(director/writer: Ingmar Bergman; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editor: Ulla Ryghe; music: Lars Johan Werle; cast: Bibi Andersson (Alma, The Nurse), Liv Ullmann (Elisabeth Vogler, The Actress), Margaretha Krook (The Doctor), Gunnar Björnstrand (Mr. Vogler), Jörgen Lindström (The Boy, Elisabeth’s Son); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ingmar Bergman; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1966-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)

“An intense, challenging and complex experimental psychological drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ingmar Bergman (“Cries and Whispers”/”Fanny and Alexander”/”The Shame”) at the top of his game. It’s an intense, challenging and complex experimental psychological drama that attempts to explore in clinical detail the meaning of personal identity as well as cinema. Bergman, behind his existential philosophy, tackles modern man’s problem with communication and also tries to find what is the role of an artist in today’s society.

The thirtysomething Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman) is a noted stage actress who, in the middle of performing Elektra, mysteriously ceases to speak and after a brief stay in a hospital is ordered by her psychiatrist (Margaretha Krook) to the shrink’s remote seaside cottage where she is taken care of by the twentysomething inexperienced private nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). The nurse opens up and talks incessantly about her troubled sex life, desires, hopes to marry her current boyfriend and have two children, and past sins in an unprofessional manner, while the patient listens but remains mute. The patient has seemingly withdrawn from any false speech and has fallen into playing another stage role that requires her to communicate only by facial expressions and letter writing. It soon becomes clear the two women, though opposites, resemble each other physically. Alma becomes convinced a transformation of her personality is taking place because of this maddening unbalanced relationship, and is nearly crawling out of her skin to find out what in her life really matters as she becomes increasingly like a mad woman and grows increasingly more jealous of her self-satisfied patient. Odd things transpire that seem to have no direct connection with the story: the projector breaks and the screen goes blank, we see a crucifixion nail banged into a man’s hand, a cartoon playing and the gruesome sight of a sheep having its throat cut. Things get a tad more confusing when the actresses’ hubby (Gunnar Bjornstrand) visits and addresses the nurse as his wife (which turns out to only be Alma’s dream–at least that’s what it appears to be to me).

The lesson Bergman is giving us, is that whatever seems real might actually not be real but a fantasy or dream. It leads to the famous shot of the patient and caregiver’s faces merged near the end of the film, which is one of the all-time unforgettable cinema images. In the end, the two return to the way they were before; the actress returns to the stage, where she evidently belongs, and the nurse back to her ordinary middle-class world. But Bergman lets us know we are only watching a movie, as a child sticks his hand in the projector and the film burns to bring everything to an end.

Andersson gives a sparkling performance that rips open her moody and spiritual anxieties, her petty woes and her overriding frustrations. Ullman’s performance relies on gestures and allowing us to read her inner feelings, as she tries to remove herself from her three major roles in life: wife, mother, and famous actress.

It’s absorbing drama that leaves itself wide open for speculation and critique, but the filmmaker’s technical excellence cannot be questioned. Some found it pretentious and self-indulgent. I found it opaque, provocative, radical and wonderfully irritating, a film experience not to be missed for the cinephiles.