Criterion Prediction #31: Face to Face, by Alexander Miller
Title: Face to Face – Theatrical Cut & Four Episode Miniseries
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Aino Taube, Gunnar Björnstrand, Lena Olin
Synopsis: Jenny Isaksson (Ullmann) is a psychiatrist who happens to be struggling with some issues of her own as she is drifting away from her family and friends. At a dinner party, she meets Dr. Thomas Jacobi (Josephson), who provides her with some solace, but he identifies that she is at odds with her current place in life. From the outset, she is plagued by the memories of her past while her current state leaves her with little to stand on; once Jenny is sexually assaulted she loses her grip on reality resulting in a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt.
Critique: Story wise, Bergman is in familiar territory, but Face to Face expands on the darker side of the human seed (even by Bergman standards) with the director’s trademark exploration of identity, the dissolution of reality, and of course the synergy of life and death. Those familiar with the director’s work know that dreams are a common narrative device. However, in this case they play a central part in the proceeding story…that is, depending on which version of Face to Face you watch. One of the main differences between the theatrical cut and the miniseries is a heavy reliance on dream sequences. Bergman’s usual restraint was utilized with great effect over the years – the coffin scene in Wild Strawberries and Eva choking her mother in Autumn Sonata come to mind as they are both terrifying because they rely on so little emphasis.
This time around the pending scares feels compromised as his tendencies in Face to Face veer from dark minimalism to heavy-handed literalism. So when Liv Ullman’s character sees a vision of herself in a coffin and sets it on fire, one could make the argument that this lack of subtlety could be Bergman’s own sense of irony, lampooning his proclivity for gloominess, not unlike the “horror” we see in Hour of the Wolf, or it could just be a misfire. That might account for the liberal editing of the miniseries; on the other hand, many of the supernatural elements were omitted from the theatrical cut of Fanny & Alexander, so it’s likely the result of universal appeal regarding distribution.
As usual, this entry is a showcase for its leading actors (and Bergman regulars) Ullmann and Josephson – the latter is his commanding self whereas Ullmann’s portrayal of a woman’s descent into madness is immersive and moving. The final product is strong but might be too familiar for fans of the directors work.
Why it Belongs in the Collection? You’d think that Face to Face would be a more well known Bergman film seeing as it came out when the director was particularly marketable in the U.S., after he became one of the foremost names in world cinema, along with Fellini and Kurosawa.
Given the acclaim and awards, you’d think that Face to Face would deserve more than a bare bones Olive Films DVD, but that’s what’s out there. Thanks to The Criterion Collection releasing both versions of Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander, we can see the intended scope and ambition of these endeared movies, and (as a fan of the director) these titles in their full form are vastly improved from their theatrical cuts. Now that the four episodes of Face to Face have surfaced (via YouTube, I have no idea how), the full-length version of Bergman’s vision could lead many to reevaluate the film as I did upon watching it. And who better than Criterion to reassemble this “thought to be lost” component from a renowned director. As far as Bergman’s body of work is concerned, the divide in his filmography was paralleled on home video. Criterion has capital on Bergman’s earlier classics, but their claim to some of his mid-period and later work remains elusive. A restored presentation of Face to Face, featuring both versions of the film, would be an interesting avenue to pursue.