‘Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words’
Director: Stig Bjorkman
3 (out of 5) Globes
The new, welcome trend in documentary profiles is the one that crams us inside the heads of icons (or tries to). Movies like “Listen to Me Marlon,” “Amy” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” don’t simply rattle off Wikipedia factoids; they use tactile sources — letters, drawings, home movies — to give us at least the illusion of direct access to those no longer with us, people whose public image has, in those three cases especially, been perverted into legend. True to its title, “Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Worlds” gives the story back to Bergman herself, although in this case also to her children (the most famous being Isabella Rossellini) who control her estate and also her legacy. If its not the 100 percent real deal truth, it’s a least a more accurate, and more intimate, new narrative.
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The film’s big “get” are letters Bergman wrote to friends and loved ones, read aloud — with an uncanny mixture of vulnerability and strength — by fellow Swede Alicia Vikander (and in Swedish). Vikander’s presence isn’t an accident; she’s been able to do what Bergman had to do by force, namely become a big star while trotting the globe, mixing blockbusters with art (and “The Danish Girl”). Bergman was the trend-setter — the one who jaunted to Hollywood in the mid-’30s during the second (or third, or fourth) wave of invading Europeans. When she wanted to try something new — say, work (and fall) for Italian neo-realist god Roberto Rossellini, and later Jean Renoir — she had to leave the industry entirely. At least when she returned from her seven-year European tour, she was gifted with an Oscar (for 1956’s “Anastasia”) before being put out to pasture like any middle-aged actress.
It might not seem Bergman particularly requires her record straightened. A stubborn and sometimes difficult actress who was nonetheless indefatigably lovable, she’s no Joan Crawford type. And her big scandals — chiefly, leaving her husband for Rossellini, which move was debated on the floor of the U.S. senate — have evolved into positive attributes, signs of her independence. (Vikander reading Bergman’s famous, to-the-point letter to Rossellini is wonderfully bonechilling.) Her infamy is forgotten, dwarfed by undying film classics, brought up to the masses as mere trivia during TCM intros. As such, "Ingrid Bergman" doesn't have the drive or noble agenda of "Listen to Me Marlon," which reclaimed Brando from decades of harsh scrutiny.
What it does do is — at risk of sound trite — reclaim her as a person, and one whose personality informed her lively performances. The mix of letters, TV interviews and copious home movie footage — with comparatively light use of clips from the likes of “Casablanca,” “Notorious” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” and segments that aren’t the same-old-same-old yet — does more than tell her story. It makes full use of the film medium to grant entryway into her mind, much as “Listen to Me Marlon” puts us in a space with the sometimes notorious (but actually complex, smart and brave) Brando. It’s a dialogue with her, though sometimes mediated by her children, who appear as talking heads and obvious guides to what they wish to become the official story.
Their reminiscences of their childhood sometimes eat up too much screentime, hitting at the same point (mom was awesome), even as they afford viewers such amazing images as young, sickly Isabella in a neck brace. They don’t ruin the arc, which allows you to watch Bergman grow from a slightly unsure youth into a cocksure cool mom who never lost the acting bug, all while telling a unique version of an immigrant's story. Few bits are more magical than watching young Bergman’s Hollywood screen test: watch her look awkward yet curious alongside her screen partner, her eyes darting around unpredictably, hungry for new sensations, the actress resisting being polished into a controllable starlet. You see a new side of her, one that’s best captured in images, not words.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge