Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words | Film Review | Tiny Mix Tapes

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words Dir. Stig Björkman

[Rialto Pictures; 2015]

Styles: biography, documentary
Others: Marlene, The Five Obstructions, …But Film is My Mistress

In a famous anecdote, when Isabella Rossellini once asked her mother why she saved so many things — letters, photos, diaries — Bergman replied, “I always knew I was going to be famous.” Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, which makes use of Bergman’s treasure trove of correspondence, diary entries, and home movies to reveal a biography of images supplemented by interviews with Bergman’s four children, doesn’t contradict her on this point. The Bergman portrayed in In Her Own Words is a relentless, constant worker, driven by a passion for acting that gained an early foothold in theater and blossomed. But Bergman’s success feels like something of a foregone conclusion. Though the film moves chronologically through the high points of Bergman’s life and work, it doesn’t linger on her early years in the Swedish film industry. Instead, Björkman uses Bergman’s early life to preface the extraordinary detail in which she will document her own adventures for us (such as a diary entry in which she writes, at the age of 14, “I shall have my memories with me always”).

Though “in her own words” is a literal description, with diary entries and letters read by Alicia Vikander in Swedish comprising much of the narration of the film, the most compelling part of In Her Own Words is what goes unsaid. The biographical details are, after all, not new territory — the finer points of Bergman’s life and work have been thoroughly covered in books and interviews prior to In Her Own Words, and the events depicted are almost entirely positive, from Bergman’s Hollywood break in David O. Selznick’s remake of Intermezzo (1939), to the explosion of Casablanca (1942), to her first Academy Award for Gaslight (1944). Even the scandal around her affair with Roberto Rossellini has become the well-trod stuff of Hollywood legend — by now, it wouldn’t even occur to most of us living in the post-Brad-and-Jen era of celebrity divorce to be offended by the end of one marriage and the start to another. In Her Own Words is no tell-all memoir — the thirst for the unknown, even for the unseemly, we seek to satiate when we delve into any celebrity behind the scenes tale goes almost painfully unrewarded here. Almost.

Though not breaking any new ground factually, Björkman’s master stroke lies in the contradictions he reveals narratively — or rather, which he allows Bergman to reveal herself. Shortly after 14-year-old Bergman declares her intent to leave no memory behind, Björkman cuts to a later interview in which she declares, “I don’t want roots. I want to be free.” But what are memories, if not a tether rooting us to the person we once were? These small contradictions are littered throughout the film, so that Bergman is constantly, unknowingly doubling back on herself. In this way, Björkman skillfully and subtly drives home to us the tension between how Bergman wanted to be seen (and how, indeed, she wielded her own camera to construct that image) and how she was perceived. The most poignant of these juxtapositions comes during her early Hollywood period. Over a series of idyllic home movies in which Bergman frolics in the backyard swimming pool with her first husband, neurosurgeon Petter Lindstrom, and their daughter, Pia, Björkman imposes a diary entry in which Bergman declares that, because of a lull in her career immediately following Intermezzo, “half of [her] is dead.” She rejects the contentment she knows she is supposed to feel with wife- and motherhood. Her life, we come to see, was only fully lived through film.

Pia, who was later estranged from her mother during Bergman’s relationship with Rossellini, confirms the tensions that Björkman intimates. “I just wanted more of her,” she says, wistfully, but not unforgivingly, toward the end of the film. It is a painful intersection of Bergman’s public and private lives. All four of her children openly wish in their interviews that their mother had been more available, more forthcoming. If Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words and its seemingly limitless supply of Bergman memorabilia is any indication, filmgoers and fans can relate.