On Serendipity, Gratitude And An Oscar: An Interview With Sarah Lutton On The Upcoming BFI Season Liv Ullmann: Face To Face

“At the moment of identification, the audience meets a person, not a role, not an actor. A face meets a face”
– Liv Ullmann


It’s a sunny Spring lunchtime when I get on the phone with Sarah Lutton, the programmer for Liv Ullmann: Face to Face, a season celebrating the bountiful work of Norwegian actor, director and writer at BFI Southbank. Having worked in the exhibition side of cinema since 1996 and with a track record of work for the BFI, BAFTA, the British Film Council and more, Sarah is now a freelance film programmer and researcher, and the Nordic film advisor for the BFI London Film Festival.

“Initially, I think it was a bit random,” Sarah explains when I ask about how she found her love of Nordic cinema. “When I started working for the BFI London Film Festival, the first event that I went to officially on the job was the Cannes Film Festival in 1998. And that was the year that the Dogma 96 films out in the public domain, so Lar von Trier’s The Idiots and Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen were at Cannes. There was such excitement around those titles, and they were at the time quite different, thematically and from a technical and stylistic standpoint. I was fascinated by that. I had been interested in the films of Carl Theodor Dryer when I was at university, but they were always in the past and there was this freshness that came with Dogma.”

“So I’d say it was guided and generated by the work, but also those Nordic industries are very supportive and welcoming in the interest of their work. The equivalent of the British Film Institute in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland – they are very proactive at encouraging you and showing work and just inviting you to look at stuff. For me, it’s a bit of a gift of a job and a gist of an area to be interested in.” I mention how strange it is that so many of us find what we love doing by accident, serendipitously – something that, little did we know, would become a running theme of our conversation.

Diving into the season of Liv’s work, I ask for the expert’s retrospective of Ullmann’s career. “Lots of people think that she’s Swedish because of her very important collaborations with the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and she acted for him many times. They were very close collaborators, and she also directed scripts that he wrote as well.” Beginning in theatre in Norway, Ullmann was spotted from an early age. “There’s a really interesting Norwegian female director called Edith Carlmar. [Ullmann] was cast as an extra in one of her films, called Fools on the Mountains and she obviously made quite an impression. She was given the part – the lead role – in Carlmar’s feature film The Wayward Girl which screened in 1959. That was quite a step to go from being a background artist to taking the lead role.”

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The Wayward Girl, BFI

Ullmann continued making films in Norway, as well as carrying on her stage work. But it was another serendipitous moment that propelled her to greatness. “She was friends with the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, and she happened to be walking along the street with Bibi in Sweden and they bumped into Ingmar Bergman. He was really captivated by the relationship that they had and basically said, “I’d like to write a film for you.” There was a circuitous route and I think the film he initially had in mind for them he didn’t end up writing.” But after taking ill, Bergman came up with another idea inspired by a photograph of the two women on holiday together. “He was really captivated by how close they were, and how they resembled one another. And that’s how the idea for Persona, which was the first film Liv acted in for Ingmar Bergman, came about. That is a classic of cinema.”

As well to her work with Bergman, Ullmann was Oscar-nominated for her role in The Emigrants, a Swedish film directed by Jan Troell, off the back of which she garnered interest from Hollywood, though she seemed disappointed with the results. “I don’t think they really understood who she was and what she could do. When she talks about the roles that she did in Hollywood it was an experience, but what she wanted to do really was get back to Europe, ideally to Sweden and make more films with Ingmar Bergman and his company of actors that she felt very comfortable with.”

While Ullmann’s career is inevitably tied up with Ingmar Bergman, the director whom she collaborated with frequently and also had a love affair with, her filmography spans far wider into the world of Nordic cinema. “Because of her theatre background, she had a really different relationship with the camera. The way that she talks about it, she felt like it was another performer; it was something to act with and act for. There was something very unique about the way she worked with the camera as an actor. And then when she directed her first film, she felt she understood more about acting from being a director. She felt that she was able to honour the profession of acting so much more when she’d come at it from the other side.”

“An anecdotal story about her,” Sarah adds, “she was asked to adapt a novel for the screen, called Sofie. They were so impressed by her adaptation that they asked her to direct it. That was the first film she directed so, again, quite serendipitous.” Alongside her staggering filmography, Ullmann is also a humanitarian campaigner, something that seems to echo through her creative themes and choices. “She’s such a gratuitous person; the way she talks about her collaborations, in anything she does, it’s always about the relationships with other people. The word she uses again and again and again is grateful. […] “She is very much about the human connections that we make with people who are very similar to you and people who are completely dissimilar. Her empathy is quite remarkable.”

