Eyeball to Eyeball
Face to Face directed by Ingmar Bergman At the Cheri Theater complex
ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN The Touch, Ingmar Bergman's first English-language film, knows how tedious and heavy-handed a Bergman movie can be. Even the successful Scenes from a Marriage, with many scenes that are at once profound yet understated in presentation, is sometimes long-winded. In Face to Face, Bergman's newest film, the poigancy of the best scenes is undercut by insistence on spelling out his message over and over. In this case, the overkill is not so much verbal as structural; the entire conception of the film is flawed. In Scenes from a Marriage, one overlooks the occasional awkward moments because the core of the film is sound. Face to Face is a disappointment, representing a regression in Bergman's work.
The most irritating structural fault of the film is Bergman's repeated use of heavily symbolic dreamsequences. This is a departure for him, and an unlucky one. Earlier films such as Persona do contain sequences, such as the nocturnal mirror scene, that hang enigmatically between imagination, dream and reality. In Face to Face, the ambiguity is stripped away, leaving a boring and oversimplified didacticism.
An example: Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ullmann), the psychiatrist whose mental disintegration and attempted suicide are analyzed in the film, dreams (after the attempt) that she is in a small room surrounded by a crowd of anguished patients. There are so many of them that she can give only the most perfunctory attention to each. Ullmann approaches one woman and peels off her facial skin, which is a mask hiding a face covered with festering sores. Ullmann turns away. She opens a closet door to discover her near-senile grandfather. "I'm afraid of dying," he whispers. She tells him to count to ten, then, if he is still alive, to start again. He dutifully begins to count, but breaks off, saying, "I'm still afraid." Ullmann tells him that she must move on to the other patients. "Forgive me," he implores.
Psychologically, this makes good sense. That the doctor feels the same anguish as her patients, that she knows it's incurable, and that she feels guilty about uncovering the running sores of the soul, then dismissing then in a brisk and cheerful way--all of these are convincing reasons why a seeming model of sanity and success should suddenly break. But Bergman has demonstrated more effective ways of revealing this. The viewer feels so insulted and manipulated by the overexplicit technique of this dream-sequence that he is almost too preoccupied to concentrate on the unfolding story of Jenny's breakdown.
ANOTHER MAJOR technical aspect of the film, the camera work, intensifies resistance to the psychological themes of Face to Face. Here, however, the fault is of degree rather than kind. The relentless close-up is a Bergman trademark. It is successfully used in his other films, but he abuses it here. The camera focuses so obsessively on Ullmann, that, beautiful as she is, we begin to long for a pull-back, an aerial view, anything. No doubt the director intends us to feel irritated; our claustrophobia parallels Jenny's vexation at being walled up with herself, with the memories and impulses she wants to suppress. Unfortunately, Bergman goes too far with the close-up; he pushes us over the line from tension to squirming boredom. If the dream-sequence technique is condescending, the excruciating close-ups are ultimately too demanding for even the most well-disposed viewer.
It's too bad, because Face to Face has a number of things going for it. The acting is superb. Liv Ullmann's performance is, as always, extraordinarily sensitive. The excessive use of close-ups works against her at times. No matter how gifted an actor may be, the finite set of possible facial expressions can only provide a crude approximation of what is going on inside. Erland Josephson also gives a remarkable performance--better even than in Scenes from a Marriage--as Tomas, Jenny's friend, and later her doctor. And again, the details of Jenny's collapse are convincing.
AT THE BEGINNING of the film, she is in a transitional period; all the routines of her life have been temporarily suspended. Her husband is attending a summer-long conference in Chicago and her daughter is at camp. The family has just moved out of one house, but the new one is not yet ready, so Jenny goes to stay with her grandparents, with whom she spent most of her childhood. Bergman presents a believable situation in which a highly disciplined (and repressed) individual is unsettled by the sudden intrusion of free time. External organization is important to Jenny--later on, as she begins to fall apart, she tells herself, "If you force everything to be as usual, then it will be." She is thrown back into the scene of her unhappy past and finds it hard to resist the unwelcome memories that surface.
These external events are of course only catalysts in her breakdown. Her loneliness, guilt, her ancient resentments against her parents for dying and her grandmother for inadvertent cruelty, are all revealed later in the film. In Face to Face, the psychological case is uniformly convincing while the work of art is not. There are still a few perfect, self-contained moments in this film, however, particularly a night-time conversation Jenny overhears between her grandparents.
But Face to Face is not just a case history we watch out of morbid curiosity; it is meant to tell us something about ourselves. People less repressed than Jenny are subject to similar, less easily explicable feelings of arid alienation and despair. The character of Jenny is too idiosyncratic, and one has the option of dismissing her. Bergman forces us into excruciatingly close contact with his character, but, he leaves us a loophole by means of which we can evade the larger implications of his film.