Review by Ken Burke Her
Our near-future human relationships have deteriorated so much that our protagonist finds better connection with a computer operating system, which almost works for him.
The Invisible Woman
Based on the real-life affair between married Charles Dickens and a much younger woman, a situation requiring great secrecy in the era of morals-bound Victorian England.
Liv & Ingmar
A touching documentary about the love and battles of the great Swedish director and his superb actress, told by Liv Ullman, illustrated with many clips from their work.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting. But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
At least until the Oscars for 2013 have been awarded on Sunday, March 2, 2014 (which, in no relationship whatsoever, is also Texas Independence Day—some things you don’t forget after they’ve been drummed into you for 37 years [after which I finally escaped to California]) I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards. You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can monitor here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
Passionate love which falls by the wayside—in varying degrees, with some recovery or hope of acceptable replacement possible—is the connective tissue in this week’s group of 3 films, with all in varying degrees of their own complications regarding self-satisfaction, social acceptance, and the need to make decisions about where the importance lies in the various relationships for the various partners, in that all of them involve breakups at one point or another. From an upcoming-Oscar-nomination-consideration-viewpoint the only one of these in play here is Her (Spike Jonze), so let’s start with this one’s marvelous conception, well-honed script, and impactful acting by main-human-Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and main-more-sentient-as-the-film-evolves-computer-operating-system-Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson)—although Amy Adams offers fine support in a smaller role as Theodore’s friend (maybe more) with her character of Amy (that must have been convenient for Adams), but her accolades this awards year will be, if anything, for her commanding role in American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013). While Her’s been getting critical acclaim—and some prizes (Best Film from the prestigious American Film Institute, National Board of Review, and Los Angeles Film Critics Association [in a tie with Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) from this last group, as well as Best Film from my long-ago-homeboys in the Austin Film Critics Association])—in many quarters (including the soon-to-be-broadcast Golden Globes, this coming Sunday, January 12, 2014), for me its main strength is in the subtlety that Phoenix brings to Theodore, another damaged soul who’s about as wounded in his own way, but not as hair-trigger-violent, as was his Freddie Quell in The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting—where Phoenix's powerful performance as a WW II-damaged-vet-seeming-Scientology-acolyte was eclipsed by one of those roles-for-the-ages, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln [Steven Spielberg, 2012]; this time around he'll be lucky to even make the finals in this year’s crowded race with 12 Years a Slave’s [Steve McQueen, 2013] Chiwetel Ejiofor clearly setting the pace [Adams was also nominated in 2012, for Best Supporting Actress in The Master, but likewise had the near-impossible-task of besting Anne Hathaway for her short-but-searing-role of Fantine in Les Misérables (Tom Hooper; review in our December 30, 2012 posting)]). It’s unlikely that Phoenix will be Golden Globe- or Oscar-rewarded this year for his bravura accomplishment in Her, but that’s just because the competition is so satisfyingly-strong not because of any failing on his part to perfect the nuances needed to bring balance to the strange love story of a fragile man and an emanation of artificial intelligence (as for whether Johansson will be given serious consideration as an Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for her vocal work in Her remains to be seen, but given that it’s never happened yet for any animated feature’s voice work I just don’t see it here, although her intonations truly give that disembodied aural presence a sense of personality and importance in all of her scenes so it certainly wouldn’t be a wasted nomination if she were to score one).
Whether Her wins any of the major awards this year, though, says nothing about its resonance as a telling-tale-of-our-times, a disturbing look at a not-very-distant-future where highly-sophisticated-technology has become easily available while human interactions have become so strained that it’s possible for anyone—not just morose Theodore, but seemingly everyone walking around in constant conversation with their computer operating systems (OSes) as if that’s a reasonable way to invest your emotional needs—to connect deeply with their OS because it’s become bonded to you in a manner reminiscent of baby ducks or that creepy robot child, David, in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg, 2001—but a project begun long before his death by Stanley Kubrick, with a result that I find much more Kubrickianly-disturbing than is usually acknowledged in reviews of that film; if you want to read something even more horrendously long [46 pp.] than my usual ramblings in this blog let me know [at email@example.com] and I’ll send you a copy of an article I wrote about it, but I warn you from the start that it was written for an academic journal so you may want it only if it’s too late in the evening to go out to a drugstore for a refill of your Sominex tablets). If you’re at all aware of Her at this point it comes as no surprise to you that Theodore attempts to put the pain of his impending divorce from longtime-love-Catherine (Rooney Mara) behind him by falling madly in love with a computer program (but if you’re only vaguely aware of Her you may not know yet that it’s also about lust, with a “come together” scene [complete with a fade-to-black-with-continued-passionate-audio] that puts a serious twist on Meg Ryan’s modern-classic-fake-orgasm-experience from When Harry Met Sally … [Rob Reiner, 1989], although there’s nothing fake about the release depicted in this