You have to be in the right mood for an Ingmar Bergman film—a quiet, contemplative mood, free of distractions—or you can easily lose patience with his austere meditations. His writing takes you deep into the interior landscape of characters, forcing you to examine their motives and embrace their moral dilemmas. It’s uncomfortable terrain.
In Faithless, which he wrote and Liv Ullmann directed, the terrain he explores is his own life. Erland Josephson plays Bergman, an old director who sits forlornly in his house on the shore and relives the mistakes of his life through an imagined encounter with a woman he once loved.
This is essentially a tale of adultery and its consequences, which is certainly not new ground. What is different here is that Bergman replays this tale entirely through the perspective of the faithless wife. Lena Endre turns in a remarkably impassioned performance as Marianne, a surprisingly sympathetic, though fatally flawed, character. This is a tragic tale of self-destruction, of a woman who sacrifices her marriage and her role as parent for an unworthy man. While its unhurried pace and philosophical tone make the going a bit tedious in the first hour, it is worth the wait.
Marianne tells her story almost as a confessional to the old director. He sits numbly, listening to the cascading details of her life with the emotional detachment of a well-paid therapist. That detachment, however, belies a deep paralysis. This is man left hollow by the regrets of his past. He can only listen with a resigned remorse as this beautiful and bereaved woman bares her soul.
By having Marianne tell her own story, Bergman makes us privy to every thought, rationale and regret, turning her into a character we come to intimately know. Despite her culpability, we can’t help but find her predicament heart-rending. This is her story and Bergman does little to flesh out the other characters, never giving us much of a sense of either the husband or the lover.
Marianne is a 40-year-old actress, married to an internationally renowned conductor with whom she has a young daughter. She has what she thinks is a good marriage, confessing that their sex life is very good and their desire remains strong. Her husband’s best friend, David (Krister Henriksson), is a frequent visitor in their house. He’s like a brother to her, until one night the two share a bed like an old married couple. “It felt right or at least not wrong,” Marianne tells the old man.
Though nothing happens that night, the experience changes something. She sees David in a new light. When they next meet, she kisses him, casting her decision. Their unanticipated affair begins clumsily as a “diversion before death, playing in the short twilight.” But soon, it takes them in serious and unintended directions with tragic consequences. A somber story rich in emotional detail, Faithless takes two-and-a-half hours to unravel. Many people will lose patience in the first plodding hour, though events escalate in the last half-hour.
As a director, Liv Ullmann has learned well from her mentor. Using Bergman’s script she crafts a penetrating and authentic exploration of adultery and betrayal. The camera lingers on the faces of the players, revealing their guilt, grief, jealously, alienation, loneliness, rage and regret. Marianne is shattered by the consequences of her choices. She knows what she has done: broken up her marriage; scarred her young daughter, who intuitively senses everything; and ruined the man she once loved. Now she has only a jealous lover who lets her down when she needs him most. Their affinity, she realizes too late, was in their misery. Even when they know they’re “two drowning people” heading for disaster, they don’t withdraw.
“No form of common failure, whether it be sickness, or bankruptcy or professional misfortune, will make such a cruel and deep echo in your subconscious as a divorce,” the film begins. “It goes straight to the source of all anguish, awakening it. With one single stab, it penetrates as deeply as life can ever reach.”
Marianne is fated for that anguish from the time the film opens. As the old man fingers pictures of her pulled from a drawer in the opening moments, it’s obvious that nothing good is going to come. If you want insight into the origins and outcomes of adultery, this is the film to see. It’s a piercing look into human frailty. But beware, this terrain is as bleak as it is vast. If you’re not in a melancholy mood when you see this, you will be when it’s over.
Faithless (R) HHH Written by Ingmar Bergman. Directed by Liv Ullmann. Starring Lena Endre and Krister Henriksson. In Swedish with subtitles.