SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Living in her freedom

IN CONVERSATION

Living in her freedom

"Without her, cinema is mere script without words. Part of our understanding of excellence, she has inspired actors through five decades, challenging you to face your demons as she explores the highest and basest forms of nature... If I sound like a gushing fan, it is because I AM a gushing fan."

THIS was Shabana Azmi's tribute to Norwegian actor/director Liv Ullmann, whose Lifetime Achievement Award at IFFI 2003 had been proposed by film makers Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Mani Ratnam and Shekhar Kapur.

The legendary star of "Persona", "The Passion of Anna", "Cries and Whispers", "Scenes from a Marriage", "Face to Face" and "Autumn Sonata" responded to the plaudits with warmth and dignity. Ullmann also quipped that at 64, she had reached the right age for lifetime achievement awards, but it did not mean that life was over; she hoped to continue working. (Her next directorial project "Coming Home" spans 20 years of flashbacks as the protagonist goes home to die in Iceland).

Ullmann's winsome humour makes a striking contrast to her dark, complex, gut wrenching roles on the screen. She loves to recount unflattering moments — of a little old lady at an airport who peered at her to ask, "Didn't you use to be Liv Ullmann?" Hers is the unforgettable face from the Ingmar Bergman classics — but not for the onlooker at a film shoot in a New York hotel who shrugged, "I don't know her. It can't be an important film".

Didn't Ullmann get a Golden Globe ("The New Land", Jan Troell, 1973), an Oscar nomination ("Face to Face", Ingmar Bergman, 1976) and New York Film Critics' awards? Didn't Time profile her? Didn't Newsweek hail her as the new Greta Garbo? No, you cannot get Ullmann to talk about triumphs. She will say, impishly, "I did something Garbo didn't do. I closed down two studios, Columbia and Warners." She remarks that hearing her sing made Richard Rodgers age 10 years "just like that!" But he came every night to hear the "seven songs I mishandled" in his last Broadway musical "I Remember Mamma". The show was a winner. As Nora in the Ibsen favourite, Ullmann scored another Broadway hit.

World acclaim came to Ullmann working in regions where the summer sun "kisses the horizon" but never goes away. There the Tokyo born, Canada raised, Trondheim-schooled woman found her mission — and herself — in acting, directing, motherhood, friendship, love and heartbreak. They prepared her to tour some of the poorest, war-drought ravaged parts of the world as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for 15 years.

Listen to Ullmann speak, or read her bestsellers Changing and Choices and you will be surprised by her diarist's style — direct, unprejudiced, frank and personal. So spare that the text cannot be further edited. She speaks in images, not concepts. The words are searching, self-probing, she uses them as tools to share, to make sense of experience.

Living in her freedom

Similarly, on the screen she can make strange, enigmatic tangles appear familiar, lucid. Ullmann has more to say about how as a director ("Sofie",1993, "Kristin Lavransdatter",1995, "Faithless", 2001) she gets her actors to express the moods she wants.

"A good director gives the lines and the room for the actors to find themselves. I sit next to the camera. Then it happens. Because they trust me. A good director will never tell the actor the look she wants on the face. But she makes a good audience."

Her own best memories are of playing to Bergman who always sat close to the camera, and was her best audience. As a director was she not inhibited by the thought of comparisons with Bergman? Ullmann begins to laugh, "I had no fear with the actors. I had worked enough with bad directors to know what I must not do. But I was very bad with the technical people — thought everyone was against me because I was a woman, tried to be a sweet li'l gal with them, gave them coffee every now and then." With old friend Sven Nikvist as cinematographer things improved, and by her fourth film Ullmann found that she knew the frame better than anyone else on the sets. "If anyone protested, sorry, no coffee from me." Not even for screenplay writer Ingmar Bergman ("Faithless"). There is a telling afterthought. "He didn't like the forgiveness in the film, because he doesn't believe in forgiveness."

With all the guilt, shame, alienation, despair, bitter explosions, passion as desire and suffering that she has imaged as actor and director, it is natural to talk about Ullmann's own faith. Her "Kristin Lavransdatter" (screened at IFFI) is a panoramic medieval saga of "people who don't merely believe in God, they know He exists". In halting, tentative accents Ullmann continues, "Yesterday I saw the Taj Mahal, a tomb to honour a dead queen. But now it can take your hand and soul — like a book, a painting, a song, and rarely, like a film — and lead you into the light. In some scenes a film can make you aware that life is incredible, it's more than just being here at this instant. Great musicians will allow us to know something greater than who we are. When you listen to the silence after the music is over, just before the applause begins, that stillness can bind you to God."

Does it then follow that art cannot be centred in the self? What does commitment mean in an artiste anyway? "Compassion," she replies. "The Dalai Lama says that compassion is what makes us human beings. When Norwegian writer Knut Hamsen describes nature, the seasons, the sun around you, suddenly you recognise something you know but had no words for. I think then commitment gives you happiness."

Ibsen's Nora has remained with Ullmann. Hasn't she been a Nora in life, as on the stage? In a film slated for 2005 she returns to the doll who spurns dependence and security to find her own human identity, potential and commitments. Kate Blanchette will play the role, "It will be wonderful to watch another actor unfold it all before me."

To Ullmann The Doll's House is neither overworked nor dated. She believes that she can do things with it that Ibsen could not do on the stage in his time. She can show the other side of Torvald. The last confrontation would focus on the children instead of the parents. "Whatever the reasons and justifications, it is the children who are affected by a broken home."

In the pause before goodbyes Ullmann mentions a new novel by daughter Linn, an acclaimed writer. Her eyes light up as they never did during the interviews and talks. Long ago in her memoirs (Changing), the mother had described standing by the window, watching her little girl in worn pants digging the earth. "You are a part of me which is completely free. And I watch you, wishing I had the time to follow you more closely. See how your freedom lives in you."

To see Liv Ullmann and her work, is to see how freedom can live in you.

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