Bibi Andersson's only major award for her indelible work with Ingmar Bergman was at Cannes for Brink of Life
Andersson was just 27 when she acted in Brink of Life. Even at that young age, and even when the lines take a dramatic turn, you find this no-fuss, no-sentimentality quality.
When news came of Bibi Andersson’s passing, I Googled up the celebrated actress to see how many acting awards she’d won in her career. I expected to find a host of nominations and wins for her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman alone (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna, Persona…). Which director, after all, has peered so penetratingly into the female soul, and, in the process, extracted “performances” that go far beyond any simplistic definition of acting? Think of the scene in Persona where the Andersson character, a nurse, recalls a sexual encounter at the beach. There are no cutaways, no flashbacks. It’s just Andersson talking. Pauline Kael said the passage “is so much more erotic than all of Ulysses in that it demonstrates what can be done on the screen with told material… the excitement is in how she tells it… Andersson’s almost fierce reverie has that kind of beauty.” (I wrote about this scene here.)
Persona got Andersson a Best Actress award from the US-based National Society of Film Critics (they also gave her a Best Supporting Actress for Scenes from a Marriage) and a Guldbagge award (the Swedish equivalent of the Oscars). She won three more Guldbagge awards, though none were for Bergman’s films. But let’s look at the major awards, at least the ones we outsiders recognise as major. Andersson won the Silver Bear at Venice, for The Mistress (1962, Swedish), directed by Vilgot Sjöman. A year later, incidentally, Sjöman made the documentary, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, in which the great filmmaker defined what makes a great actor: “An ideal actor is one who can turn on full concentration in a split second. And who can then, after each take, right after you say ‘cut’, turn it off, like switching off a light.”
The only major award Bibi Andersson won for a Bergman movie was at Cannes. The film was Brink of Life (1958), and she shared Best Actress with not just her cast-mates (Eva Dahlbeck, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, Ingrid Thulin) but also Tatiana Samoilova, who was recognised for The Cranes are Flying. So we’re talking one-fifth of a major award for one of the most legendary actress-director collaborations (and if I am not delving into Andersson’s non-Bergman films, it’s because I just haven’t seen enough of them). Given that awards are dependent on the tastes of the jury and a hundred other factors, I realise I am overreacting -- still, it seems like a minor crime. We are, after all, talking about an actress after whom a minor planet is named: 73767 Bibiandersson.
Brink of Life -- which Bergman made after the twin successes of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in 1957 -- opens with Cissy (Ingrid Thulin), who’s two months pregnant and has been brought to the hospital because she’s begun to bleed. It’s a miscarriage, and after she’s taken to a ward, she tells the nurse, “This baby was not wanted. Its father did not want it. Its mother was not strong enough to love it on her own. That’s why it could not be born, and was just flushed away down the drain. Or put in a jar for scientific purposes.” The other women in the ward are Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) and Hjördis (Bibi Andersson), each with their own stories. Stina is past her due date. Hjördis is pregnant with the child of a man she’s neither married nor engaged to. Cissy is the archetypal Bergman sufferer. Stina is atypically cheerful, a living-breathing Disney cartoon -- Bergman doesn’t seem to know what to do with her, until she begins to suffer, too. It’s Hjördis who takes over the film and becomes its most fascinating character. It’s not that she doesn’t suffer. But she doesn’t come off like she’s nailed to a cross, like the others. It looks like she’s having a bad day at work and needs an Aspirin.
In other words, Andersson makes light of the heavy-duty emotions her character goes through. Her first major scene, almost a half-hour in, is shot in a medium close-up. We see Hjördis speaking over the phone to the father of her child. He’s curt. After a while, she hangs up. There’s no anger, no tears -- just a brusque look that says “Well, if you can’t be bothered, then neither can I”. It’s a flash of the no-nonsense quality Andersson will bring to her future performances. It was her nature. In November 2007, Andersson introduced Persona at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Dan Callahan, in Slant, wrote: “When the audience applauds her, Andersson takes a small, theatrical bow, as if to say, ‘What’s the fuss?’ The novelist Jonathan Lethem asks her a few questions about working with Bergman, and she starts to talk about him in the present tense, then corrects herself. ‘I have to remember that he’s gone,’ she says, again, with no fuss, no sentimentality.”
Andersson was just 27 when she acted in Brink of Life. Even at that young age, and even when the lines take a dramatic turn, you find this no-fuss, no-sentimentality quality. When Stina loses her baby, Hjördis clutches Cissy and says, “It’s horrible. As if life itself has died. As if nothing is ever going to be born again.” This is a big line, a Bergmanesque line. No one speaks like this except the characters in his movies. But Andersson makes it small. She takes the “theatre” out of the line and puts the “cinema” in it. She strips away the doomsday prophecy in the line and locates vulnerability in it. It’s a precursor to that scene in Persona, the way Andersson recites that erotic encounter as though reading a bedtime story. Part of it is certainly Bergman’s doing, but part of it is also Andersson. No fuss. No sentimentality.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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