uninhibited-coitus-encounter in Her for either partner [unlike our contemporary phone sex situations, where only one party is really getting off on the experience, although the other may be having pleasant thoughts about the income so derived; however, phone sex isn’t dead either in the to-come-time of Her—so to speak—although when lonely Theodore gives it a try he ends up with a woman telling him to “choke me with that dead cat,” so it’s not proving very useful for him], but when a human can be so overcome with the groans of a cyber-consciousness—let alone when said cyber-“woman” is equally overcome within her own self-awareness—you’ve got to admit that the future is taking us a long way from the primitive state of vibrators and explicit-Internet-videos so voraciously-desired by the lead character, Jon Martello, in Don Jon [Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013; reviewed in our October 3, 2013 posting], where Johansson once again serves as the epitome of female desirability). That human feelings are often best replaced by technological accompaniment in this not-so-brave-new-world is clear in Theodore’s fellow humans as well by the very nature of his occupation, in which he writes letters—especially love letters—for people who have seemingly lost all ability to express their own emotions to their significant others, so Theodore takes some basic information supplied by his clients, embellishes it with his own creative flourishes, packages it into a computer-based-delivery that includes seeming-hand-written-script-and-appropriate-visual-layouts, allowing complete strangers to Theodore to find interpersonal connections in their own lives that they are unable to express for themselves. But if all of this implies a future that seems unlikely to you in the short run (Her’s not supposed to be too far from now), consider this article by John Markoff about how Google computers in our day have been able “to perform an identification task without supervision. The network scanned a database of 10 million images, and in doing so trained itself to recognize cats.” (Which may help explain this fascination with cats in the Her-depicted future but it doesn't help me understand why Google’s present algorithms can’t scan the reviews on this blog without thinking they include ads for selling term papers to lazy students—one of the reasons they cited for not allowing me to place actual ads on our site!—but at least I can count on the NSA to read us more accurately so maybe I can get sponsorship from my new friends at the Social Security office.)
Sadly, Theodore can’t express his personal feelings very well either (despite his poetic talents that manifest in his work—but good as he is, he’s not even unique at that, given that his Hallmark-like company employs numerous surrogate-sensitivity-substitutes), so he finds himself quite willing to respond to Samantha’s seductive voice (sorry, Siri, but the emotions that Johansson offers through aural texture alone can easily demonstrate to a film audience why Theodore would be willing to take her on “dates” to restaurants, the beach, sailing with friends, etc., even though “her” experience is simply to “see” what he shows “her” through the camera in a small-phone-version of his larger computer system and to “hear” what comes in through the microphones of those various devices). Yet, she’s (literally) light-years beyond Theodore’s original OS which simply retrieved electronic mail for him, sent replies based on his verbal commands, provided calendar reminders, etc. Samantha, on the other hand, learns quickly from her conversations with Theodore, becomes more sophisticated as her knowledge-base expands, but ultimately is self-aware enough to start having chat-group-sessions with other OS entities, where they push each other to levels of knowledge and awareness that soon surpass anything their humans are offering them so they drift off into the ether of full cyberspace, leaving Theodore and all of the other OS-dependent-humans at a loss for fulfilling companionship—even Amy, who developed a closeness with the OS left behind by her haughty, dominating husband, Charles (Matt Letscher), after she divorces him, even though it was another “female” OS that didn’t provide any sexual bond (apparently; if so, we don’t get to go there) for Amy, or maybe there’s just something about Amy’s boring aesthetic in her documentary-film-pursuits that keeps everyone and everything at a bit of a distance from her (but even when Samantha was still connected to Theodore she wasn’t his alone, as her particular consciousness was functioning as the OS for 8,316 other people, including 641 of them that she's also in love with, despite Theodore’s mistaken understanding that they had a unique connection, nor was she really stringing him along, as her non-corporal-existence allowed her to multi-task in ways incomprehensible to the human mind so that she could simultaneously interact with all of her "close friends," even to the point of sharing the intimacy that Theodore desperately wanted all for himself). Admittedly, Samantha attempted to make things more personal for Theodore by arranging for a body surrogate, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), to be her physical presence with him, but he’s too overwhelmed by the mind-body-separation of the experience, sending a distraught Isabella away, even though she’s open to continuing to be part of this oddly-constructed-triangle where everyone seems to be yearning for passion of some kind, whether they can find it or not. Samantha, in her exit from Theodore, apparently evolves beyond animal urges, though, by leaving him with a tangible gift that celebrates his creativity, a book of his professional epistles, Love Letters from Your Life, which she arranges to have published, probably bringing him some recognition for his verbal artistry (which she matched with her own musical compositions)—although as my insightful wife, Nina, points out, when those letters are made public it will likely create a lot of turmoil if the original recipients thought they were hand-penned by their actual loved-ones, but maybe in this future it’s a known fact that decades of sharing tiny-grammatically-debased-digital-messages have left most of the population verbally-inept so that it’s no secret that you have to hire someone to put substance to your innermost thoughts.
