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Remember cinema’s vogue for Freudian analysis? Many of today’s filmmakers don’t, as can be seen from two of last week’s releases. Both In the Mood for Love and Pollock adopt the tone of their protagonists: The former is repressed, formal, and mostly tongue-tied; the latter is brusque, uncommunicative, and often explosive. (Meanwhile, Monkeybone downgrades the id to a tiresome cartoon simian.) But in the ’60s and ’70s, when psychotherapy was becoming widely accepted among upscale Westerners, corrosive truth-telling sessions were an essential part of the quest for self-knowledge. More than symbolism and even nudity, it was such psychological excavating that sold Ingmar Bergman’s films.

After Bergman abandoned movie directing, almost two decades ago, he began writing scripts about his parents’ lives. The last, and most lacerating, of the films that resulted was Private Confessions; it was also the first Bergman screenplay directed by Liv Ullmann, who was both the former director’s lover and the star of some of his harshest psychological dramas, including Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage. Bergman has now returned to his own life for inspiration, with a tale that could also be titled Scenes From a Marriage. Although not strictly autobiographical, Faithless is nonetheless based on an incident in Bergman’s life. Whether Ullmann’s fourth feature also draws on her own life with Bergman is one of the few secrets this confessional text is keeping.

The movie is essentially a series of monologues, as if the characters called Bergman (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Lena Endre) were addressing an unseen analyst. Actually, they’re talking to each other, but only in the mind of the former: Bergman, a screenwriter, is an old man, regretfully reliving his erstwhile relationship with an unnamed woman who appears as both a memory and a character in the film he is writing; he eventually invents a name for her: Marianne Vogler.

When she appears to Bergman, Marianne is a lovely middle-aged actress; she looks the same as she does in the scenes of her past, in which she’s married to internationally successful conductor Markus (Thomas Hanzon) and is the mother of preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). The couple’s best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a talented but tormented and debt-ridden director. One night, while Markus is on tour, David asks Marianne to make love with him. “I’m in such pain,” he says, a come-on that might seem dubious if we didn’t know that David is the scripter’s memory of himself.

Marianne refuses, but she lets David spend the night in her bed. Watching him sleep, she sees in David an unexpected quality, one that changes her mind. Soon, the two of them are arranging overlapping professional visits to Paris and skipping the Comédie Française to spend an evening together in a hotel room. Despite David’s morbid jealousy, the affair continues more or less pleasantly, until Markus reveals that he’s discovered it. Marianne’s previously affable husband soon discloses his best weapon: custody of the unsuspecting Isabelle, who loves all three members of the triangle.

David is stunned after his and Marianne’s first kiss, but she encourages him not to take their relationship so seriously. “Life doesn’t have to be a series of disasters,” she says. Marianne is both more likable and more sensible than David, but, on this point, his gloomy instincts are correct. Faithless is indeed a series of disasters, although its ultimate blow is a near-disaster that’s almost as shattering as if it had actually happened.

Like Private Confessions, Faithless matches a pair of illicit lovers with an older man. In Faithless, though, the old man is the alter ego of the younger one. Whereas the earlier tale transpired in a time when Lutheranism’s moral teachings had great sway in Sweden—and the adulterous woman’s husband and uncle were both pastors—this one takes place in an unidentified but clearly recent era when extramarital passion was not so morally hazardous. So it’s all the more shocking when the principals tumble into a nonsectarian sort of damnation. Bergman—the character and the scriptwriter—is clearly making a sort of penance here. Early in Faithless, the actor playing Bergman tells the actress embodying Marianne that their enterprise is just “a diversion before death,” which, given the notorious grimness of the Swedish, passes as a joke. There is nothing lighthearted, however, about the film’s unexpectedly bruising final hour.

The initial script was a series of soliloquies without times or places. It apparently focused almost entirely on Bergman and Marianne—the penitent and the person who is simultaneously his muse, his confessor, and the woman he wronged. Ullmann fleshed out the narrative, adding locations (notably Paris) and expanding some of the characters. The result is emotionally richer yet still as unadorned as the wood-paneled office in which Bergman conjures the spirit of Marianne. The tale is sparely embellished with music by Bruckner, Brahms, and Mozart, as well as with views of the sea and Farö Island, the actual Bergman’s longtime retreat. Nothing more is needed.

As a gesture of atonement, the film may not meet the requirements of the scripter’s clerical forebears. Still, whoever the real Marianne was, Bergman has partially repaid her with this showcase for both Ullmann and Endre. Perhaps Bergman no longer believes in confession or Freudian analysis, but Faithless is more of either than it is an old man’s simple diversion. CP