Complex relationships: Ingrid Bergman stars in Rossellini's "Voyage in Italy" (1953), which anticipates the modernist alienation of Antonioni movies like "La Notte." (Photo courtesy Larsen Assoc.)

The Exiled Ingrid Bergman at PFA

Dennis Harvey November 6, 2009

Before Ingrid Bergman, European starlets exported to Hollywood tended to be exotics, femmes fatales, mystery women—always the "other," whether a grand tragedienne like Garbo or a vamp like Pola Negri.

Bergman was the first girl next door whose door happened to originate several thousand miles from Anytown, U.S.A. Even when she played "bad girls," the American public trusted she was really above reproach. When they decided otherwise, she was virtually exiled for some years—sent back to Europe, where (diehard American Puritans imagined) such fallen women belonged.

It’s a bizarre saga that makes 1950—when scandal erupted—seem remote as Byzantium. Bergman’s crime was having a child with Italian director Roberto Rossellini while still wedded to her Swedish first husband. She said that marriage had really been over for years, and upon finally divorcing quickly married Rossellini. But no matter: Her Hollywood career was very definitely (if temporarily) over. The furor was such that, incredibly, she was denounced on the U.S. Senate as a "powerful influence for evil."

Thus Ingrid Bergman’s career would be forever divided into Before and After. It didn’t take all that long for America to "forgive" her (with an Oscar for 1957 U.S. comeback Anastasia), but in a way the exile stuck. She’d started out a Swedish actress, become a Hollywood one, and now would be an international star, traveling wherever work beckoned.

It’s the Hollywood Bergman that is remembered—especially for Hitchcock roles and Casablanca, though she never thought much of the latter—while her numerous European films remain mostly little-known. The Pacific Film Archive is offering a rare overview of them via A Woman’s Face: Ingrid Bergman in Europe, a series running Nov. 4-Dec. 17 that samples over four decades of work on the Continent.

An orphan who used her inheritance money to attend Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, she made her film debut at age 18 in 1935. (Unless otherwise noted, all non-Hollywood features mentioned below are in the PFA series.) She immediately won critical admiration in a support role as a hotel maid in comedy The Count of the Old Town, then starred opposite Lars Hanson (who’d partnered Garbo and Lillian Gish in his own silent-era Hollywood career) in the infidelity drama Walpurgis Night. 1936’s Intermezzo had her again as a young woman seduced by a married man, while in A Woman’s Face two years later she played a disfigured blackmailer transformed—physically, then spiritually—by plastic surgery.

These two films were remade in Hollywood, the last as a vehicle for Joan Crawford. But when Intermezzo was purchased in 1939 by David O. Selznick (who produced Gone With the Wind the same year), he reluctantly allowed Bergman to repeat her part in English. If he wasn’t particularly thrilled about her (at first), everyone else certainly was: Critics and audiences ran out of synonyms to describe how "fresh," "natural," "unaffected" etc. this new star was in the generally artificial realm of screen acting. Nonetheless, Selznick wasn’t quite sure what to do with her, so she returned to Sweden for 1940’s June Night, a delicate romantic tragedy.

Returning to the U.S., she commenced a run of big hits like Casablanca, Notorious, Gaslight and For Whom the Bell Tolls. By decade’s end, however, that luck had flagged, and having admired Rossellini’s neo-realist classics (Open City, Paisan), she begged him to write a film for her. You know the rest.

Except you might not know the six films (three showing at the PFA) she made with the Italian director over the course of their seven-year union. They were rather tepidly received at the time, in part due to public antipathy toward the infamous duo, and aren’t frequently revived. But today they offer a fascinating portrait of two major talents struggling to meet somewhere in the middle—he emerging out of several years’ stark neo-realism, she from the Glamour Factory—and dramatize relationships at least as complex as their own.

In the first, 1949’s Stromboli, Bergman plays a Lithuanian refugee whose hopefully stabilizing marriage to an Italian fisherman proves as dismal a trap as the internment camps she survived. Europa 51 has her as a self-absorbed society woman shaken by tragedy, then punished by her elite class for unseemly acts of atonement. Voyage in Italy (1953) anticipates the modernist alienation of Antonioni movies like La Notte. It follows a divorcing English couple (Bergman and George Sanders) whose possibly final trip together (for business, not pleasure) somehow proves cathartic.

Once she and Rossellini had their real-life divorce, Bergman was welcomed back to Hollywood—but as she well knew, the opportunities there were somewhat limited (then as now) for a woman approaching 50, no longer the ingenue but not ready for older "character" parts. Her work increasingly diversified between the stage, prestige TV projects, and films shot wherever. She won a third Oscar, basically for a five-minute monologue in 1974’s all-star Murder on the Orient Express. But her big-screen swan song four years later was far more interesting.

Uniting Sweden’s most famous cinematic export (though you could argue for Garbo) with its stay-at-home "other Bergman"—Ingmar, of course—*Autumn Sonata* was an intense drama its legendary star may have found discomfitingly personal, having gone on record as feeling guilty over feeling more married to show business than to her three husbands and four children.

In it, she plays Eva, a concert pianist (as in Intermezzo) who returns "home" to visit Charlotte (Liv Ullmann), the daughter she hasn’t seen in some years. (There’s also another, mentally impaired offspring present, whom Eva abandoned entirely.)

The grown child’s bitterness, the artistic mother’s selfishness, and the escalating emotional brutality of their confrontations are captured in this deliberately claustrophobic drama. While making it, Ingrid Bergman was purportedly already suffering from the cancer that would kill her in 1982—though that didn’t stop her from putting great energy into a final project, portraying Golda Meir in the four-hour TV miniseries A Woman Called Golda broadcast that same year.

From 1935’s Count of Old Town to Autumn Sonata 43 years later, this PFA series shows sides less familiar of a treasured talent, stripped of Hollywood lacquer and contrivance. That she remains beautiful and "natural" should surprise no one, though the films—and her performances—might.