In essence, the plot of Her reduces to: boy loses girl, boy gets new “girl” (after a clumsy attempt to connect with a human female [Olivia Wilde] who becomes hostile when Theodore won’t commit to a long-term-relationship after just a short time together, leaving us with the impression that human coupling in this future era is a dicey proposition where you might be better off with the relative stability of an empathetic machine), boy loses new “girl” (to some degree, to a digital avatar of 20th-century-spiritual-guru Alan Watts, demonstrating that if there’s enough data available on you that higher-intelligence-entities can create a useful facsimile [again, not unlike A.I. where a “race” of highly-evolved-machines in the far-distant-future bring robot-boy David’s “adopted” human mother more-or-less back to life for his pleasure] so truly once we pass that “singularity” point of true-machine-self-awareness [predicted for about 2050, so take care, carbon-based-lifeforms] we may all live forever, as long as we can be satisfied with amazingly-interactive-cyber-consciousness rather than these prehistoric-era-flesh-and-blood-bodies; if you love your bourbon and onion rings you’d better pack ‘em in now while you still can), boy and friend-girl consider whether to leave all of their pasts (human and digital) behind to try once more for an old-fashioned-boyfriend-girlfriend-romance. What makes it magical is not just the intelligent script (by Jonze; he’s also has won some of those critics’ awards) and the sensitive embrace of the characters by completely-invested-actors but the level of plausibility that Phoenix and Johansson bring to their interconnection which evolves just like relationships that are familiar to us as human beings—not with some man-machine-dialogue and jockeying for command of a structured situation such as we got between Astronaut Dave Bowman and the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) but authentic, interactive give-and-take, such as when Samantha starts getting jealous of Theodore’s lingering affection for Catherine, or early on when she seems to get lonely without Theodore’s input so she’s always chatting with him or being aware of him, even to the point of watching him sleep or disturbing his rest (a physical-neurological break that she never needs) so that we can truly feel the exuberance flow back into his life as they interact, revealing more about themselves to each other (including the jealousy felt by Theodore when Samantha starts drifting away from him), even finding a form of physical connection in the mutual-auto-eroticism-scene noted earlier that seems neither grotesque nor absurd but just very different than what intimacy is about (hopefully) for most of us in this earlier part of the 21st century (although we’re never clear just exactly how long it takes for L.A. to get back to the sort of permanent-haze/smog-atmosphere depicted in Her’s urban scenes, nor do we get any understanding of why fashion devolved back to the style of men wearing ugly high-waisted-pants).
The final, unseen challenge here is whether Theodore and Amy can connect through mere biology after their OSes abandon them, although their gentle affection at the very end as they sit together on the roof’s edge of their very high apartment building gives us hope upon final fadeout that they can live by the film’s wisdom that “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” that doesn’t have to continue dictating the flow of the present and the future, rather than succumbing to Amy’s earlier declaration that “Love is just a form of socially-accepted insanity.” (Watching them as the narrative finishes up, I was especially relieved when the horror I briefly imagined didn’t come to pass: they just acknowledge their previous losses and seem willing to try again rather than being overwhelmed by those mistakes and jumping off the roof—don’t laugh; given how unpredictable this story [and some of Jonze’s past work] has been, I wouldn’t have been surprised [just saddened] by such a tragic disengagement by these characters from trying to continue searching for something meaningul in such a generally-sterile-future). Maybe I’m just seduced by continued pleasant surprises from this film’s principal contributors (as Theodore was by Samantha’s encouraging nature, humorous and inquisitive personality, and willingness to join with him on a mutual learning curve), but I find it to be one of the absolute best of 2013 and hope it can find not only further awards for its trophy case but also a large, supportive audience (it’s pulled in only about $3 million after 3 weeks in release but needs to expand beyond its present paltry 47 theaters, which is set to happen soon I think) to appreciate its quiet but satisfying beauty.
