Last year, new life was fanned into the personal documentary genre with three films that teemed with vitality, intimacy and empathy. Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck, which featured the private, drug-addled self recordings of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love; Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon, which weaved hours of personal audio recordings of Brando into a profound, posthumous autobiography; and Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which chronicled the decline of Amy Winehouse without a single talking head. All of those films capture the essence of their subjects, stubbornly allowing them to speak for themselves and complicating the relationship between stars, media and the public in ways that personal docs rarely have the ambition to try. To be sure, “in their own words” documentaries are hardly a new invention, but the increasingly pervasive abundance of technology and media, along with what seems to be an inherent compulsion to document our lives, has created a wellspring of material that makes for fascinating, insightful investigations into the minds of people whose identities have been consumed by their public image. In short, it feels like an exciting time in documentary film.
Such is the timing that makes Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words already feel antiquated in its polite, honorary depiction of the wonderfully talented, though largely untroubled, Swedish actress. Even in a vacuum, outside of the reemergence of the personal documentary, Ingrid Bergman would not have made a very large impression, but compared to those other films that tread the same water, it seems even more pale and stuffy. Rather than a deep investigation into the mind of the artist, it plays more like a quaint personal biography. The point may well have been to humanize her as a woman who experienced pretty much the same personal problems most people experience, but what that leaves is a rather facile, albeit personal, glimpse into the life of a wealthy, beautiful, well respected woman who never said a bad thing about anyone and about whom no one has anything bad to say now.
Told through voiceover readings of Bergman’s diary and a greater amount of talking head interviews than the title would suggest, Ingrid Bergman manages a great deal of personal biography without a great deal of introspection. The most powerful moments of the film come early, in which Bergman’s diary recounts the horrific loss of nearly everyone she cared about in the span of a single year, and her feelings of ambivalence about an affair with war photographer Robert Capa. However, that sense of intimacy holds only as long as we listen to Bergman’s words. In them, we are allowed the space to interpret her motivations and desires. That connection to Bergman decays as the film is gradually overrun by present-day interviews with her children, whom the film allows to become mediators for us, explaining their mother in varnished and at times even apologetic terms. Only Bergman’s first child, Pia, doesn’t seem to be bending over backward to avoid disparaging her mother, despite Bergman’s relative absenteeism from their lives. The other children seem perfectly content and at ease. For Bergman’s son, the most harrowing experience of his childhood was the short span of time between leaving Roberto Rosellini’s Italian villa paradise (“It was like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden”) and moving onto a private Swedish island owned by Bergman’s succeeding lover (“Miracles do exist!”).
To its credit, the film does not attempt to sensationalize its own subject. It might have been easy to frame Bergman’s reluctance to settle down as feminism, or to martyr her for the ridiculous controversy that arose over her love affair with Rosellini, but Björkman only rarely strays from the voice of Bergman or her family to make a larger point. Ultimately, though, the film settles into a monotone of talking heads and public interview footage. By the time it ends, after fawning interviews with the likes of Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver, it can’t muster the energy for anything more than a glowing montage over a syrupy sweet pop song. It may be personal, but it’s just another biopic.