“Muse” is a limiting term, even offensive to some, positioning women in an subject-object relationship to the male artists they inspire. But it’s one of the best ways to describe what Liv Ullmann meant to Ingmar Bergman, the greatest filmmaker Sweden ever produced and Ullmann’s longtime partner both professionally and personally. She starred, to rapturous acclaim, in his films throughout the ’60s and ’70s; their occasionally tempestuous but profoundly intimate bond (which included a discreet romance while they were both otherwise involved, and a daughter born out of wedlock) provided Bergman with an emotional crucible, inflicting pain and making him confront his own flaws as frequently as it lifted him up. Ullmann’s genius was in the way she expanded the role of the muse, from a source of creative nourishment to something closer to a psychological sparring partner.
Ullmann’s career would bring her greatness outside of Bergman’s long shadow; she directed films that bewitched the international festival circuit, and eventually earned two Academy Award nominations for collaborations with other directors. Still, the two remained close, more than friends and beyond lovers in a bone-deep bond many people never get the chance to experience. In the documentary Liv and Ingmar: Painfully Connected, she fondly recalls Bergman describing her as his Stradivarius, the finest instrument an artist could ever hope to work with. Ullmann confesses that it’s the best compliment she ever received, and while the sentiment is moving, Bergman’s comparison is a bit off: She is not the violin, but the violinist, with Bergman as her symbiotically linked conductor.
Ullmann makes a pair of in-person appearances this week at New York’s Film Forum to introduce Shame (on March 2) and The Passion of Anna (on March 3) as part of the theater’s comprehensive Bergman retrospective commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth. Over the course of a candid phone call, the 79-year-old actress spoke with Vulture about her rich and complicated relationship to Bergman, the eternal relevance of the films they made together, and the dismally boring dinner party that made her stop rewatching her own movies.
While rewatching Bergman’s work, I’ve wondered about your relationship to films from your own past. Do you revisit them at all? Is that experience comforting or unsettling?
No, no, I really do not. I’ve made a lot of movies with Ingmar, I’ve directed some from his scripts, but I do not watch them. You do a movie or a play, it’s tremendously important at the time, and then you go on. It’s part of life. For me, what’s special with Ingmar — first of all, he’s an incredible director. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch his movies again and again. I don’t understand actors that do that. I was once with a very famous actor in Hollywood at a dinner he had thrown, and afterward, he put his movies on the TV for the rest of the guests to watch! I don’t want to be that actor, not even at my age.
May I ask who this was?
Hmm. Well, he’s dead now, he’s a legend. I can remember walking the streets of New York with my sister, and there he came: We both looked, and turned, and then he turned. We were both very young and beautiful, you know. For many years, that was our favorite story. Then, years later, I was invited to his dinner. I will give you one name; the King of Sweden was there. But I cannot give you the actor’s name, I once admired him very much and I still do. That night, though, he just made us watch his movies and fell asleep.
What do you think people misunderstand most about the craft of acting?
People always want to know how you can learn all the lines, but that’s not the half of it, that’s easy. Actors are a little guilty of letting our work become the red carpet and the jewels and the wonderful dresses. Think of the Oscars, which I really do look forward to as a celebration of cinema and how it can change you, but it’s about richness instead of talking more about artistry and how to get in someone else’s body. When I was a child, it was incredible to go to movies — the lights go down and the screen lights up and magic happens. It is magic! You sit in the dark with strangers and then all of your lives are a little different when you stagger back onto the street.
Do you find that people talk to you about some of your films more than others?
In general, people ask more about The Emigrants and The New Land, but among Ingmar’s films, probably Scenes From a Marriage and Cries and Whispers. There are films he’s made that I think people should talk about more, that’s why I’m so glad they’re playing his films again, like Shame. It’s an antiwar movie made 50 years ago, and still one of the best antiwar movies I’ve seen. It doesn’t focus just on the death and the guns and the bombs, but what these things do to living human beings, even the ones who were privileged when the war started … To a lot of people today, that’s the greatest terror.
His films do feel quite modern — something like Persona looks futuristic even today. Do these movies have a relevance now that you couldn’t have anticipated at the time?
Yes, absolutely! Look at Scenes From a Marriage, and the #MeToo thing! This happened to me in the film, my husband comes and tells me he’ll be leaving me, that he’s been carrying on with someone else for some time, and there’s some violence. Or Autumn Sonata, relationships between children and mothers, that lasts forever. People hear his writing more now, more than just the images. The coldness and indifference, which is very much part of our world, speaks to people today in a time of hate and anger. Maybe even more so than when he made them. That’s what all great artists do; listen to Bach today, it’s more beautiful than when you heard it the first time.
The documentary Liv and Ingmar shows your professional and personal relationship with Ingmar to be close, but sometimes troubled. When someone dies, I think people have a tendency to look at them in a kinder or more favorable light. Has your estimation of Ingmar changed at all in the decade since his passing?
Oh, no, I didn’t feel that that film Liv and Ingmar described our relationship as troubled. We did three movies when we lived together. We shared a bed, he built the house where we lived, and we had a daughter together. I made 10 or 11 movies after that, too, as an actor and director. We had an incredibly deep and wonderful friendship in this time. When I saw that documentary, it was a lovely thing. I remembered, “Oh, there I was sleeping and he kissed my head.” We had such a good relationship that I made some of the movies I directed on the island where we had our house together. I shot in his office, in the museum that his house has. I wouldn’t call it a troubled relationship.
I don’t mean to get you wrong, but I’m thinking of one scene in particular, where you’re shooting near a fire and Ingmar pressures you to sit closer to it even though you’re nervous about it.
Ah, this was in a time we lived together. And he didn’t try to push me into the fire or anything. This is what happens when you live with someone. Your frustration is very often part of what you give to the other person. That could not have happened when we no longer lived together, which was 40 years versus only five spent living together. We quarreled, sure, but we became friends again very quickly, too. But when we quarreled, we really quarreled. He was surprised, because I seemed so timid and quiet, but I was his equal in these arguments. But they were never violent.
Einstein had this idea that two particles could become linked, and would respond to one another even on opposite ends of the universe. Do you believe that this happens between people, that someone can come into your life and no matter what you do, they’ll be a part of it forever?
I’m sure. I know my father, who died when I was 6, has always very much been part of my life. I had his picture on my night table. Same with my mother, my friends. Ingmar was part of my life, and still is. I saw him just a few hours before he left us. I came to his bedroom, and there was no one there. I don’t know why. The last movie he did was Saraband, and I play a wife who comes to see my ex-husband. And he says, “Why did you come here?” maybe not so happy about this, and I say, “You called for me.” I think that’s what you’re asking. That’s why I came to Ingmar that time. I don’t know if he knew I was there or not, but I held his hand and he held mine and I told him, “You called for me.” Deep down, I think he knew it was me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.