Love through a lens: how Ingrid Bergman took the worlds breath away

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From marital scandals to on-screen magnetism, a documentary about Ingrid Bergman salutes an actor who consistently defied expectations

Nearly 20 years ago, I went to stay with my husband in a house owned by the family of Roberto Rossellini, the great neorealist Italian film director. We spent our days as you do when you find yourself in an idyllic hideaway in the Italian sunshine: reading; lying by the pool; watching the light through the trees. And I thought about Ingrid Bergman, who must have visited this secluded villa at a time when her life was in free fall.

Its hard now to imagine the kind of scandal Bergman caused when she became pregnant with Rossellinis child, while still married to her first husband Petter Lindstrm. She wasnt just a wife, she was a mother, and had left her daughter Pia behind when she went off to Italy to work with Rossellini. The outrage was scalding. Bergman news jolts Hollywood like an A Bomb screeched one newspaper headline, neatly combining two of the most important news items of 1949.

In the US, religious groups began a campaign to ban her films on the grounds that they glorified adultery. In Italy, she and Rossellini were followed everywhere by paparazzi, their companions for the rest of their tumultuous life together.

I was a danger for American womanhood, she told an interviewer, years later. Even my voice over the radio was supposed to be dangerous. Of course I was hurt, but I didnt think that what I had done was so much other peoples business … If you dont like the performance, you can walk out, but to criticise peoples private life, I thought was wrong.

That defiant statement of intent is quoted in Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a new documentary film directed by Stig Bjrkman that tells the story of one of Hollywoods most enduring stars. It draws on her diaries, letters and interviews, interspersed with home movies, and glimpses of the actor in all her screen glory, from her Swedish debut in 1935 to her Hollywood heyday in the 1940s to her final roles nearly 40 years later. It is a revealing insight into a woman who consistently defied expectations.

Watch the official trailer for Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

In her first American screen test, in bleached-out colour and silence, with no makeup as the clapper board proclaims, she shines. It is as if she is in possession of a secret and that knowledge illuminates her from the inside, as she glances directly at the camera, or smiles with a warmth that could thaw a Swedish winter. Its a sign of all that is to come. If you think of Bergman on screen, in Casablanca, Notorious or Gaslight, it is that radiance that first comes to mind.

In part this was a simple matter of her beauty. Daniel Selznick, son of the powerful David O who first swept Bergman away to Hollywood, told her biographer Charlotte Chandler: There is no one I have ever met, of any age, of any generation, that took ones breath away at every meeting the way she did. The complexion, the lips, the cheeks, the ears, the nose, the eyes, the body of a goddess. And she was just completely unselfconscious. Gregory Peck, her co-star in Hitchocks Spellbound, suggested that she was even more beautiful away from the studio cameras a judgment vindicated by the home movie footage that shows her relaxed with family and friends.

But there is some other mysterious force at work. From the very first, she was confident in front of a camera, and it is Pia Lindstrm the daughter she abandoned when she ran off with Rossellini who offers a psychological explanation for her mothers dazzling impact on screen. Bergmans mother had died when she was two, so she was brought up by her father, a photographer, whom she adored, until he too died when she was 13.

Love would come right through that lens, suggests Lindstrm. She was looking through that lens and she is looking at her dear dead father, and she would flirt and play with him and pose with him. She was completely comfortable with the camera and knew how to pose.

Bergman herself was aware of her gift. She was a poor little orphan girl, lonely and bereft, yet filming made her feel alive. Theres a photograph of her going to her first ever job as an extra that is notable not only for her staggering loveliness, but for the sheer vitality of her pose as she peers along the line of waiting hopefuls, looking outwards and forwards. I love the freedom I feel in front of the camera, she said.

Photograph: Soda Pictures

But she was a dab hand behind a camera, too, inheriting from her father a desire to record the world and the people around her. She filmed her honeymoon with Petter, and when she left him suddenly she wrote saying she didnt want many of the treasures she had left behind. The only problem will be our 16mm film. Maybe you will lend it to me so I can see what I looked like in my youth.

That desire to preserve each aspect of her life in photographs and footage has left Bjrkman a wealth of material on which to draw; in this private footage you see her falling in love with Rossellini, stroking his head tenderly as they talk; you watch the three children they had together grow up; you see their fear as their parents marriage falls apart. Later, you watch the sadness cross Bergmans face as she climbs into an ambulance when her daughter Isabella is diagnosed with scoliosis.

But just as revealing are the letters and diaries that Bergman also preserved, rich in self-knowledge and the honest confrontation of the contradictions in her character. Writing to a friend, when she is enjoying the first flush of success in her Hollywood career, she describes her panic at not working for four months which is two months too long. She is at home with Petter and Pia, but confesses: Only half of me is alive. The other half is packed away in a suitcase suffocating. What should I do?

She has an affair with Robert Capa, the war photographer, and her free spirit soars. She tries to be a good wife and to knit at home, but the siren call of something different propels her onwards. With Rossellini, it is his work she falls in love with first; she admires Rome, Open City and writes him a bold proposal. If you ever need a Swedish actor who speaks very good English and a little German, who can make herself understood in French and can only say ti amo in Italian, then Ill come and make a film with you.

Years later she explains his appeal more fully. It was a combination of passion that I fell in love with a man who was so different from any other man I had ever known, and it was my boredom in Hollywood I wanted to do something that they didnt expect me to do. When her relationship with Rossellini broke down, and she began to think about returning to Hollywood, she was still determined to do the kind of films I feel comfortable with. Success mattered greatly to Bergman, but not at any price.

At the same time, as the film makes clear, though her children mattered to her intensely, she was prepared to leave them to pursue her career. Her priorities were not those expected. If you took acting away from me I would stop breathing, she said. She admitted she had missed a lot, by leaving not just one child but her second set of children to be brought up mainly by others. I do regret it, but I dont think they suffered, she said.

That complexity the authentic voice of a woman who knew her own fallibility, of someone who loved and lost but never complained makes Bergman, who died of cancer, aged 67, in 1982, a peculiarly admirable Hollywood star. She was a pioneer before her time; protected and constrained by her loveliness, she voyaged ever onwards, brave and strong.

There is a rose named after her, which I have in my garden. It is deep red, lightly perfumed and almost too perfect in shape and form. It blooms for a very long time, lingering long after other flowers shed their petals. There could not be a better tribute to an actor who is always worth remembering.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is at the BFI Southbank, London SE1, from 12 August and then at selected cinemas. At the BFI, the film will be accompanied by a mini season, Ingrid Bergman on Screen.

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