I finished Linn Ullmann’s Unquiet a week or two ago, but it keeps following me around like a polite but persistent ghost. It’s a novel about an unnamed girl and her unnamed mother and father. But everyone knows it’s Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. By leaving them unnamed, Ullmann somehow manages to make them both particular and universal. I don’t know how she did that.
Last year was Bergman’s centenary, so the Siskel ran a months-long retrospective of his work. I saw many films I’d never seen before but will definitely watch again, like Sawdust and Tinsel and Scenes from a Marriageand got to revisit old favorites like Fanny and Alexander and Wild Strawberries. It was a great surprise to discover Paul Schrader’s great First Reformed from last year lifted most of its set up from Bergman’s Winter Light. It made filmmaking feel like a passed-down tradition the same way painting is. The only major misfire I recall was the dreadful English-language movie called The Touch. It stars Elliot Gould and Bibi Andersson and comes off as a Google-translate/Saturday Night Live parody of an Ingmar Bergman film. I lasted about half an hour. Overall though, it was a joy to spend time in Bergman’s comically serious universe.
I learned of the English translation of Unquiet soon after the film series was over. So, inevitably, I couldn’t help but see the characters and settings in the book as the actors and landscapes from her father’s films. You’d think that would be a problem, that it might make the novel nothing more than a behind-the-scene tell-all or celebrity tie-in. But Ullmann is way too good a writer to stoop so low. She obscures as much as she reveals and certainly doesn’t use the page to settle scores.
The book is an attempt to connect to a man and a woman who were totally wrapped up in their own dramas and rarely had the time or emotional generosity to pay attention to the very needy child that Ullmann portrayed herself to be. In this and many other ways, her childhood was like many others’. The world is littered with emotionally unavailable breeders who weren’t world-famous directors or adored actresses.
I wrote a more formal review of the book for Hyperallergic. It’ll hopefully be published soon.
Seeing Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning was kind of the inverse of my Ullmann/Bergman experience. It’s based on a Haruki Murakami story but transposed to present-day Korea. I haven’t read Murakami in a good fifteen years but Lee’s film brought back the magical cats, disappearing girls, fruitless detective work, detailed descriptions of meal-preparation, and half a dozen other favorite tropes of that celebrated writer.
Lee adds an emotional gravity to this story of a hopelessly lovestruck, lost young man that I don’t remember feeling from Murakami’s books. This guy’s aching need to belong and be understood is as loud as a neon sign even as he barely says a word to anyone. It’s the kind of movie that establishes its poetic universe from the first frame and doesn’t break its spell or internal logic till the screen goes black.
Both Lee’s movie and Ullmann’s book manage the tightrope trick of referring to well-known source material without being a slave to it or existing merely to capitalize from its fame. If I ever read another Murakami, I’ll be reminded of Lee’s masterful movie, and when I watch a Bergman film next, I’ll watch partly through his daughter’s eyes.