Some films are best appreciated as the vessels that deliver extraordinary performances, and Ingmar Bergman’s probing psychological drama Face to Face is an example. Liv Ullman, one of Bergman’s most frequent collaborators, renders an extraordinary characterization as a woman succumbing to madness. Her portrayal climaxes in an epic-length crying/laughing jag that represents some of the most vulnerable work you’ll ever encounter in a movie—like all the best actors, she creates the illusion that she’s peeled off her skin, metaphorically speaking, to let viewers she the blood and viscera pumping underneath. The resulting sense of connection between actor and viewer is powerful to experience. The same cannot necessarily be said of the film as a whole. Although Ullman is in nearly every scene and remains compelling throughout, the story is a fairly standard iteration of Bergman’s style.
Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Ullman) is a psychiatrist stuck in an unsatisfying marriage, so when she meets suave Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Erland Josephson) at a party, she indulges his romantic overtures—up to a point. After a first date during which she startles Tomas by asking clinical questions about his planned technique for sexual conquest, she later tests his interest even further by having a major breakdown in his presence. Eventually, Jenny’s torment leads her to attempt suicide, and that lands her in a psych ward. Amazingly, Tomas remains loyal to her, visiting Jenny on a regular basis while she wrestles with her demons. Since Bergman was never a sentimentalist, he’s not after the notion that love conquers all—Face to Face expresses something closer to the idea that love makes the pain of existence incrementally more tolerable.
Along the way to articulating that mildly comforting expression, Bergman visits many dark places. Interestingly, the vignettes that connect most strongly in Face to Face are the unadorned ones, where Bergman employs nothing but acting and mise-en-scène, even though Face to Face contains a long surrealistic sequence that recalls the visually experimental Bergman of old—shades of The Seventh Seal (1957). The surrealistic sequence takes viewers inside Jenny’s mind. Wearing a metaphorically rich red dress, she drifts through pieces of her life, for instance raging at her parents. This sequence represents a noble attempt at bringing a character’s interior life to the surface, but it’s perhaps too linear and obvious to genuinely evoke a disturbed mental state.
Plus, as with many of Bergman’s dramas, there’s the overarching aesthetic question of how much emotional horror an audience should be asked to endure. Beyond Jenny’s breakdown, her suicide attempt, her institutionalization, and her wrenching dream sequence, Face to Face also includes an attempted rape and various scenes of interpersonal cruelty. Face to Face is tough to get through, and not every viewer will agree it’s worth the investment of attention and endurance.
Face to Face: GROOVY