For a film that’s gotten as much buzz as has Her since its opening during this most competitive time of the cinematic year, it’s a surprise to me that it’s still in such limited release, struggling for income. However, I doubt that Ralph Fiennes expects his latest directorial project, The Invisible Woman (also starring him as the famous English author, Charles Dickens), to do much better than Her, not because it’s without—or even low on—merit but because it’s more of a labor of love (as was his directorial debut, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s grim, blood-drenched Coriolanus [2011; review in our March 11, 2012 posting]) that he’s happy to share with devotees of fine English literature and sophisticated lifestyles, especially those who’d like a little scandal in their refined infatuations, rather than anything resembling a big-ticket-movie-experience. For those of us so inclined for a relief from hobbits and hustles, snowmen and spooks (not that there’s anything wrong with any of that if you’re in the mood for it and don’t have to contend with street parking where 2-hour-limit-meters don’t mesh very well with 3-hour-Middle-Earth-and-Wall-Street extravaganzas), Fiennes has provided a very interesting, respectful exploration of yet-another-unknown-to-most-of-us-scandal from yesteryear with this revelation that a master-storyteller’s life provided a page-turner of sorts itself, especially for the morally-restrictive-times of the mid-19th century when abandoning your wife and children for a notably-younger-mistress, moving to France to hide your social transgression, then returning to England but abandoning the not-only-“invisible”-but-also-inconvenient-woman in order to preserve your highly-respected-and-lucrative-career would not only have made for great clandestine gossip but would also have been the ruin of even someone as famous as Dickens had it been well-known at the time rather than emerging well over a century later into our era where, except for a few like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, if you don’t have at least some minor scandal to help keep your celebrated name flying around in the social-media-whirlwind you’re likely to be forgotten faster than your publicist can look for a new client (just ask Miley Cyrus about that, who’s delighted to have to proved such a twittered-and-twerked-about-sensation in 2013 that she’ll probably have to hire new accountants in 2014). For Dickens and Helen (Nelly) Ternan (Felicity Jones), though, the goal was not scandal-for-career-manipulation but rather a passionate romance that seemed to fit very well into the principal players’ own self-definitions of the appropriately-emotive-lives of those awash in the artistic bloodstreams of literature and theatre, when these were among the proto-mass-media forms of cultural awareness and acceptance before our days of cinema-video-domination of the popular consciousness. As presented in The Invisible Woman, Dickens was a champion of page and stage, as was his star-struck-protégé, with the sparks that flew between them providing a natural situation of art (including the well-practiced-but-frequently-unmastered-sensual-art of unleashing sincerely-hot-blooded-passion within the context of genuine love) overtaking life, even though that art would eventually have to suffer if the affair had continued because of the realities that every time-period imposes, even on the most prominent and well-admired of our cultural lions.
The Invisible Woman begins with approaching-middle-age-Nelly in 1885 Margate, England, married to school headmaster George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke—no relation to me that I’m aware of), with their young son rehearsing in a production of No Thoroughfare: A Drama in Five Acts, co-written by Dickens and Wilkie Collins; we immediately know that something’s up with Nelly because the film opens with her walking alone on a deserted beach, then making very precise notes to the student actors about how Mr. Dickens intended his material to be presented. Sensing her troubled distraction, Reverend William Benham (John Kavanagh) prods Nelly into discussing her concerns about the now-deceased-Dickens (died in 1870), whom she has claimed to have known when she was a child, but that’s because she’s managed to convince everyone around Margate that she’s 14 years younger than she is, thereby hiding the reality that she met Dickens at age 18 in 1857 when she performed with her mother, Frances Ternan (Kristen Scott Thomas—always a pleasure to see her, even in the minor role she has here), and sister, Maria (Perdita Weeks—on the far left in the above photo, with other-theatre-professional-sister Fanny [Amanda Hale], then Jones and Scott Thomas), in Dickens’ adaptation of Collins’ (Tom Hollander) The Frozen Deep in Manchester. Despite their great age difference (he’s presented as 39 in the film but was actually 45 at that time) and his large family of 10 children, he moves emotionally further from his already-all-but-ignored-wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), separating from her so that he can more directly pursue Nelly, finally to the point of moving to the French countryside with her. But as the rumors start to spread about them in Paris they decide to return to England, where a freak accident with their train resulted in him denying that they were even traveling together, forcing her to become the “invisible woman” who now occupies a comfortable English country manor provided by her wealthy paramour (earlier she almost broke off the growing romance when she was introduced to Collins’ somewhat-discreet-mistress [even though they lived together], Caroline Graves [Michelle Fairley], but the passion ran too intensely for Nelly to deny her desire for as full a bond as possible between her and Charles), with their affair continuing but remaining mostly a secret until many decades after both their deaths, as the story came out more in the later 20th century but still not as a generally-known-aspect of the biography of the great crusader for the poor, even now as Fiennes brings the story to a larger audience. OK, break in continuity here. Because this work is just now opening in my San Francisco area on Friday, January 10, 2014 (but has been in limited release in other parts of the country previously) you may be best served with a Spoiler Alert reminder because from here on out I’ll be ruining any surprises for you, so if you’d prefer to save the rest of this until after your own viewing pleasure, please do so; for those of you still in attendance, though, I’ll get back on track. In Fiennes’ film, the older Nelly still grieves over her lost love, but after baring her soul to Rev. Benham she appears to better accept the finality of the life that she could never fully embrace so as to be able to immerse herself more completely with her current family, whom she truly loves but just not with the same fire she shared with the man most known to most of us for creating the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas-time-redemption. Knowing that Dickens ultimately made things so merry for the Cratchit family in his novella gives us an unsettling sense of irony that his own family became so torn apart by his secret love for Nelly, essentially leaving no one truly fulfilled by the tragic attraction and possibly providing even greater misery for the determined-but-thwarted-lovers if indeed they did have a child together who died either through miscarriage or in infancy. (There seems to be no clear proof of this, but Fiennes is convinced that the story is true, although he didn’t complicate the flow of his film by bringing in such an event—but for those more familiar with the history of Nelly than I was, I can see how this additional information just enhances the sorrow that we find in her as she stalks the lonely but impressive beach at the film’s beginning.
