Today is a bittersweet day for classic film fans. Not only is it the 103rd birthday of Ingrid Bergman, one of the world’s most revered stars, but the 29th of August also marks the 36th anniversary of her passing. No matter which event you choose to focus on (I like to think of the former), it’s easy to see that the outpouring of adoration for Ingrid on this day is unmatched. Perhaps the best example of one of the incredible ways that the world is honoring such a beloved actress would be The Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by one of my favorite bloggers, Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema. This fantastic showcase of bloggers discussing Ingrid’s life and work is celebrating its fourth year, and I couldn’t be happier to finally join it for the first time! Thank you, Virginie, for giving me the chance to write my very first foreign film review for this blog and commemorate Ingrid today!
Since my fascination with classic film began, it’s been nearly impossible for me to ignore the talent and allure of Ingrid Bergman. From what’s universally considered to be her most famous film, Casablanca (1942), to her other quality Hollywood features like Notorious (1946) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), I felt like I had seen all that she had to offer. However, throughout my exploration of her career I always heard that little voice in the back of my head reminding me that Ingrid had an entire career in Swedish pictures before she even set foot in the United States, and I knew that I would never really be able to form an opinion on the actress until I discovered some of her early work. Considering the fact that this particular blogathon is always a popular one and most of her more famous Hollywood movies are claimed right away, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to think outside of the box and give one of Ingrid’s Swedish films a try. As soon as I saw that she had starred in the original A Woman’s Face (1938), the decision became even easier for me.
In this film, Ingrid portrays Anna Holm, a woman who survived a fire that killed her family as a child, yet the ordeal left her face disfigured. Her appearance has given her a bleak outlook on life and has made her cynical; instead of making the most of the lot that she’s been given, Anna dived into the depths of the criminal underworld, associating herself with lowlife blackmailers in an effort to make a quick buck. The latest victim in the gang’s scheme is Vera Wegert (Karin Carlson-Kavli), a married woman whose love letters to another man are intercepted by the group. Despite being amongst more experienced criminals, it’s Anna who holds the reins of the operation, and she’s the one who takes control of the situation and confronts Vera for the tradeoff: the three letters for 10,000 kronor, doubled from the 5,000 that her partners originally requested. Vera gives Anna her jewels as half of the payment, but in her attempt to flee the scene Anna is caught by Vera’s husband Dr. Wegert (Anders Henrikson), a man who she soon finds out is a world-renowned doctor and cosmetic surgeon. He misconstrues the situation, believing that Anna is stealing his wife’s jewels, and after seeing her he decides to help fix her face in hopes that it can turn her life around. Will he succeed? Will she decide to use her life for good and start anew, or will her dark past continue to haunt her?
A Woman’s Face (1938) was praised by critics since its release and was awarded a Special Recommendation at the 1938 Venice Film Festival for its “overall artistic contribution.” It was one of the pictures from that time that titanic Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer saw fit to remake in 1941 under the same title, with Joan Crawford in the starring role. In fact, I had watched the remake first a few years ago and it was my knowledge of that film which made this one appeal to me. Granted, I didn’t think very much of A Woman’s Face (1941) with Joan Crawford in the first place, but the thought of a different cast and Ingrid Bergman’s subtle yet complex acting style is given to the part of Anna gave me high hopes for the original version, and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. Ingrid was astounding and raw in what I now consider to be one of the finest performances of her career. Every movie I see her in impresses me more than the last, and much credit can also be given to the supporting actors in this one as well. In fact, my favorite part of the film was the speech given by Anders Henrikson as Dr. Wegert to Anna before he reveals her new face: “Miss Holm, it’s been a long time since I performed an operation like this and then it was to help the unfortunate victims of war. I made an exception for you because I knew you were unhappy and I wanted to give you a chance. If I’ve succeeded in changing your outward appearance, remember, only you can change your inner self.” He couldn’t have described the true theme of the movie better.
I feel like the greatest indicator of the differences between this version and the American version is the makeup in each. To me, Ingrid Bergman’s scar makeup is terrifying in many shots while the rest of her face is made to look plain, giving me the sense that this is a woman whose imperfections define her and scar her emotional state as well as her physical one. On the other hand, Joan Crawford is made to look glamorous. Her hair is pristine, she’s given long eyelashes and arched brows, and she looks beautiful with the exception of some scarring to the side of her face. I feel that this description not only applies to each actress’ appearance, but to the way each film was treated as well, with the Swedish version depicting the realistic struggle of a woman who lives in shame who rises above her appearance to become a better person, and the Hollywood version glossing over the story somewhat in an attempt to still keep up Joan Crawford’s glittering image. Which of the two films you prefer depends entirely on the way that you prefer to see a picture in general. If you go to the movies for escapism and to see the world for something that’s even more beautiful than reality, go see the 1941 version. If you care more about realism and humanistic stories being brought to the screen, then Ingrid Bergman’s 1938 performance is the way to go. No matter which boat you’re in, if you’re a fan of Ingrid Bergman yet you’ve only seen her Hollywood pictures, then I would argue after watching this myself that you don’t really know Ingrid Bergman, and you need to make this one your next film to see.