A legendary actress tells her own story.
At one point in the documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, Bergman’s daughter Isabella Rossellini expresses surprises at the contents of her mother’s old letters. She had expected to find stories about the world of Hollywood, fresh insight on her mother’s acting choices or interesting anecdotes about her mother’s famous collaborators. Instead, she discovered that Bergman mostly wrote about how much she loved her children.
Similarly, viewers who wander across this documentary expecting to find insight into Bergman’s professional career may also be surprised to discover that the film spends the majority of its time focusing on Bergman’s personal life. The movie wants to fill us in on who Ms. Bergman was as a person, examining her as a mother, a wife and a friend. Every so often, we’ll be treated to a little nugget about her work with Alfred Hitchcock or Victor Fleming, but those seeking more insight into Bergman’s filmography would probably be better off sticking with the behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentaries included on the home video releases of her films.
Even so, this is an elegantly constructed film that aims higher than a traditional “life of a Hollywood legend” documentary. Much like the intriguing Marlon Brando doc Listen to Me Marlon, it largely allows Ms. Bergman to speak for herself: we hear many excerpts from letters and journal entries (read by Alicia Vikander, a wonderful actress in her own right), see snippets from press conferences and interviews and get to view a lot of never-before seen home video footage. It’s a very intimate portrait, fully endorsed by all of Bergman’s children (Isabella Rossellini, Roberto Ingmar Rossellini, Isotta Ingrid Rossellini and Pia Lindstrom) and featuring occasional commentary from them that provides further insight.
Bergman’s life unfolded in very distinct chapters, as she moved to different countries, different spouses and different phases of her career as an actress. She began as a leading actress in Swedish films, then quickly became a major star in Hollywood. After her extramarital affair with director Roberto Rossellini was made public, Bergman was forced to spend the next few years living in Europe. Later, she would marry Swedish film producer Lars Schmidt and take up residence on a small Swedish island. Amidst all of this, the children (particularly Pia) would occasionally get lost in the shuffle. Still, there isn’t a trace of bitterness from any of Bergman’s kids: they all recognize that their mother loved them and that she was doing the best she could, despite the tumultuous circumstances of her personal life.
Director Stig Bjorkman creates a narrative that seems guided less by strict chronology than by the emotional currents he discovers while exploring his subject’s private thoughts. The movie is aided by a melancholy Michael Nyman score that unites Bergman’s semi-scattered life with a moving, intelligent, cyclical main theme, choosing to emphasize warm memories and paternal affection over any of the more chaotic elements of Bergman’s life. Some will undoubtedly feel the movie doesn’t grant quite enough weight to Bergman’s struggles, but it never feels dishonestly sentimental.
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a perfectly satisfactory 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The new interviews with Bergman’s children look sharp, but the archival footage predictably runs the gamut from impressive-looking to extremely rough. The same applies to the audio, with some clips soundting crystal clear and others sounding scratchy and hissy. Supplements include an interview with Bjorkman, some old home videos shot by Bergman in the ’30s, some deleted/extended scenes, a clip from the 1932 film Landskamp (Bergman’s screen debut), outtakes from the 1936 film On the Sunny Side, a music video, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Jeanine Basinger.
More than anything, the film serves as a reminder of what a remarkably magnetic actress Bergman was. Whether acting in a piece of great art like Casablanca, Notorious or Autumn Sonata or merely relaxing on the front porch in a grainy home video, she’s a riveting presence. Bergman had the ability to subtly convey a multitude of complex emotions while simultaneously maintaining an air of serene composure, and much of the footage we see indicates that that’s simply who she was as a person.