Liv Ullmann: Out of Bergman's shadow

Liv Ullmann became famous as both actress and muse. Now she's a noted director in her own right. Rob Sharp meets her
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The Independent Culture

Andersson and Ullmann went to Sweden immediately. The film, which became Persona (1966), was shot a month later. Ullmann has just returned to the Czech Republic to accept a lifetime achievement award, at a film festival in Karlovy Vary, some 70 miles west of the Czech capital.

It was from that early moment that Ullmann's life was linked with that of the Swedish director. Yet the actress, now 66, will be best known to current cinema audiences for her directorial coup at Cannes in 2000. That year, her Faithless, a semi-autobiographical lament based on a Bergman script, and an anguished portrait of marital infidelity, was robbed of the Palme d'Or by Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. Since then she has juggled a film career with other commitments, working as an ambassador for Unicef and helping found a charity for female refugees. Her return to acting in Bergman's television movie Saraband (2003) won plaudits, and she is in discussions over new directorial commitments.

Although she was an actress for nine years before meeting Bergman, his influence on her career is profound, and, indeed, hers on his. Together they explored Bergman's hallmark angst in a series of films. Ullmann gave startling performances as an apolitical woman drawn into the horrors of war in Shame (1968), a wife who learns that her husband is having an affair in Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and a psychiatrist who has a nervous breakdown in Face to Face (1975). The latter earned her an Oscar nomination. The couple lived together for five years on the remote Faro Island, and had a daughter Linn, now an author.

Ullmann has aged gracefully. Wearing little or no makeup, conservatively garbed like an ascetic Mary Poppins, she vacillates between a deep frown and a polished smile. Her father died when she was six and her mother never remarried. "I was always looking for my father, and perhaps I thought Bergman was that," she says of a romantic alliance that she cemented when she was just 25. At the time the couple met, Bergman was a well-established name. "He was 21 years older, incredible and powerful. Obviously he was a father-figure but you can't look for a father-figure when you're looking for a man." She still claims not to understand men. "You and I look at the sunset, both of us," she says, gesturing outside. "But we see such different things."

Bergman and Ullmann split after the pressures of their working and living together became too much. Bergman would obsess to his partner about his dreams. "When he told me about his nightmares," says Ullmann, "I knew I was going to film them the next day."

Her career in America was not as distinguished, but she received critical acclaim for her directorial debut, Sofie (1992), a tale of marriage, mental illness and infidelity adapted from a Henri Nathansen novel. This was followed by her adaptation of Kristin Lavransdatter (1995).

Now, after her recent abdication from her role as the first grande dame of the Federation of European Film Directors, and as well as collecting awards, Ullmann is concentrating on her own projects. The first, an adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, has stumbled slightly after Ullmann fell out with its original producers, despite the finalisation of a location and the casting of John Cusack and Tim Roth.

But this week she flew to Iceland for a pre-production meeting on The Journey Home, the story of an Icelandic mother who abandons her child. An Oscar-winning actress has already been cast. "You learn [her story] through the course of the film. Films shouldn't be pointed fingers, they shouldn't be résumés of the world we live in," she concludes.