It is hard to judge Faithless without considering it in relation to Ingmar Bergman. Despite being directed by Liv Ullmann, the film is overshadowed by its writing credit, Bergman himself. Ullmann directs the film as Bergman would, with slow scenes of long meditation shot in a plain yet precise manner. Bergman wrote the script as an autobiographical piece that reflects his own experiences with adultery. His motifs are everywhere, from the artistic professions of the characters to the lengthy musings on love and despair. Ullmann and Bergman always made for a formidable team, and even though their roles are unusual for this film it is clear there was still some synchronicity between them.
Faithless is about a woman caught up in an affair. She cheats on her husband with a friend. For the most part Faithless acts as a three-hander between these three characters. It is a classic Bergman chamber piece, with lots of dialogue and narration rather than action. The film does have a curious framing device however, with a director named Bergman creating and interrogating the characters. It’s a little cheeky perhaps, an on-the-nose nod to the mind behind the story and the autobiographical nature of the film, but being meta is something Bergman and Ullmann worked with before in classics like Persona and The Passion of Anna.
Faithless is a story told from a woman’s perspective, with its slow pace gradually capturing a series of bad decisions. The film presents crises as never-ending, with each decision leading into all subsequent ones. Her world of marriage and affairs becomes one of jealousy and divorce. In the end she just becomes used and blackmailed by others, with no more joy in her relationships. She has ruined her life. It seems very typical of Bergman to take this approach and not seek comfort as a finale for the characters. In collaboration Ullmann and Bergman have clearly developed something that speaks to personal wrongs and regrets.
Despite the interesting premise however, Faithless isn’t the masterpiece one may hope for. It’s very long and its story isn’t really complicated enough to fill the runtime. Part of the appeal of Bergman’s older works is that he made movies which had amazing depth and didn’t outstay their welcome. His longer works like Fanny and Alexander derived from television and were episodic. But Faithless, under Ullmann’s direction, goes on for over two and a half hours whilst essentially just focusing on some very dry conversations. Not that a film can’t work with that approach, but in this case something leaner might have been better. The cinematography has a steady calm to it, accompanied by editing that is never in a rush to cut. It’s a very strict and disciplined formal choice, showing Ullmann’s strengths as a director able to assert a vision, but whether it serves a compelling story is up for debate. The slow deterioration of love is certainly felt across the runtime, but the melodramatic narrative feels destined for more than a drawn out conversation.
Faithless may not be the best work of both Bergman and Ullmann, but it is a suitably intriguing look at desire within pained lives. The screenplay draws great insight and the solid direction keeps everything afloat. It should probably have been leaner, but for those interested in Scandinavian art cinema it has enough appeal to arouse interest.
The Blu-Ray from BFI includes a host of extras including audio commentary by film critic Adrian Martin, various interviews with Ullmann the most recent is on stage at BFI Southbank from 2018, the theatrical trailer and some stills galleries. The booklet includes new and archival material.