Film Studies: Sweden's sexiest star

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Ingrid Thulin was so beautiful that it was entirely proper in her first film outside Sweden, made when she was 30, that she should play a beauty capable of winning the affections of Robert Mitchum. That was a picture called Foreign Intrigue, an espionage romance as I recall - the plot has blurred, but I can still see Thulin's face, innocent yet wolf-like, sophisticated enough to sway the massive Mitchum from his set course. He simply fell for her, and as a rule Mitchum didn't do falling in love on screen.

Thulin died a couple of weeks ago. She was 77, and in all the obituaries she received proper esteem for having been one of Ingmar Bergman's actresses: she is the daughter-in-law in Wild Strawberries, one of the expectant mothers in Brink of Life, the wife or the assistant, tensely androgynous, in The Face. Throw in The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, The Rite, the extraordinary Cries and Whispers and After the Rehearsal.

I suppose it's true that Ingmar Bergman is not fashionable these days. That can happen if you withdraw from regular work as he has done; but it can also be a consequence of the nearly hysterical vogue that once existed for Bergman. He is 85, and there are times when he is even omitted or forgotten when people struggle to make a list of the great movie directors left alive.

What on earth do we want if we can't acknowledge Bergman? Perhaps it is that we are simply relieved to feel freer of that existential despair - the hellishness - that he gathered to himself, and which lasted until at least the end of the Cold War. Since then, somehow, all we have discovered is that our predicament is less tragic than ridiculous.

There are people who also complain that Bergman's solemnity was terribly enclosed in self-regard; there was a sense that he was functioning at a level - the Nobel level? - above and beyond other directors. In which case, one would expect that his films centre on the grave dilemmas of men. Whereupon, I think, the lock flies open, for you realise automatically, in your mind's eye, that Bergman's art is always about the faces of women, turning from the dark to the light, from husband to lover, from despair to mystery. Always those grave faces turning. Just think of the list of actresses who will be forever associated with him: Mai Zetterling, Harriet Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Ulla Jacobsson, Bibi Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Lena Olin. Add in Ingrid Bergman, who got her wish finally and made a great film - Autumn Sonata - with Bergman, and with Ullmann playing her daughter.

And, of course, once you get back to Bergman, then the ultimate connection - with Garbo herself - is only a step away. I could show you pictures of all of these women in which their beauty is beyond question - though Harriet Andersson could look pretty rough, and Thulin had an anxiety in her face in her thirties that nothing shifted. The only universal beauties, I suppose, were Garbo and Bergman, mistresses of the close-up to be sure, but both of them worshipped by the whole glamorising process that was Hollywood.

Ingrid Bergman never liked all the make-up and the defences against ageing. All her years in Hollywood she wanted to keep the natural look.

After 10 years, she actually quit and went to work for Roberto Rossellini who took it for granted that all women were so glorious there was no need to make any one of them look beautiful. Irony stepped in again, for Ingrid and Roberto had vivid children, one of whom - Isabella Rossellini - would come to be regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Ingrid Thulin had her Hollywood moment - the female lead in the re-make of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, opposite Glenn Ford. She was utterly lovely in the close-ups, but she sounded like Angela Lansbury, because her English was not quite good enough. But Thulin was maybe the sexiest of the great Swedish actresses. If you want proof of that, just look at Alain Resnais' rarely seen La guerre est finie - a picture with another sexual glory, the very young Geneviève Bujold.

Years ago, teaching at Harvard, the great Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev "made" a compilation from all of Bergman's films that revealed him as a poet of certain shots - one of which was a woman's face changing her mind. I'd love to see that film again, and extend it, with the rapt sisterhood Ingmar Bergman enlisted, with scenes from Persona recurring endlessly, until at last we reach the dream version with Garbo and Ingrid Thulin. They can do anything now in the movies. Except trust that women are the medium.