene, because it probably has to be seen to be believed. And it’s perhaps easier to appreciate the technique with the subtitles off. 

Lying on her stomach, she begins the fit by snorting, her laughter low and throaty. She establishes a rhythm, and uses the spasms of laughter to crank herself all the way up to a seated position. She comes back into herself after this long, inexplicable outburst, apologizing to Thomas: “Forgive me. I don’t know. I don’t understand,” she says, rubbing the bridge of her nose, trying to take a deep breath. She smiles what seems like a knowing smile at herself, and lets out a small laugh in disbelief. But that laugh starts the machine running again, and she’s off once more on the runaway horse. She laughs herself into a face-down position, her head thrown back, as if paralyzed.

As Thomas tries to shake her back into herself, she inhales hoarsely, apologizing again. She coughs and sniffs, shaking her head a little, willing herself steady. A deep breath threatens to break into a ghoulish grin. At last, the snort again, the cresting of the wave. A cackle comes out too forcefully and shatters into a cry, and she’s doubled over with furious, heaving sobs, as if something were trying to force its way up from her gut.

What Ullmann does with this fit is tremendous on a technical level, the way she rides the mechanism of the laughter—the fluttering of the diaphragm, the shaking of the torso, the irregular breath, the tightening of the face—all the way over the line into tears. Often you can’t tell which is happening. Suddenly you realize all the ways that a laughing fit and a crying fit physically resemble one another, how many of the same muscles they use: the eyes forced shut, the mouth frozen taut, the gasps for air, the spasms. The body out of control, vibrating, tensed and suspended.

Face to Face (1976) | Olive Films

But the most upsetting thing here is neither the laughter nor the sobs: it’s the moments when Jenny comes up for air. Dr. Jenny Isakson the soberminded psychiatrist is down in there, trapped inside this uncontrollable body, watching this happen to herself, helpless to stop it, amused by her own helplessness, disturbed by her own amusement. This is not a woman in a trance, like Karin in Through a Glass Darkly. This is a woman in waking horror of her own mind. We know this character’s objective and obstacle: to stop the anxiety attack. She employs a hundred small tactics, both physical (deep breaths, knit brows, posture changes, turning on a lamp) and psychological (bemused disbelief, self-soothing, clinical resolve, explanation, denial).

Nothing works. The effort with which Jenny tamps down on her attack only gives it greater force when it finds an escape; the harder she tries to contain it, the bigger it gets.

For an actor, intensifying the obstacle can be a way of intensifying the objective, and vice versa. If an actor is trying to gin up some tears and failing, a good acting coach will remind the actor that real people aren’t usually trying to cry, they’re trying not to cry. It’s the pressure that makes the dam burst.

*

If you’re wondering what this is like to watch in context: it’s horrible. There’s a sharp response from the sympathetic nervous system to the noises Jenny makes in this scene. They aren’t the kinds of noises you usually hear in movies, or really even in life, except perhaps in the most private moments of our most intense distress. I’ve felt things like this before, but I never knew what they looked like.

But it’s not so much the intensity of Ullmann’s emotion that makes the scene as grueling a watch as it is. There are certainly plenty of other displays of acrobatic emotionality in cinema. The horror comes from the irony.

At one point, deep into the breakdown, Thomas (a doctor himself) asks Jenny, “Should I call for a doctor?”

“What are you thinking?” say Jenny, morbidly joking. “With all the medical expertise here…”

Jenny is a person medically qualified to understand her breakdown, who nonetheless can’t prevent or escape it. And Liv Ullmann finds a way to embody both sides of this: the absolute will to stabilize, and the terror at the uncontrollable attack, the futile attempt to outrun a storm. The camera stays close, the take never breaks, and we are positioned to feel it all with Ullmann—the self-awareness, the shame—and ride it out to the end.

Face to Face is a kind of answer to Through a Glass Darkly. In Through a Glass Darkly, we’re told that Karin knows the whole truth about her illness, except that it’s incurable. She finds that out, too, from reading her father’s diary. But there’s much that Karin mercifully doesn’t seem to know. The person she is outside of her schizophrenic episodes is innocent of the things she experiences inside them. Through a Glass is ultimately a view of a woman’s illness as seen from the outside, by three men; Face to Face is a woman’s illness as seen by the woman herself, from both the inside and the outside—not just as a patient, but as a doctor.

The title of Face to Face offers a dark twist on the apostle Paul’s promise of knowledge in his first letter to the Corinthians (italics mine): “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

The full significance of both titles is clarified by this juxtaposition. The films reveal themselves to be mirror images, separated by twenty-five years—two halves of a diptych of female mental illness. The mercy of a measure of self-ignorance gives way to the horror of full self-knowledge. And the humiliation of having your breakdown watched by others is nothing to the hell of watching it yourself.