Jan. 30, 2014 I've just realized that there are scenes in this film that deal with the supposed birth and death of this baby—see the comments at the very bottom of this page—so my apologies for the misinformation; I've left the review as posted, though, along with the explanation below, as a warning to myself to be even more careful with my own notetaking and as a warning to review readers to not always accept what's written until you see the original for yourself.)
Jan. 30, 2014 I've just realized that there are scenes in this film that deal with the supposed birth and death of this baby—see the comments at the very bottom of this page—so my apologies for the misinformation; I've left the review as posted, though, along with the explanation below, as a warning to myself to be even more careful with my own notetaking and as a warning to review readers to not always accept what's written until you see the original for yourself.)
But, history and histrionics aside, what will you find in this adaptation (from which the film takes its name) of Claire Tomalin’s 1991 book? It depends, to some degree, on what you hope is there for you, but if it’s insight onto Dickens’ literary motivations and working procedures then you might want to seek out some written biographies, including a 2011 work (simply called Charles Dickens) by Tomalin herself, because this film is a love story between an aspiring actress (who left the stage in 1860, not long after meeting Dickens, allowing her life to be dictated by opportunities to be with him rather than pursuing her own muse [as so often has been the case with women accepting the blunt realities of patriarchal societies where there is not only heavy pressure on them to not interfere with the career arcs of their male lovers but also in Nelly’s case there was the additional pressure of not even being able to publically celebrate her semi-union with Charles so as to not decimate his success and celebrity status]) and an author who is presented as a commanding talent yet one not at peace with his domestic situation, so much so that he flirts not just with Nelly but also with the conventions of his era in trying to reconcile his lusts with his own “great expectations” (speaking of which, Nelly notes in voiceover that she was influential in encouraging Charles to change the ending tone of that 1861 book so that Pip isn’t left estranged from his love, Estella [many have speculated she was inspired by Nelly], who becomes married to another man, but instead is solidly reunited with her at story’s end—as with Theodore and Amy in Her [they did date a bit years ago]—concluding the book with “I saw no shadow of another parting from her” [although various historical sources attribute this change to male colleagues of Dickens, further noting that such ongoing-editing occurred with many of his works through the advantage of the publication quirk of this era of serializing a book in periodicals so that audience reaction could help shape later chapters of the writing]). So, if you’re intrigued by a high-society-liaison, want to get a well-produced-sense of what comfortable life was like for the well-to-do in mid-19th century England (as well as see the depiction of a “rock star” from another medium entirely, without getting into the extremes of Mozart as an 18th-century Mick Jagger in Amadeus [Miloš Forman—brought to mind by the recent death of its risk-taking-producer, Sol Zaentz]), or just want to see a cast of polished professionals (with Fiennes firmly at the helm, both before and behind the camera) enact a difficult situation for all concerned with no silly hint of winking at modern parallels in our own celebrities-as-pulp-fiction-fodder-world, then I think you’ll find quite a lot to appreciate in The Invisible Woman—not to mention the implied condemnation of Victorian-era-moral-structures where a faltering marriage of a beloved public figure couldn’t even be considered for an actual divorce because of the rigid expectations of the times nor could a faithful wife of 22 years be given the recognition she deserved for her support in helping Dickens blossom into the genius he came to be regarded as instead of just being left behind in a perpetual state of disassociation as fit the rituals of this rigidly-corseted-society. However, if all of this sounds a bit distant to your tastes, then I’d best be hesitant in making a sweeping recommendation for The Invisible Woman, especially as I found myself more admiring it than really being impacted by it. Fiennes manages to build empathy for Nelly’s dashed hopes and Dickens’ erratic-self-understanding as a man too important to be denied anything he desired, but were it not for the voyeuristic value of seeing the seamy side of a renowned literary figure I don’t think you’d find this particular socially-restrained-couple to be of high cinematic interest, no matter how invested they are in each other's sought-after-lives.
