Is this the real life
Is this just fantasy
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen
Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ullmann), the chief character in Ingmar Bergman's excellent new film, is an accomplished and attractive professional woman. She is filling in for the summer as chief psychiatrist at a mental hospital, a job which she is more than capable of handling. Her husband is in America for three months attending a scientific conference. Her teenage daughter is away at camp. In the opening scenes of the movie, Jenny is moving in with her maternal grandparents (Aino Taube-Henrickson and Gunnar Bjorstrand) with who she lived after her parents were killed in an automobile crash; she will stay in her childhood room while her new house is being finished.
On the surface, this disciplined career woman seems the model of mental health and adjustment. But things have begun to feel wrong to Jenny, and her anxieties surface as the days progress. She tells her grandmother that she ahs been "out of sorts" since a bad bout with the flu. At a party, she tentatively makes friends with Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Erland Josephson), only to later abruptly reject his offer of a relationship, then suggest they take in a movie or concert sometime. She is not consistent. Called to her old house to pick up a patient who has sought her there, Jenny encounters two strange me with the girl. One nearly rapes her while the other watches. To Jenny's horror she realizes that she mentally wanted to be raped while she physically blocked her attacker. The near-rape is the last in a series of incidents, which bring Jenny face to face with the anguish throughout her soul. Her outer behavior and her inner awareness of experience often are not related. Her friend Elizabeth (Sif Ruud) talks about being "humbly grateful" because "I know that it's my feelings and sensations, since there's no gap between myself and what I experience." Jenny doesn't feel that way. And she is frequently reminded of her cold, death-like other self by a vision of an old woman (Tore Segelecke), ugly and wrinkled with one dark eye and a blank, black, staring socket for the other.
In a letter to the cast which appears as a preface to the paperback edition of the screenplay, director Bergman writes: "For some time now I have been living with an anxiety which as had no tangible cause." His film is an attempt to investigate that inner anguish more methodically. Jenny's problems then are reflections of Bergman's and by implication since the director strives in all his work to touch on the universal of our own. Bergman continues, "[The film] is about everybody. I think people are going to see things in it that they will recognize as parts of their own nature." Jenny comes to the realization that she doesn't understand the nature of her own inner reality. She who makes a living analyzing other people's minds discovers that she hasn't explored whole areas of her own. At one point she describes her way of going about things: "I've followed the principle that now I'll make up my mind to fell like this and I feel like this." But the formula isn't holding; one part of her doesn't respond. While Tomas looks on, she has a nervous breakdown. Later, home alone, she attempts suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Tomas find her and takes her to the hospital. Together they go over the territories of her experience which can be verbalized. In her dreams, Jenny visits the areas of self she has never been able to put in words.
Bergman writes that "I like to think of these dreams as an extension of reality. This is therefore a series of real events which strike the leading character during an important moment in her life." Here are Jenny's subconscious concerns, the causes of what she refers to as a "bad conscience." In the dream world, she confronts her dualities. She both loves and hates her parents, is both thankful and resentful of her grandmother, is both helpful and helpless as a psychiatrist, both fears and welcomes death. She describes her mixed soul to Tomas:
Self discipline. Bewilderment. Pride. Humiliation. Self-confidence, the lack of it. Wisdom that is stupidity and the other way around. Arrogance and vulnerability. Easily hurt, that's it, terribly easily hurt. Touchy and bad-tempered but inhibited, everywhere inhibited, reticent, paralyzed. Capable. And conscientious.
She is haunted by a memory of her grandmother's face so distorted by anger that she could hardly recognize it. Jenny does not want to become unrecognizable. She wants to be real. In a tortuous ritual of confession, entreaty, and self-exorcism, she sets out to reconnect the parts of her consciousness. Liv Ullmann's performance here is a stunning and shattering tour de force, one of the most effective revelations of inner and outer struggle ever filmed.
Jenny's recovery is almost as quick as her breakdown. In the dream sequence immediately after her overdose, she announces: "I can wake when I want to." And in the end, she just as rationally wills to be well. This resolution may seem weak to some viewers. But it is not unconvincing so much as it is subtle. For Jenny is a sophisticated, sensitive, and informed person who doesn't need any grand flourishes. Rather, three key incidents confirm that she has regained her balance. Two are tests: Tomas announces he is going to Jamaica for an indefinite period leaving her to heal herself, a move which does not unnerve her; and her daughter, the symbol of family past and future, bluntly rejects her, a reaction Jenny can accept. Finally, in a tender closing scene, Jenny faces up to the greatest disconnector of all death. Grandma relates that Grandpa's death is very near: "I've been expecting this for several years. But it still feels odd when it comes…Well, that's how it is." Her voice is resigned but not despairing, the anxiety kept away by an enduring love. For Jenny the moment is an epiphany. We all live out our lives trying to hold our fears and dark dreads in check. Her duality is no different from anyone else's. In the hospital room Tomas had offered an "Incantation": "I wish that someone or something would affect me so that I can become real." And what is real? "To hear a human voice and be sure that it comes from someone who is made just like I am…Reality would be to know that a joy is a joy and above all that a pain has to be a pain." It is not much to keep the anxiety away, but it will be enough.