It is a thrice-told tale. Ingmar Bergman first brought it to the screen in "Scenes from a Marriage," then devoted a chapter of his autobiography, "The Magic Lantern," to it. Now, at 82, he has written it again, this time as a savage domestic tragedy. He calls it "Faithless," and since he no longer directs films, he has given it to his onetime star and sometime lover, Liv Ullmann, to direct. It is, they both insist, very much her film. Bergman visited her set only once and never intruded on her editing room. Her style is warm, almost glowing, and it makes an ironic comment on a harrowing narrative. More important, her manner may grant Bergman something he cannot grant himself forgiveness for bad behavior that has haunted him for a half-century. "He wants a woman's vision," says Ullmann, "a woman's experience to confront him."
Why he has turned this experience into what amounts to his own harsh Strindbergian "Ghost Sonata" remains a mystery. One can easily imagine someone less guilt ridden than Bergman regarding the incident more as a youthful folly than as a life-shaping event. The facts of the matter are mundane enough, as he says in his book. In 1949, Bergman and a journalist named Gun Hagberg, both unhappily married, entered into a passionate affair, beginning with a long tryst in Paris, and continuing after their return to Sweden, where she discovered she was pregnant with his child. A bitter wrangle with her husband over custody of their children ensued. One night, Hagberg's husband called and proposed meeting to discuss an amicable solution. He was lying: he would settle with her only if she would sleep with him one more time. Hagberg succumbed to what amounted to a form of rape.
Bergman immediately discovered the truth and, instead of offering sympathy, flew into a jealous, unappeasable rage. There was an attempt to patch things up, and their child was born, but their love died, and they separated. Hagberg died years later in a car crash, having inspired, according to Bergman, at least five of the women in his films, a model of "indomitable femininity."
In "Faithless," a character called Bergman (the elder version is played by Erland Josephson, who also knows, as Ullmann puts it, about "being older, being alone, fearing death") sits alone in his study. He is dreaming this movie. In the process he conjures up his old love, called Marianne and played by the luminous Lena Endre, who settles in to offer her reflections on the history they shared.
Comfortably sexy, occasionally angry at the opacity of the young Bergman (played with tight, menacing restraint by Krister Henriksson), she's still amazed at how their self-absorption, matched by the self-destructive, almost 19th-century romanticism of her conductor-husband (Thomas Hanzon), leads from the merely regrettable to the definitively tragic.
Here Bergman has fictionalized or, possibly, is revealing, more than he has before. What is obvious is that the law of unintended consequences stirs steadily beneath the surface of "Faithless." Its largest impact is on Marianne's nine-year-old daughter, devastated by the breakup of a seemingly contented marriage, who then, of all horrendous things, is invited to join her father in suicide. It is her innocent victimhood her betrayal by heedless adults that emerges most clearly and movingly in the film.
Ullmann does not think Hagberg/Marianne was Bergman's "great love," but that she was perhaps the first woman "who really fired him up" sexually. What Ullmann does believe is that when his lover confessed her enforced unfaithfulness, "he lost control, and I think that's the only time in life that he lost control, and he abandoned her I mean completely." To borrow a phrase, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"
Probably none. But Bergman, who long ago abandoned his anguished search for God in favor of a belief that striving for a high, austere art is as close as we can come to redemption, is here, as Ullmann says, "face to face with himself. I believe he's forgiving himself, doing this movie." She is not, of course, certain of that. But we have, at least, the minor miracle of this intricate, devastating work, passionately involving us in this old man's wintry, unspoken quest for grace.