If you want another version of what transpires in The Invisible Woman but set in more contemporary times then you probably couldn’t do better than the new documentary, Liv & Ingmar (Dheeraj Akolkar), about 2 of the greatest theatrical-cinematic talents of the 20th century, Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman. In discussing this exploration of their long involvement on- and off-screen, based on very direct, caring, and intimate testimony from Ullman, I’ll offer not a spoiler alert—in that there are really no secrets to be revealed here (although for most of us this will be another new release, also opening on Friday, January 10, 2013 in my San Francisco area), especially given that anything you’d want to know about this Scandinavian “power couple” (that is, within the restricted high-art-world that’s so praised by connoisseurs but largely ignored by the public at large) is easily available through Internet searches, plus this is all straight fact as illustrated with existing film clips and Ullman mementos (rather than a fictionalization based on fact, as with the Dickens-Ternan affair)—but an acknowledgement that it’s hard for me to be objective about Liv & Ingmar because I’m so much in awe of the work they produced together (and the many other astounding films he directed both before and after their professional and personal involvement), so it’s difficult for me to say whether this direct encounter with her and indirect reminiscence of him through her statements and some archival footage is something that everyone can appreciate because I’ve been on the Bergman bandwagon for so long that I can’t really understand any longer how anyone could not recognize him as a genius as equally towering in the filmic medium as was Dickens in his literary one nor can I find any other female film actor (I still hesitate to use the diminutive “actress” word except when citing awards winners or keeping within expected context for clarity) who even compares to Ullman across the breadth of her career except possibly Meryl Streep, but except for Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982), I don’t think even Streep has had to stretch herself into the convulsions that Ullman had to endure in her masterpieces with Bergman such as Persona (1966; still my all-time #2 behind Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941]), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and Autumn Sonata (1978; unique because it was the only pairing of director Bergman and famed actor Ingrid Bergman—no relation, just fellow Swedes) among others—although, sadly enough, she was nominated for Oscars only twice, for Bergman’s Face to Face (1976) and Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971). (Bergman was nominated 5 times for Best Original Screenplay, 3 times for Best Director, and once for Best Picture [Cries and Whispers]—none of which he won—as well as taking the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for The Virgin Spring , Through a Glass Darkly , and Fanny and Alexander —how he could have missed even a nomination for Persona is beyond my comprehension [the sweet-but-now-forgettable-except-for-its-cinematography-and-soundtrack A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch) won that year, still leaving me as almost-speechless as I am about John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley topping Citizen Kane a couple of decades earlier].)
So read on with some trepidation because what just sings in angelic choruses for me may be only so much fading memories from an old Norwegian woman for you as Ullman explores why she and Bergman were so “painfully connected” (a term that could easily apply as well to Nelly and Charles in The Invisible Woman, just as a Dickens-aficionado/Bergman-novice could raise my star rating for that film while reducing it for this one)—although at “press time” for me (OK, post time, actually, but that sounds like I’m about to run in a horse race) I find the often-hostile-reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes offering an almost-unheard-of-pure-100%—which gets us into a realm for them inhabited only by such monuments as Citizen Kane and the first episode of The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972); however, their Liv & Ingmar score was based on just 10 reviews at the time I wrote this, while the Metacritics come in at a more expected 74% but based on an even-fewer 5 opinions, so you might want to check back later in the suggested links below to see if these current numbers from the larger critical community change over a bit more time.
What you’ll see now in Liv & Ingmar, though, is a sincere tribute by a woman to the man she obviously considers the true love of her life—difficult as she admits that relationship was and despite being married to (and divorced from) 2 others over those same years, with the second formal breakup, from Boston real estate developer Donald Saunders, coming in 1995 although they continued living together until 2007 (ironically, the same year that Bergman died, at his home on Sweden’s Fårö Island July 30, ironically the same day of demise for Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the other titans of post-WW II cinema). Shot as a series of interview comments at Ullman’s present home in Norway (allowing us some gorgeous scenic views of the territory), interspersed with clips and photos from their films and cohabitation in the later 1960s, Liv & Ingmar begins with their first collaboration, Persona, which gets extensive footage in this current documentary (as do clips from Cries and Whispers, The Passion of Anna , Scenes from a Marriage, Hour of the Wolf , Shame , and Autumn Sonata—so if nothing else with this engaging documentary you can get a quick history lesson of the type of films that Bergman directed [and Ullman starred in], allowing you a better understanding of his work than you get of Dickens’ from The Invisible Woman, although it’s certainly easier to show film examples than it is to have actors on screen just reading from novels [which reminds me of the scene from “The Pitch,” the Seinfeld episode where NBC President Russell Dalrymple (Bob Balaban) reacts to George Costanza (Jason Alexander) in response to George’s explanation of the premise of proposed-TV-series-Jerry: “You read? You read on the show?” Watch it for yourself if you like in this clip, with apologies for the distracting keystoned image but it’s the only one I could find; another admission, this is probably my favorite Seinfeld scene of all time, so please indulge me for rationalizing its silly inclusion here as I continue indulging myself on Ullman and Bergman]), then progresses through the years with segments entitled LOVE, LONLINESS, RAGE, LONGING, and FRIENDSHIP. Given that he was 46 and she 25 when they first met, that their relationship was often compromised by his moody and dominating personality, and that their separate careers/lives existed in parallel with their on-again-off-again-intersections, there are a lot of comparisons here to what we witness in The Invisible Woman, with the main difference being that by mid-20th century it was no longer as difficult for unmarried partners to live together (and bear children: their daughter Linn Ullman, born in 1966, is now a respected author and journalist living in Norway), especially famous artists who are often written off by stern moralists as hopeless bohemians anyway. Through the course of Liv & Ingmar we get soft, sentimental memories of Bergman through photos from their time together, homey shots of their dwelling on Fårö Island, and excerpts from letters written from him to her (he needed no help from the ancestors of Her’s Theodore, as even his romantic yearnings were noted in very erudite words, but that’s evident from the fine quality of his scripts—even if I do know them only in English translation). However, we also learn that he was neurotically-possessive, allowed few visitors to their home, even built a stone wall around it which began to make it feel like a prison to Liv, leaving her despondent and isolated when he was away on various projects.