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Persona, BFI

For those who aren’t familiar with Ullmann’s work, I ask Sarah where she’d recommend starting. After thinking hard, she replies, “I think Persona.” The 1966 psychological drama marked the first of many collaborations with Bergman. “[The film], formally, is quite challenging. There are long periods with no dialogue whatsoever and Liv plays a theatre actor who is selectively mute. She only breaths a few words for the entirety of the film. […] You don’t really notice that there isn’t any dialogue, she’s communicating so much through her performance. The stylistic techniques which are there might be jarring for someone who hasn’t seen many films that are a bit more formally challenging, but they’re not there just for the sake of it. Everything is there for a reason, and you can understand it. It doesn’t need pretension; it’s just watching.”

This season at the BFI is partially in honour of Ullmann being announced as the recipient of an honorary Oscar, “and thank goodness that they have got around to it!” Sarah laughs. “It is a very interesting moment this year, particularly with the awards for Nordic cinema: Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World having Oscar, BAFTA and other nominations, and Renate Reinsve, the lead, having a huge amount of acknowledgement for her role.” Also in this year’s Oscar race is the animated documentary Flee, a Danish film with Norwegian co-production. “This is a great moment in Norwegian and Nordic film production, so maybe eyes have started searching.”

“But it feels like such a long time ago when she was [first] nominated” – back in 1971 for Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (which is screening alongside its sequel, The New Land as part of the programme at BFI Southbank), and then again in 1974 for Bergman’s Face to Face. “I’m just thrilled that she’s been given this honorary award. I believe that today, the 25th of March when we’re having this conversation, is the day that she actually gets it!”

In a season such as Face to Face, there’s the opportunity to see a collection of works simultaneously or dip in and out. “It offers audiences really interesting ways of intersecting with a creative career,” Sarah tells me, “If you wanted to come at it from a chronological point of view, you could see her first main screen role in The Wayward Girl, and you could follow through the collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, the work with Jan Troell, the films she made with Arne Skouen, and you could take a look at the directorial work that she’s done as well.”

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The Emigrants, BFI

“One of the things that I’m interested in is her collaborations with other actors. She said one of her favourite collaborations was with Max von Sydow. There are various films in the season where you could look at that: Shame, The Passion of Anna and then The Emigrants and The New Land. If you’re interested in her working with other female actors, Autumn Sonata is absolutely exquisite.” Ullmann stars alongside Ingrid Bergman where a celebrated pianist struggles to connect with her daughter. “For those readers who have seen Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, there’s a lot of resonances with that story as well; the different pressures that women are put under if they have the audacity, almost, to pursue their own professional career.”

“Or, if you want to see some faces onscreen that you might recognise, you could go and see Miss Julie that stars Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. And again, a serendipitous thing, Jessica Chastain is nominated for an Oscar this year. […] It’s one of those great opportunities of having the space, both in terms of a number of titles that are programmed but also the long duration of the programme (the season runs from the end of March throughout April), so there’s time for you to dip in. And if you want to take a punt on something, there’s still time to maybe go and see something else if you like it.”

“What we were also really keen to do with this season was to get a diversity of voices to come and introduce some screenings. For example, we’ve got the Invisible Women Archive Activists, doing an introduction to The Wayward Girl, film critic and writer Christina Newland introducing Cries and Whispers, Nellie Alston who’s a freelance programmer and member of the T A P E Collective giving an introduction to Ullmann’s first directorial film Faithless. So, you get the opportunity to see other people’s perspectives on these films and what they found, what’s inspired them, what excites them. That was really important to me that it wasn’t just one view of Ullmann’s work.”

When I ask Sarah what film she’s most excited to introduce to audiences, she of course gives me a lengthy list but settles on her favourites of the double-bill of The Emigrants and The New Land screening together on the 16th of April, An-Magritt, and the invaluable opportunity of seeing classics on a big screen. “Seeing certain films in the cinema is a really different experience, for both Cries and Whispers and Persona.”

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Cries and Whispers, BFI

In the spirit of both Ullmann and Lutton’s love of new talent, I had to ask what’s happening in the world of Nordic cinema right now to finish. “One of the things that is really exciting – and I’m sorry if this sounds a bit vague – is that there doesn’t really seem to be a prescription. There’s this freedom to be creative and almost a permission to follow your passion. It’s less that, if you’re making a Nordic Noir, you’ll get the funding, and more that if you have a vision and a passion that’s what’s going to be made. I’m constantly challenged and surprised [by Nordic cinema] and that’s exactly how I want to be. It must be very boring to only see things which are predictable. I feel lucky, really lucky because there’s so much great work and great talent out there.”

As we finish our conversation, I can’t help thinking about something Sarah said to me earlier about sharing knowledge. “In some of the other work that I do in the more academic sphere, one of the discussions that we have is about not being a custodian of knowledge. If you know something or you have a specialism in something, you shouldn’t be putting walls around that. You have to be aware that there are other voices and perspectives, and actually, the most interesting thing is for those other voices and perspectives to meet with one another.” It’s very clear that the season cares deeply about keeping that philosophy close to heart. It’s very much within the reach of what Liv Ullmann is about, it’s about collaboration.

The Liv Ullmann: Face to Face Season is running throughout April at BFI Southbank

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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