Changing, Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann was a glorious actress, especially when directed by Ingmar Bergman. She is in her seventies now and still works as a director. Her film adaptation of Miss Julie released in 2014 starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton was highly praised, and she has directed Cate Blanchett in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Streetcar named Desire.

The peak of her film career was in 1966 in Persona, when she was in a relationship with Bergman and directed by him. In this film she plays the part of an actress who has, for no obvious reason, become mute. She is taken to a sea-side cottage in company of a young nurse, Alma, played by Bibi Andersson (a former lover of Bergman). This is a very strange film about the almost merging of two personae, using all the cinematic tricks of split screens and flashing holocaust images. It is beautiful in its black and white, but the claustrophobic nature of the relationship and the violence of the struggle between the two women can make it hard to watch except for the true film devotee. A few years later she made Shame with Max von Sydow, a lifelong friend. I don’t know how often the films are aired these days. I saw many of Ingmar Bergman’s early black and white films in Film Society days, and was deeply impressed by them. I shall never forget The Seventh Seal where a man, played by Max von Sydow, is condemned to play a game of chess against the devil. At the time I thought it was the height of sophistication. It has been hugely influential for other film makers. This dates from 1957, ten years before Ullmann’s appearance.

I came upon Changing, the first of Liv Ullmann’s autobiographical writings, in one of my old book haunts and hoped to learn more about her, but only got a glimpse into her life. She was born in Japan but is Norwegian (Bergman was Swedish) and in 1977 when she wrote this book seemed to live between Los Angeles and Oslo, not really comfortable in either. Her first successful role when she was eighteen was in repertory as Anne Frank. She found it easy to take on the persona of Anne. She then moved on to more stage work, often playing Nora in A Doll’s House.

I have always admired Ullmann’s subtlety as an actress and was interested to find out how she negotiated what must have been painful episodes in her life. I didn’t really find much here. She writes very much from a subjective point of view and I would say she has used a journal to create this book. It is quite episodic and lacks the description and detail that would bring her world alive. She has suffered a great deal and seems to have a deep underlying sense of loneliness. She suffers from maternal guilt (like so many of us) and is quite protective of Bergman. They lived on a small island together for a number of years but it is clear their life was always on his terms.Their daughter, Linn, who was almost totally raised by Ullmann,is an author and literary critic, and while Ullmann herself has had a distinguished career, underneath there still lies the girl who is afraid of the dark, the girl who feels guilty for crossing over the road to avoid speaking to an elderly uncle, and the woman who is deeply cynical about relationships between men and women and the different opportunities available to them:

One thing I learned.
That a husband is a sort of alibi for a woman. Never mind what it looks like behind the scenes.
He may be fat and stupid and old, but nonetheless he can condemn the woman’s flabby body and menopause, and encounter only sympathy if he exchanges her for a younger one. That goes for professional life. That goes for private life.
I have had periods of living in the exposed position a single or divorced woman has to cope with. Been the woman who everyone knows ‘doesn’t have someone.’…

To be a woman is to have the same needs and longings as a man.
We need love and we wish to give it

6 thoughts on “Changing, Liv Ullmann

  1. I remember the name but struggle to recall her face. The women’s movement was just getting started around then.
    Bergman did a number of rather dark films. I always thought it was part of the Scandinavian persona. Interesting you should come out with this on International Women’s Day.

  2. i saw her in Autumn Sonata as she was coming to the end of her career. It is an astonishing film. It is years ago now, but I’ve never forgotten it.

  3. You have to admire her and her accomplishments but the observations on men you quote is just so depressing — why are men so arrogant? I hope I haven’t fallen, and wil never fall, into that way of thinking.

    1. I’m sure you won’t and we have to remember her observations are largely based on life in the film world in Los Angeles, not just on her life with Bergman.

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