Ullman admits that their interpersonal conflicts impacted their professional work, that he took out his anger with her as a mate in cruel director-actor-conflicts on set, to the point that her love for him began to fade even though her admiration for his cinematic artistry remained high throughout this period of turmoil. Finally, the tension forces a breakup, with her turning her energies to a bit of Hollywood cinema (hence, the nomination for The Emigrants) as well as stage work in Oslo and on Broadway (Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, fittingly about a wife who leaves a suffocating marriage), through all of which Bergman remained very supportive and collaborative—as well as longing for her, she explains for us in very candid reminiscences that do little to burnish either of their acknowledged-as-flawed-public-images; in fact, her frank honestly is the main appeal of this heartfelt (by both director and subject) documentary, the display of a heart-connection that I think anyone could relate to about any star-crossed-relationship, even if you know nothing about the principals involved here, because, if anything, the known quality of the Bergman-Ullman filmic output may be too distracting for superfans of their work such as myself, too engrossed in a manner of hero-worship to fully appreciate their universal human-interest-story of passion, memory, and regret. (Which continued to have cinematic manifestations as well, as she directed a TV film of his script, Private Confessions , which got limited theatrical release, as did his script of Faithless [2000; a virtually-autobiographical-work of the impact of Bergman and Ullman’s affair on their marriages to others back in the mid-‘60s], also directed by her; their most telling final collaboration, though, was the searing Saraband , written and directed by Bergman originally for TV, then turned into theatrical release, in which Ullman and Erland Josephson reprise their roles of Sweden’s once-most-celebrated-couple-whose-union-falls-on-the-rocks in Scenes from a Marriage. As Marianne and Johan, these now-aged-lovers still have connections and conflicts in a manner that surely mirrors Bergman’s own feelings of his never-fully-resolved-desire for Ullman.) In a moment that sent shivers down my spine (but again, I think you have to be really familiar with their work together to fully appreciate it) she notes that he once told her, “You are my Stradivarius,” although speaking for those of us more distant from their entanglement, I’d hope he had at least reasonably similar feelings for other magnificent talents who also made many films with him, actors such as Harriett Andersson, Max Van Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Bibi Andersson—the latter especially, given that she carries almost all of the dialogue burden in Persona, with some especially long, penetrating monologues while Ullman’s talent lies in establishing a powerful presence even without speaking. (I can’t go any further about Persona without sharing some of its brilliance, so here’s the confession scene where nurse Alma [Andersson] admits to an orgy when she was young, the only sample I can find that definitely comes with English subtitles; however, assuming you have the little CC box to the right under your YouTube screen that allows you to add subtitles, there’s also the magnificently-disturbing-scene where Alma reaches into the soul of consciously-silenced-actress Elisabeth Vogler [Ullman] and talks about the trauma Elisabeth has because of her disabled son, shown in two versions with the first from the viewpoint of Alma talking to Elisabeth, then the same in reverse. Even if you can't get the subtitles on, at the end of the clip you can see Alma denying that she somehow shares Elisabeth’s identity even though there is the disturbing shot where the two women’s faces are superimposed, presenting them as distinct yet somehow joined. If your CC option is working [or if you really don’t care about translation (or are fluent in Swedish)] then you might even want to watch this full version (1:19:08) of Persona, but if that’s too much I at least encourage you to see the very surrealistic opening shots of the film that have some context within the scenes that follow [as well as within the career of Bergman], but you don’t really have to have a translation of any sort to just immerse yourself in the startling, confounding nature of images relieved of their normal narrative explanations.)
Now, for my final admission about why I’m so fascinated by Liv & Ingmar, yet I’ve been very conservative with my star rating (which just for me would be one of those almost-unattainable-5’s, but that’s heavily influenced by all of the personal overlay on my part so I’ve pushed it back to a possibly-unfair-4 as best I can guesstimate what a non-Bergmanphile audience might think of this roughly 1 ½ hours of “scraps of memories” [to borrow a line from Julie Dash’s marvelous 1991 Daughters of the Dust]). Not only did I spend two long afternoons in the spring of 1981 with Roger Ebert and a group of students meticulously analyzing Persona in a frame-by-frame exploration (including the image with the paragraph below, the shot from that film that leads us into the story proper and is also the final still from Liv & Ingmar; more on its context in a minute), I also had the distinguished pleasure of meeting Bergman later that semester when he came to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to accept the first Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, including a week-long-residency at SMU (where I was an Assistant Professor in the Center for Communication Arts). Bergman held dialogues that week with students about his theatre and cinema work, as the culmination of a months-long-preparation-period in which many of us spent every weekend watching almost all of his films up to that time, augmented by lectures delivered by Ebert and other prominent critics (as best I know, this was only the second time that Bergman had ever visited the U.S.). Considering what I knew of his tormented explorations in the dark corners of the human soul, after he left behind more whimsical material such as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955; later made into the song-filled theatrical adaptation—including “Send in the Clowns”—A Little Night Music in 1973, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, then adapted back to the silver screen under that new title by Harold Prince ), I was amazed to find him to be such a pleasant, generous man (even as he seemed uncomfortable speaking in English so when he did his dialogues with the students he asked that their questions be conveyed to him in Swedish by a translator who also interpreted his answers; further, he allowed no additional questions from the audience, although he was very detailed and eloquent in his replies to the students—you can find transcripts of all this in the book Talking with Ingmar Bergman , edited by my former colleague, the late Dr. G. William Jones), the sort of archetypal grandfather who shared his lifelong love for cinema with me, spontaneously drawing me a little sketch of the first projector he had as a child, recounting how fascinated he was from the beginning with this “magic lantern” that could bring pictures to life. I can understand how Liv Ullman was so engrossed with him, even when their love turned to psychological warfare, so that she’s still enraptured with him to this day, as she so eloquently explains in Liv & Ingmar, a marvelous experience for me but one that I hesitate to praise too highly to someone not as deeply invested in Bergman, Ullman, and their art-house-world of ferocious cinema because it may be difficult for a non-initiate into the “high church of Bergmania” to see beyond an elderly woman talking in such an enraptured manner about an old lover, now dead for a few years—or maybe I’m not appreciating how universal such a story would be for anyone who’s invested all of themselves into someone else, only to never have the relationship finished as they’d hoped.
