The somber figure of Ingmar Bergman no longer looms over the film world like a guilty conscience, but the great Swedish director has spawned enough artistic descendants to keep us supplied with thorny philosophical and ethical questions for decades to come. Faithless, the second film that actress Liv Ullmann has directed from a Bergman script, is a prime example: Its painful dissection of a tragic love triangle recalls so many images and ideas of Bergman works past that it is difficult, at times, to distinguish between Ullmann's finely tuned sensibility and that of her 82-year-old mentor and former lover, who retired from directing 19 years ago. Ullmann may have stood behind the camera and called the shots, but there's no mistaking the powerful influence that shapes her work -- or her abiding respect for it.
Lest we have any doubts, one of the central characters here is an aged writer named Bergman (Erland Josephson), who's isolated in a setting that every devotee of Hour of the Wolf or Persona will recognize -- a stark house on the shore of a chilly sea island. Tormented by memories and contemplating his death, the old man (Hemingway-esque right down to his snowy mane and beard) is struggling to write a story about a doomed love affair he had long ago, when his muse materializes in the study. She is a willowy sylph named Marianne (Lena Endre), and she becomes not just Bergman's memory prod but the protagonist of the discomfiting story that's growing in his imagination.
If Ingmar Bergman's greatest strength has always been his access to the inner lives of women, Ullmann certainly shares it. Marianne's follies and trials, as they unfold in flashback, are as harrowing as anything in the Bergman canon, and Endre's portrait of a woman who betrays her husband, her young daughter and herself has all the intricate detail and emotional kick of a classic performance by, say, Liv Ullmann. The actress-director was the touchstone of nine memorable Bergman films, and in Faithless she seems to have transmitted to Endre her firsthand knowledge of Bergman's trademark anxieties -- and her own. The film is as unstintingly self-conscious and self-critical as anything the melancholy Swede ever directed in his heyday, and Endre, like Ullmann before her, becomes an overflowing vessel of agonized alienation.
The plot is typically skeletal, besieged by ceaseless waves of guilt, grief and regret. Marianne, a married actress with a child (Michelle Gylemo), slips into an ill-considered affair with a movie director, David (Krister Henriksson), who also happens to be the best friend of her husband, Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a musician and conductor. On a trip to Paris, Marianne and David undertake a tryst, and soon they are swept into a maelstrom of passion and self-destruction. "Our affinity was based on misery," Marianne later laments, and we have no reason to doubt her. He's a self-absorbed beast with a nasty streak of jealousy; she's a woman seemingly unable to distinguish between herself and her roles. This is familiar Bergman terrain, of course, and Ullmann knows every square inch of it. But the sympathy and motherly instinct with which she warms the drama here and there serve it well. If you can believe it, she's downright playful, even farcical, in spots. Nonetheless, we sense from the start that Marianne and David's misadventure will end very badly -- for the lovers, for Marianne's husband and child, and for the tortured Bergman, holed up decades later in his lonely study.
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Whether by Ingmar Bergman's design, or Ullmann's, the film is salted with visual and thematic references to his classics. Faithless is not just a moving and intensely satisfying tragedy in its own right, beautifully staged and superbly acted, it's also a virtual catalogue of Ingmar Bergman's themes and obsessions, seen through the prism of Liv Ullmann's vision. It's a profoundly disturbing way to spend two hours of your life, and it's hard to endorse a film more strongly than that.