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Ingrid Bergman’s Home Movies Brighten Biodoc ‘In Her Own Words’

Ingrid Bergman's Home Movies Brighten Biodoc 'In Her Own Words'

Some of my favorite classic movies star Sweden’s Ingrid Bergman, who acted opposite Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” Gary Cooper in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” which featured the longest screen kiss ever. Even when she was young—she hit Hollywood at age 23, in David O’ Selznick’s “Intermezzo”—there was something worldly about her, a natural sensuality. Movie directors loved her, in Sweden and America, because she gleamed with health and beauty even without makeup and could also play sophisticated and glamorous. 
In a year rife with strong archive docs, “In Her Own Words” stands out because Bergman was a pack rat who hung on to everything, from her diaries (well-read by fellow Swede Alicia Vikander) to her home movies. She was an early woman with a movie camera, and her husbands enjoyed shooting her as well. The movie tracks her tragic family life—she was orphaned young and went to live with an aunt who died in her arms a year later—and from the start she was abandoning her husband Petter Lindstrom and baby Pia for Hollywood’s siren call.

“She was so much before her time in the way she lived and worked,” says Swedish filmmaker Stig Björkman, who collaborated with a woman producer, photographers and editor. “I see her as an early feminist, not politically involved or interested, just in her actions and her way of living. She seemed to be a very strong woman, who could be a model for how a modern woman would live her life, because she lived the way any man lived in the 40s or 50s. Work was the primary interest and after that came family and children, who accepted this.”

When she was present, her children report, Bergman was wonderful to be with; but she was often absent, working. In short, Bergman behaved like a man, and when that included having an out of wedlock affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, she was punished for it, even though they eventually married and had three children. After living in Italy and Paris, when Bergman stopped making improvisational art films with Rossellini, Hollywood welcomed her back, awarding her an Oscar for “Anastasia,” enthusiastically accepted on her behalf by Cary Grant. 

Björkman had a blast delving into the riches of the Ingrid Bergman collection at Wesleyan. And after Isabella Rossellini had suggested at a chance meeting at the Berlin Film Fest, “should we make a film about Mama?,” Bergman’s four children are front and center in the narrative, perhaps too much so.

Björkman told me that he was trying to avoid the standard-issue cradle-to-grave narrative, and came upon the idea of having an actress (Vikander proved perfect casting) narrate the film by reading Bergman’s diaries (in Swedish) and letters (more often in English). Bergman was “at 14 years old alone in the world,” said Björkman, “which is why she kept everything over the years, diaries and letters whatever. This gave us the freedom to be more associative in the editing and building the structure, and not have a timeline in the narration.”

Some of the most delightful footage is archival material from Sweden and early Hollywood, which fit well with all the amateur film shot by Ingrid herself or somebody close to her. “They were so rich and so valuable,” said Björkman. “There were more than a hour of behind-the-scene films for ‘Joan of Arc,’ and amazing footage filmed by Ingrid and her first husband on a trip to Germany and France; on the street you see brown-dressed uniformed military people walking by; it was just before World War II.”

The movie follows Bergman through her late blossoming on-screen in Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata,” in which she co-starred with Liv Ullmann as her daughter, a mother-daughter tearjerker that hit close to home.

Björkman’s discovery was Bergman’s “great courage, in every way,” he says. “One of my favorite scenes in the film is when she comes to New York for the New York Film Critics awards; she was very afraid of going back to the States who had rejected her for such a long time. She’s standing there at the airport being interviewed, smiling: ‘Do you have any regrets?’ ‘I don’t have any regrets, I only regret the things I haven’t done yet!’ she says with a smile. That captures her so well.”

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