For those lucky enough to have found such love and still be able to maintain it, I’ll finish with my musical metaphor for the week, 3 versions of John Lennon’s (hard to say how much Paul McCartney contributed to this one because their accounts vary, but Lennon is usually accorded more authorship) “In My Life,” first in the more-mesmerizing-version by my candidate for most-melodious-vocalist of all time, Judy Collins (from her 1966 In My Life album), at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=13uK6uRrhPk, dedicated to Theodore from Her because of the flawless understanding he had of unattainable Samantha; then in a version by Bette Midler at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6052dI9jRk from the soundtrack of For the Boys (Mark Rydell,1991; in which she and James Caan more or less impersonate Martha Raye and Bob Hope, with Midler getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress but losing to Jody Foster in Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme], one of only 3 films ever to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one of the Best Screenplay awards [Adapted, for each of these grand triumphs] along with It Happened One Night [Frank Capra, 1934] and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Miloš Forman, 1975]), dedicated to Nelly and Charles from The Invisible Woman, because of the more theatrical delivery and career associated with Bette; and finally by The Beatles (from their 1965 Rubber Soul album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zicw_dVwhfM, dedicated to Liv (and Ingmar, who hopefully is in conversation with Mr. Lennon somewhere) because this version came out relatively in tandem with Persona, it seems the most timeless rendition to me (of a song that was highly celebrated by many list-makers as one of the best of the last century), and it’s a beautiful statement that simply says everything that tongue-tied-humans often have problems with, including all of the less-than-fulfilled lovers presented in our cluster of films this week (I also take the liberty of sending this song, in any version, to my marvelous wife, Nina, because, Sweetheart, it takes me past my own reserved conversational limits—for some reason, I’m much chattier with a keyboard, as any reader of this blog is well-aware, than I usually am in person—to a direct expression of how vital you are to my life, where truly I do “love you more” than anything else past or present). And, as we wrap up, regarding the photo above of a boy seeming to reach out for a diffused-image of Ullman from the start of Persona (at least I think that’s her, but there’s also Andersson’s soft-focused-face in this scene, with these women intended to somewhat resemble each other, so just play along and assume this is Liv, OK?), I’ll offer the speculation determined so long ago back in the urban wilderness of Dallas by Roger and me (Hmm, I should make a film with that title—but didn’t somebody else already do that?) that this boy—played by the same actor (Jörgen Lindström) who was in Bergman’s previous-to-Persona-also-emotionally-laden-film, The Silence (1963), followed by a painful health problem that had the director lying flat on his back during a long recuperation time, mirrored by the shots of the Persona boy also lying on a hard, flat bed, then looking at the camera as if watching us—serves as a symbolic connection to Bergman. So, if Bergman, the director, is reaching out to his distinct-but-merged-actors then he’s connecting with their total unity in a manner very appropriate as a final shot for Liv & Ingmar, given that Andersson had an affair with Bergman as well, prior to being “replaced” by Ullman during production of Persona. I’ll leave you to ponder all that until we meet again next week.
If you’d like to know more about Her here are some suggested links:
I couldn’t find much other video on Her so here are some clips from the film, first at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCN8FAruse8 (1:23, conversation between Theodore and Samantha), then http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n5muEWaE_Q (1:16, Samantha describes her feelings to Theodore), and finally http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAquwhl304I (1:13, Theodore and Amy discuss the marvelous situation of bonding with computer operating systems)
If you’d like to know more about The Invisible Woman here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TT3RE--SQjQ (27:40 interview with director and actor Ralph Fiennes and actor Felicity Jones)
If you’d like to know more about Liv & Ingmar here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9BM5snBGoo (12:48 interview with Liv Ullman)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.