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Ullmann's 'Faithless' analyzes betrayal

Saturday, April 28, 2001

Today's homily concerns faith, inspired by Liv Ullmann's new film, "Faithless." The title says it all -- with deliberate ambiguity. Is "faithless" a synonym for "unfaithful" in the sense of sexual infidelity? Or is there a difference in meaning and implications between the two?


RATED: Rated R for sexual content, brief nudity.



Ullmann's tale, playing at Regent Square, employs the subject-talking-to-shrink format perfected by her mentor, Ingmar Bergman -- who happens to be the author of this screenplay, based on an actual event. For the cinematic event, a writer-director (Erland Josephson) substitutes for the psychiatrist and an actress (Lena Endre) for the patient.

It goes like this:

In deep existential angst, the director (none too subtly named Bergman) has sketched out a rough scenario that he desperately wants to see enacted, for which purpose he summons the muse and improvisational services of Marianne. Her job is to bring his story-within-a-story to (real or theatrical?) life. His job is merely to watch, listen and react in voyeuristic silence.

In the drama assigned to her, Marianne is happily married to conductor Markus (Thomas Hanzon), whose best friend, David (Krister Henriksson), is a reckless stage director. She and David are about to have an affair. At its outset, agonizingly self-analytical Marianne is in "a state of chaos I can't describe" -- but spends the next two hours and 20 minutes describing it.

When she and David meet in Paris, David's confessional story -- in complement to Marianne's -- unfolds: "Life is a series of disasters ... If only I weren't so clumsy and complicated, bordering on comical."

I check my watch: This could take five or 55 minutes. No matter what the length, it will resemble the transcript of a shrink's Dictabelt. It will be intriguing, but it will not be dialogue: These characters take turns talking and listening carefully, but they rarely converse.

Even Marianne's enigmatic little daughter Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo) speaks in interior monologues: "It was summer ... I was scared ... There was a knock at the door."

The scene culminates in a chilling discovery-confrontation scene with Markus: Marianne weeps while David (mortifyingly minus his pants) laughs. Tacky, yes, but not heavy-duty tragedy until the Big D -- Divorce -- and Isabelle's custody rear their ugly heads.

Exhausted by this story and this game of creating it, the actress breaks off and boycotts these painful improv sessions for several days, railing against her writer-director-tormentor in a great Bergmanesque double-image mirror shot. Endre does a superb job of conjuring both emotional stories and heroines.

Josephson meets the challenge to act and react by "speaking" solely with his eyes. No one listens, or suffers in silence, better than he.

I love Liv, and let Liv direct! Let her idiosyncratically address the alienation, in and out of marriage, that both stems from and produces "unfaithful" sexual betrayal -- violations of the monogamy rule whose single (let alone double) standard is so painfully overblown, so overvalued and so often emotionally fatal. The real betrayal is not the sexual dalliance of the one but the faithless reaction of the other.

"Faithless" is neo-Bergman heavy going, thought-provoking although lacking Bergman's touch of rueful humor to leaven the somber mood. Ullmann's immortal exit line in "Face to Face" (1975), for example, would have been equally appropriate here: Upon leaving her psychiatrist-friend's office -- after a devastating, 20-minute nervous-breakdown monologue during which he has said not one word -- Ullmann turns back to him with a polite afterthought: "Next time, darling, we'll talk only about you."

-- Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

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