Bibi Andersson, “Simple, Uncomplicated, and Deep”

On Film / The Daily — Apr 15, 2019
Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966)

Before Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman tended to cast Bibi Andersson, who passed away on Sunday at the age of eighty-three, in what the Guardian’s Ronald Bergan calls “‘fresh-faced girl’ roles.” Following a brief turn as a carefree actress in Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), she played a radiant wife and mother in an otherwise grave classic, The Seventh Seal (1957). Bergman gave her two roles in Wild Strawberries (1957), an idealized love interest and a sort of forerunner to the manic pixie dream girl, and in The Magician (1958), she’s a giddily flirtatious servant. In short, Andersson brought a light airiness that allowed each succeeding chapter in Bergman’s long and anguished argument with God to breathe, but she found the limited range of these roles stifling. “It bothered me,” she told Richard Eder in a 1977 interview for the New York Times, adding that “until Persona, he put me in uncomplicated roles, symbolizing simple, girlish things. I used to be called ‘a professional innocent.’”

Andersson was still in her teens when she first appeared before Bergman’s camera. The year was 1951, the Swedish film industry was on strike, and Bergman had found work shooting a soap commercial. Andersson was studying acting and working as an extra in various film and television productions before joining Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre. She and Bergman carried on collaborating after their romantic relationship fizzled and, in 1960, she married Swedish screenwriter and director Kjell Grede. In 1964, a serious illness forced Bergman to abandon a project he’d written for her, but while recovering in the hospital, he came across a photograph of Andersson and her good friend, the up-and-coming Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. Struck by both the similarities and differences between their faces, Bergman wrote Persona in fourteen days.

Andersson plays Alma, a nurse caring for Elisabet (Ullmann), an actress who’s suddenly stopped speaking. Alma starts out as chatty and cheerful as any of the other characters Andersson had played in Bergman’s films, but when the two women move to a remote cottage by the sea, and as their identities begin to meld, Alma’s one-way dialogue with Elisabet becomes a sort of talking cure, a probing conversation with herself. One night, she recalls an erotic encounter she and a friend had with two strangers on a beach. In a video essay that accompanies the release last fall of our collection Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, Sheila O’Malley argues that this monologue is “one of the greatest single pieces of acting in cinema. Andersson’s superbly flexible voice lilts up and down the scale, sometimes snapping off the ends of words or plunging into a lower register. What she does is an object lesson for actors about getting lost in the moment, each word in the torrent of dialogue coming out of the depth of her experience.” In the New York Times, Anita Gates notes that while Andersson referred to her earlier performances as “corny” in a 1977 interview with American Film, she remained proud of Persona. “Each time I see it,” she said, “I know I accomplished what I set out to do as an actress, that I created a person.”

Persona was a landmark film not only for Andersson and Ullmann but for Bergman as well. In the 1960s, “the majority of the era’s most venerated western male art-house filmmakers doubled down on masculinist heteronormativity,” writes Michael Koresky in his most recent Queer & Now & Then column for Film Comment. Persona, he argues, is a crucial exception. “As non-narrative and liminal as the film becomes, entering into a realm that exists outside of time, space, and logic, Persona also only truly ‘makes sense’—if one desires such a thing—as a romantic relationship drama. All of the film’s pathos, the fears, the jealousies, and the eroticism that bubble to the surface are legible within the framework of a love story, from meeting to blossoming romance to dissolution. In fact, if looked at through the right queer lens, Persona could be among the most penetrating break-up movies ever made.”

Among the other directors Andersson worked with were Vilgot Sjöman (The Mistress, 1962), John Huston (The Kremlin Letter, 1970), Robert Altman (Quintet, 1979), and Gabriel Axel (Babette’s Feast, 1987). Looking back on his encounters with Andersson in 2014, Peter Cowie notes that in Mai Zetterling’s The Girls (1968), “Bibi could articulate her views (and those of the director) on the position of women in modern society—and did so with forthright intensity.” Throughout her film and television career, Andersson remained active in the theater, both as an actress and a director.

But Andersson will always be associated with Bergman, and thankfully, the roles were meatier after Persona. Scenes from a Marriage (1973), for example, begins with one of Owen Gleiberman’s “three or four favorite scenes in any film by Bergman,” a dinner party in which Andersson and Jan Malmsjö begin trading insults in front of their hosts (Ullmann and Erland Josephson). “It’s a sequence that in fifteen minutes achieves the claw-ripping power of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Gleiberman writes in Variety, “and the key to it all is Andersson’s cathartic portrayal of primal feminine rage.” In 1971, she appeared alongside Elliott Gould and Max von Sydow in Bergman’s first film in English, The Touch. Ronald Bergan has pulled a quote from Molly Haskell’s review for the Village Voice that neatly serves as an insightful summation of a complex career: “The evolution of Bibi Andersson under Bergman has been nothing short of marvelous: from simple, uncomplicated, and shallow to simple, uncomplicated, and deep. Her beautiful, once-blank face now mirrors the acquired wisdom of her generous soul, her mental health having become an asset. But if she is the simplest and least neurotic of Bergman’s women, she is also the strongest and most adult.”

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