An act of celebratory remembrance that’s buoyed by a desire to understand the messy contradictions, motivations, and emotions of its subject, “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” proves a stirring and insightful biography of assemblage. Stig Björkman’s film recounts the life story of the famed international actress through the usual non-fiction devices — talking-head interviews with relatives, film, and news clips — as well as a wealth of photos, home movies, and diary writings made by Bergman herself, who was committed to documenting her experiences through journal entries, letters to friends, and celluloid. It was a habit passed down from her father, whose fondness for pointing his camera at his daughter (and himself) turned out to be not only the origins of her cinematic career, but also a formative lesson about the way in which the lens allows one to capture, forever, life’s fleeting moments.
Given that Bergman lost her mother at the age of two and her father at the age of thirteen, it’s only natural that the actress would seek to cling to cherished memories, and the use of her own archival material in ‘In Her Own Words’ results in a tribute to both her titanic career, and to her belief in the movies’ capacity to safeguard the past, and to maintain it long after its makers are gone. In laying out Bergman’s scattered life with her children, and her dedication to keeping a record of their intermittent time together (through both movies and penned correspondences), director Björkman pinpoints the way in which artistic mediums serve as conduits for introspection, expression, and preservation. The last of those was of particular importance to Bergman, considering that her illustrious career, which took her from a small Swedish town to Hollywood, then Italy, then France, and finally England, kept her away from her beloved progeny for lengthy stretches.
In new interviews, Bergman’s children articulate warm sentiments about their mother’s kindness, playfulness, and love, even as some (Pia Lindström, Ingrid Rossellini) come across as more upset about her regular absence during their upbringing then do others (Isabella Rossellini). ‘In Her Own Words’ contends that Bergman’s devotion to her family co-existed, side-by-side, with a free-spirit need to constantly reinvent herself — through establishing new marriages, residences, and families in different countries, as well as through different cinematic and theatrical roles. Without fully dovetailing into pop psychoanalysis, there’s an underlying notion throughout Björkman’s penetrating film that Bergman, both on-screen and off, was engaged in constant, complex performances. This allowed her to be more than just one thing to one person at any one time, and which — after the pain of losing her parents at an early age, and growing up lonely and displaced — let her feel like she had control over her destiny.
Bergman’s unashamed interest in doing as she pleased, no matter the public consequences, resulted in scandal when, while making Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 “Stromboli,” she fell in love with the Italian neo-realist director and subsequently left her first husband, neurosurgeon Petter Aron Lindström. The access to the actress’ intimate thoughts about this tumultuous period helps ‘In Her Own Words’ paint a portrait of the actress as a woman driven not by outside opinion but, instead, by her own inner voice. That dogged faith in her own instincts is felt throughout the film, and most directly addressed during a sequence detailing her attraction to 1948’s “Joan of Arc,” whose story about a young rural woman compelled to follow her calling and achieve greatness spoke to Bergman’s outlook on herself and her personal and professional future.
Bolstered by behind-the-scenes footage of her work in films such as “Casablanca,” “Notorious,” and “Autumn Sonata,” ‘In Her Own Words’ also functions as a handy primer of Bergman’s renowned oeuvre. Be it in these clips or in private recordings of vacations and down-time with her husbands and kids, Bergman’s radiant smile, effervescent manner, and lively eyes radiate an almost hypnotic charm that’s difficult to resist. To watch Björkman’s expertly constructed, montage-heavy film is to recognize her as not only one of the medium’s most magnetic stars, but a talent and beauty whose expressive face and irresistible charisma made her a figure born to live for (and permanently live on through) the camera. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 New York Film Festival.