Liv Ullmann – A Road Less Travelled
(Norway, 132 min.)
Dir. Dheeraj Akolkar
Programme: Cannes Classics (World Premiere)
Liv Ullmann loves a good close-up. Anyone who has seen Persona, The Emigrants, Cries & Whispers, or any of her other film roles knows this fact well. To see her attest to it as she does in Liv Ullmann – A Road Less Travelled, though, is something else. When she gushes about the power of the close-up, the camera, positioned in proximity to her face, captures her expressive testament to cinema while also conveying her unique contribution to the art form by creating such intimate connections. Director Dheeraj Akolkar clearly appreciates Ullmann’s work having chronicled her long relationship with Ingmar Bergman in the 2012 documentary Liv & Ingmar. Moreover, the order of names in that title is telling. A Road Less Travelled gives the Norwegian actress her due by taking Ullmann’s contribution to cinema far beyond “Bergman’s muse.”
The documentary covers a lot of terrain. Ullmann tells her story in interviews with Akolkar. They have a good director-subject relationship as she’s open, engaged, and generous in her reflections. Nothing seems off the table, except the name of a Hollywood A-lister she doesn’t identify, but notes that a colleague warned her about him and, well, she proved his concerns correct. A Road Less Travelled offers an engaging look at Ullmann’s unlikely stardom. As a Norwegian actor who broke out in Swedish arthouse films in the ’60s and ’70s, her story defies Hollywood convention. This film-on-film doc is a fine study of the art of screen performance and the aura of stardom. Ullmann, even now, seems both confident and amazed by her success. She’s a reluctant star, so to speak, but one who knows she’s left her mark.
The Bergman Years
The first episode generally whizzes through Ullmann’s work as an actor. Akolkar focuses largely, but not exclusively, on her work with Bergman here. As Ullmann tells her origin story, it’s an impressive reminder for artists never to quit. She shares that she flunked the audition for acting school, but instead honed her chops in regional theatre when someone on the audition panel raved about her performance to a colleague. Ullmann’s theatrical roots are significant, as her performance style evokes the naturalism and stamina required for stage.
Ullmann modestly recollects her first leading film role in Ung Flukt (Young Flight) where director Edith Carlmar took a risk. The actress laughs how she played a “wayward girl” despite being a virgin. Her faith in her director, and her director’s confidence in her, let her explore the character’s emotional state in means that transcended her personal experience.
But the real meat of this portion is obviously Ullmann’s collaboration with Bergman. The film looks at key works, like Persona, Face to Face, Autumn Sonata, The Passion of Anna, and Scenes from A Marriage, among others. Ullmann reflects upon her relationship with Bergman and how he trusted her to undergo her own journeys with her character. There’s lots of good material here about the connection between an actor and her director. Moreover, the conversations set up subsequent segments that explore Ullmann’s own work directing performers.
An Actor’s Director
However, Akolkar knows better than to define Ullmann strictly in relation to Bergman. As John Lithgow says when presenting Ullmann with her honorary Oscar, her performances are largely why cinephiles consider Bergman one of the greats. A Road Less Travelled explores Ullmann’s work outside the Bergman oeuvre. Her triumphant, Oscar-nominated turn in The Emigrants, for example, speaks to her rise to stardom. Moreover, Ullmann laughs a little when remembering expanding beyond bleak arthouse cinema. Her roles in the Charles Bronson actioner Cold Sweat and the musical Lost Horizon show how she embraced challenges. She admits that singing wasn’t her strength, but by defying typecasting, she conveys the malleability of her art.
A Road Less Travelled devotes fair time to Ullmann’s work as a director as well. Interviews with actors like Cate Blanchett and Jessica Chastain illustrate her mastery of both stage and screen. Ullmann shows more vulnerability when discussing her work as a director. The film finds fresher material here as well, since her work behind the camera isn’t discussed as widely. Moreover, Ullmann speaks candidly about experiencing the gendered inequality of the film business. Despite her stature, she notes how cinematographers and crew members undermined her authority and creative vision. From working so closely with Bergman, too, she recognizes the difference. Even for her last film as a director, Miss Julie, Ullmann makes the surprising revelation that her crew even shot material when she wasn’t on set.
An Unlikely Star
A Road Less Travelled ultimately favours convention even though the woman at its heart defied the norm. Akolkar gets an impressive range of talking heads, including actors Pernilla August, Jeremy Irons, and Sam Waterson who illuminate Ullmann’s unique skills. There are other candid moments even when the doc somewhat veers into hagiography. For example, Chastain offers wonderful insight into Ullmann’s interpretation of her characters when sharing their discussions about A Doll’s House. Chastain, assuming the role Ullmann played to great acclaim, tells how Ullmann shattered assumptions that the part catered to the women’s movement. Instead, she explains Ullmann’s interpretation that Nora returns to her husband and children. Ullmann therefore imagines her characters intimately and creates lives that transcend their time on stage and screen.
Similarly, Ullmann provides novel insight about celebrity when she remembers becoming the Greta Garbo for a generation. She tells how, after making it in New York, she stumbled upon Garbo in the streets. Speaking of the memory with energized candour, she recalls seeing Garbo’s horrified look when she realized that Ullmann recognized her. Ullmann tells of sprinting after Garbo and trailing her all the way to central park. Unsurprisingly, Garbo wanted to be left alone. Ullmann, on the other hand, relishes her unique fame in A Road Less Travelled: someone recognized for what she creates from within.