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'Faithless': A Piercing Light on the Dark Corners of the Heart

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2001


    'Faithless' Lena Endre and Krister Henriksson in "Faithless."
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Anybody who has ever written a story knows the moment. You're sitting there in the room and the blankness of the page before you is growing larger, colder, more intimidating. It may swallow you. But suddenly you are not alone. Someone has slipped in. He or she begins to whisper, and in the voice is hypnotism, liberation, energy, possibly even truth.

The Greeks called it the Muse. In our clinical age, we call it the subconscious. Whatever – it's there, it works, and it's at the heart of the brilliant Ingmar Bergman-Liv Ullmann collaboration "Faithless," which might be regarded as a sort of "Scenes From the End of a Marriage."

In this film, the man in the room happens to be a retired director who now only writes. He is in the winter of his years: august, sophisticated, clearly a brilliant success. He is, in fact, Ingmar Bergman, though the character (called "Bergman" in the cast listing) is played by Erland Josephson, who – to complete the circle – also starred (with Ullmann) all those years ago in Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage."

The character who comes to the writer in his despair is a she. An actress. Played by the exceedingly handsome Lena Endre, Marianne would seem to be at the peak of her life. In utter confidence she begins to sweetly whisper her secrets to the writer, who listens, transfixed.

She's married to a composer named Markus (Thomas Hanzon) with a world-class career going; she has a beautiful daughter named Isabelle. She and her husband are well-entrenched members of Stockholm's artistic elite; cosmopolitan, prosperous, beloved and, one would assume, happy. But . . . she is not, and she tells her story while the writer writes it down, interrupting now and then to ask a question or offer a clarification.

That flashback structure frees the movie to compress, to dip in and out of the stream of memory, to underline, while the interlocutory sessions keep things in focus, or in as much focus as such emotional turmoil can achieve.

Marianne's story involves David (Krister Henriksson), also a director (hmmmm). Markus's best friend, he's a brilliant if dissolute fellow, always courting destruction, always flirting with his own special kind of hell. Of course that makes him dramatically attractive as well, and one drunken evening when Markus is off touring, he asks his friend Marianne to sleep with him. She attempts to dismiss it as a joke. Oh, David, he's so outrageous. He always says things that amuse and astonish and provoke and outrage.

But, the seed planted, it begins to grow. For reasons she herself cannot understand, Marianne is tempted, and soon enough an infidelity is arranged. It will begin in Paris, where she is traveling and David has gone to try to raise money to make a movie (hmmmm again); it will continue, fed, one presumes, on the powerful fuel of its own dangerous idiocy, back in Stockholm. And, we understand early enough so that I do not give anything away, it will destroy everybody's lives.

The good news is that Bergman wrote the film; the better news is that he did not direct it. Ullmann was behind the camera, and the press notes recount the interesting negotiations between the two old colleagues (and former lovers). He wrote but did not care to direct; she said she'd do the studio scenes for him; he said she might as well do the whole thing; she said all right, but only if she made it her film, with her nuances and interpretations; he said all right, and maybe it would be better that way.

And maybe it is. She has a more middlebrow talent than his, and therefore seems less inclined toward introspection and reiteration. She wants to keep it moving, and so the film has been engineered along fluid narrative lines: It just rips through its materials and feels much shorter than its near 2 1/2-hour running time. She's also not the visual technician that he was (though later in his career his films became more prosaic-looking); the film has a flat, almost television look, as if space had been cleared for that endlessly fascinating Bergman obsession, the epistemology of emotion.

That, really, is the true focus of "Faithless." While it with harsh truth documents the collapse of a marriage, the end of love, the wretched aftermath, its real interest is interior: How do we know what we feel? How do we know our own hearts? Why do we do the things we do? How do we know our lovers? Why do the most straightforward of people cling to the most desperate of secrets?

As "Faithless" works through its downward spiral – infidelity, jealousy, anger that trends toward violence, depression so demoralizing it quenches the need to live – it is held together by the intensity of its focus. Though it is depressing – do not see it if you are having love-life squabbles and own a gun or a bottle of sleeping pills – its piercing honesty is remarkable. The movie strips its characters of their delusions, and ultimately requires that they face their worst demons.

And as for the man in the room, writing it all down, as if he were the recording secretary or the subject of a miraculous visitation, he too learns something terrifying that shakes him to his very old soul, from the visitors who come and tell him their stories. He learns that what seems to be fresh and from nowhere, the spontaneous creation of a character and her dilemmas, may be something else indeed: It may be memory.

"Faithless" (142 minutes, in Swedish with subtitles) is unrated but includes nudity and sexually provocative imagery, and displays some vicious encounters between adults.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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