It was my great honor to write and narrate a video-essay last year for The Criterion Collection about Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s collaboration – both separately and together – for Bergman: Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Sisters in the Art
From David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film : Expanded and Updated , the entry on Bibi Andersson:
“She needed such a holiday to prepare for one of the most harrowing female roles the screen has presented: Nurse Alma in Persona (66, Bergman). That this masterpiece owed so much to Bibi Andersson was acknowledgement of her greater emotional experience. She was thirty now, and in that astonishing scene where Liv Ullmann and she look into the camera as if it were a mirror, and Ullmann arranges Andersson’s hair, it is as if Bergman were saying, ‘Look what time has done. Look what a creature this is.’ Alma talks throughout Persona but is never answered, so that her own insecurity and instability grow. Technically the part calls for domination of timing, speech, and movement that exposes the chasms in the soul. And it was in showing that breakdown, in reliving Alma’s experience of the orgy on the beach years before, in deliberately leaving glass on the gravel, and in realizing with awe and panic that she is only another character for the supposedly sick actress, that Andersson herself seemed one of the most tormented women in cinema.”
Indeed. I saw the movie in college when I was studying acting and felt a kind of swoon of despair/anxiety/desire: it’s like you’re shown “the bar” which others have set in the field you’ve chosen for yourself. And you may never be that good, but at least you recognize what there is to strive for. That’s what Bibi in Persona did for me. Her drunken monologue which remains, for me, one of the greatest single pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.
But there is so much more to her career than just Persona. She did 10 movies in total with Ingmar Bergman, and had a rich career elsewhere (although it is through those films with Bergman that she will be remembered: Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Persona being the most famous, but there’s also The Passion of Anna, The Magician, The Devil’s Eye, Brink of Life … God, this collaboration. (Here’s a piece I wrote about Bergman’s work last year.)
She was one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. I was so in awe of her as a teenager after Persona that I stayed far far away from that film for some time. I needed courage in my own pursuit of acting, I needed to find my own way and her example was too daunting, too intimidating. (I had a similar thing with Gena Rowlands. The fact that, so many years, later, I would pay tribute to both Rowlands and Andersson for the Criterion Collection, having completely found another path for myself, hacking a writing career out of NOTHING all by myself … is a beautiful and strange dovetail, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.)
Bibi Andersson was flat out on another level, and I recognized it instantly. It is a level very few actors reach … but at least you know it’s there, at least you know the bar has been set.