Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson
While her husband is away on business, and her daughter is away at summer camp, a depressive psychiatrist (Liv Ullmann) takes a job as temporary director for psychiatry at some hospital. Through her work there she another man (Erland Josephson) and while they don’t have a physical affair, they are emotionally intimate. In the end, because of past trauma in her life, and her depression, she has a mental breakdown.
Is This For Me?
I’m not exactly ignorant of Ingmar Bergman’s work, but I’m no connoisseur either. At best, I’ve had my moments and quite like several of his films: The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring and Wild Strawberries in particular. I also have modest affection for The Magician, which is not transcendent, but was at least fine. Visually striking, with Max Von Sydow giving an interesting performance. But, on the whole the film was only fine.
That all said, taking his oeuvre as a collected thing, I don’t think I get Bergman, or his enduring appeal. The problem, for me, is every time I’ve sampled his later films – those being the one’s in color – they’ve almost instantly turned me off. They heighten emotions, yet suppress the visuals, making them jarring. Some leave me cold, others leave me scolded.
Most leave me punished.
The problem is many of Bergman’s later films do not seem the sort of movie to be enjoyed. Appreciated on an intellectual level? Yes. Enjoyed? No.
Face to Face is one of those punishing films. It’s visually uninteresting and overwrought. Worse, it makes completely baffling choices with the main character that served no real purpose other than to try and drive me off.
The most obvious place the movie goes wrong is the rape of the main character in the later half of the first hour. First, the rape is out of nowhere, similar to Marian Crane’s early death in Psycho, which makes it shocking for being unexpected. Then, this rape, and the character’s response to it, is tossed off. It’s not reported, it’s not really brooded over, it’s not really addressed. And there’s no good reason for any of those. Or, really, any reason. The most we get out of it is an admission to her would-be-lover (Erland Josephson) that she was not all that unhappy being raped. After all, she says, it’s been a while since she last had sex.
And then, just like that, she lets it go.
What this means to us is the rape only existed for making the main character disappointed by it, and nothing else. It did not catalyze her in any way, or spur her into some agency towards mental health. Rather, it happens and that’s it. Which means it was a rape for the sake of having a rape. Which is frankly offensive.
That all said, while the rape is offensive, Bergman is provocative with the way he addresses the “Do as I say, not as I do” mindset of many people, and the sort of toxicity of that way of thinking. See, in this movie the main character is a psychiatrist who also suffers her own depression and psychosis. But despite believing in the value of psychiatric treatment for others, she refuses to get it for herself. Rather, she lives in denial of her own mental health and deludes herself into thinking she can ‘cure’ herself simply by willing her issues away. As if denial and willpower are ever enough to overcome psychosis. Of course, if she got treatment in the usual way then there would probably not be the massive breakdown that splits this movie neatly in half, and therefore, this would be a completely different film altogether. So…there is that.
Two Halves of One Whole
Face to Face can be divided fairly neatly between the pre- and post-breakdown sections, with the film being completely different sorts of animals on either side of the break. Pre-breakdown the film is about a clearly depressed woman trying to get through her day and outrun her psychosis, and basically failing it.
Post-breakdown the movie turns into a proto-All That Jazz, complete with a lengthy series of fantasy sequences focused on the possibility of the main character’s death, much as All That Jazz would later do. Here are some parallels between the movies:
- The neat bifurcation of the film between pre- and post-breakdown.
- Ignorance of health/denial of health to the detriment of the denier. In All That Jazz the denial was of the main character’s physical health, whereas in Face to Face it is the main character’s mental health.
- Both confront the character’s mortality with a surreal fantasy sequence. In All That Jazz, the main character confronts his death in some sort of musical/variety show setting, then dies. Here? She is tormented by strange visions of death, but ultimately lives. The main difference between the two films? While All that Jazz dresses its sequence up in showbiz glamour and style, Face to Face cranks up the emotions and the dramatics from Ullmann, to the point of being unbearable. If the film was attempting to make me uncomfortable, it worked.
And therein is where Face to Face squanders itself. While Face to Face and All That Jazz feel incredibly similar, All That Jazz has style and drive, compared to Face to Face being flat and tepid, visually uninteresting, and squanders a good performance by Ullmann.
In the end, where Bob Fosse directs the hell out of All That Jazz and gets the most out of it, Bergman stands in the way of his film’s success and it’s the worse for it.
Dino De Laurentiis produced Face to Face. If you came up age in the 1980’s you probably associate him with having produced a ton of schlocky movies like Death Wish, Mandingo, Amityville II and 3-D. In a way, he was the proto-Cannon Films.
But little do most 1980s kids know that De Laurentiis actually had a long history of producing solid, arthouse films. Amongst the directors he produced films for were Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, De Sica, Martin Ritt, John Huston, Visconti, Sidney Lumet, Milos Foreman, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch. In fact, De Laurentiis won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 with La Strada, and was given the Irving Thalberg Award – the lifetime achievement award for producers – by the Academy in 2001.
So, he had an arthouse vibe. But he also produced crap. I suppose that’s what happens when you wind up with producing credits on 175 films. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, and you won’t know which until you actually make the film.
A Note on Versions
Though there are a couple different versions of this film floating around, from as short as 114 minutes, to the original Swedish TV broadcast at 177 minutes, I reviewed the 135 minute release from Olive Films.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 To be fair, punishment is relative. After all, he never made Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible.
 Although, rape doesn’t have to be sudden and unexpected to be shocking. It’s shocking enough on it’s own terms. Being sudden only increases the shock.
 Aside from all this, it’s deeply troubling as an audience member to view a rape as something that needs to inspire a person to revenge, or some other action. Why does a woman have to be violated in order to take ownership of herself? Why is there an expectation that rape in a movie has to be a plot device?
 All That Jazz, directed by Bob Fosse (1979)
 To be fair, while I intellectually see Ullmann’s performance as good, it’s also so off-the-rails at times you can’t not be mesmerized by it. But in terms of this movie, which feels tepid, Ullmann’s unhinged performance seems like it’s coming in a from a distant land.