Lest we have any doubts, one of the central characters here is an aged writer named Bergman (Erland Josephson), who's isolated in a setting that every devotee of Hour of the Wolf or Persona will recognize -- a stark house on the shore of a chilly sea island. Tormented by memories and contemplating his death, the old man (Hemingway-esque, right down to his snowy mane and beard) is struggling to write a story about a doomed love affair he had long ago, when his muse materializes in the study. She is a willowy sylph called Marianne (Lena Endre), and she becomes not just Bergman's memory prod, but the protagonist of the discomfiting story that's growing in his imagination.
If Ingmar Bergman's greatest strength has always been his access to the inner lives of women, Ullmann certainly shares it. Marianne's follies and trials, as they unfold in flashback, are as harrowing as anything in the Bergman canon, and Endre's portrait of a woman who betrays her husband, her young daughter, and herself has all the intricate detail and emotional kick of a classic performance by, say, Liv Ullmann. The actress-director was the touchstone of nine memorable Bergman films, and in Faithless she seems to have transmitted to Endre her firsthand knowledge of Bergman's trademark anxieties -- and her own. The film is as unstintingly self-conscious and self-critical as anything the melancholy Swede ever directed in his heyday, and Endre, like Ullmann before her, becomes an overflowing vessel of agonized alienation.
The plot is typically skeletal, besieged by ceaseless waves of guilt, grief, and regret. Marianne, a married actress with a child (Michelle Gylemo), slips into an ill-considered affair with a movie director, David (Krister Henriksson), who also happens to be the best friend of her husband, Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a musician and conductor. On a trip to Paris, Marianne and David undertake a tryst, and soon they are swept into a maelstrom of passion and self-destruction. "Our affinity was based on misery," Marianne later laments, and we have no reason to doubt her. He's a self-absorbed beast with a nasty streak of jealousy; she's a woman seemingly unable to distinguish between herself and her roles. This is familiar Bergman terrain, of course, and Ullmann knows every square inch of it. But the sympathy and motherly instinct with which she warms the drama here and there serve it well. If you can believe it, she's downright playful, even farcical, in spots. Nonetheless, we sense from the start that Marianne and David's misadventure will end very badly ("On the way home, I felt a poison spread through my body," she says ominously), that their carelessness will have horrible consequences -- for the lovers, for Marianne's husband and child, and for the tortured Bergman, holed up decades later in his lonely study.
The real-life Bergman once revealed that his father, a stern Lutheran pastor, used to lock him in a dark closet when the boy violated the family's strict codes of behavior, and any 10-cent psychologist would likely conclude that the adult Bergman's haunted memory -- and his conscience -- are a kind of dark closet too. Of Faithless's origins he says only that the story is based on an actual event in his past. But we would be foolish to take characters and incidents too literally here. An imagination as fertile as Bergman's cannot but shape, adorn, and intensify.
Whether by Bergman's design or Ullmann's, the film is salted with visual and thematic references to his classics -- the irreversible fusion of two identities that drove Persona, the symbolic game-playing vital to The Seventh Seal, the autopsy of a shattered relationship at the heart of Scenes From a Marriage. That the heroine is an actress recalls Smiles of a Summer Night; that she is called Marianne recalls Ingrid Thulin in Wild Strawberries; that the cuckolded husband, Markus, once dabbled with jazz clarinet may or may not constitute a little bow to one of the world's most dedicated Bergmaniacs -- Woody Allen. In any event, Faithless is not just a moving and intensely satisfying tragedy in its own right, beautifully staged and superbly acted; it's also a virtual catalog of Ingmar Bergman's themes and obsessions, seen through the prism of Liv Ullmann's vision. It's a profoundly disturbing way to spend two hours of your life, and it's hard to endorse a film more strongly than that.