NYFF 2015: Documentaries About Nora Ephron and Ingrid Bergman

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Everything Is Copy screens at 6pm on Tuesday, September 29, and at 12:30pm on Saturday, October 3, and Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words at 6pm on Monday, October 5 and 8:30pm on Tuesday, October 6, in the Spotlight on Documentary within the 53rd New York Film Festival. Rialto Pictures will release Ingrid Berman In Her Own Words in New York City on November 13. Everything Is Copy will air on HBO.

There’s yet been no method of biographical filmmaking that has proven foolproof, least of all in the case of showbiz lives. The New York Film Festival is a reliable source of biographic non-fiction both experimental and shop-worn. This year alone you can watch Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma, about the New Hollywood stalwart, and Walter Salles’s Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang, on the Sixth Generation genius, which interrogate two different filmmakers in two different styles. What they share is a masculine tenderness towards their subjects, a uniquely male respect for other men in the same profession. It’s interesting to place them in opposition to two documentaries on female artists to see the contrasting approaches to men describing the legacy of women. De Palma treats its subject like a cuddly troublemaker who broke every rule with a grin and A Guy From Fenyang goes on a dark, smoky roadtrip with its stoic protagonist. The portraits of Nora Ephron and Ingrid Bergman playing NYFF are differently pitched, both more intimate and more complex, and a little more revealing about the way the world reacts to contradictions in a woman’s personality.

Everything Is Copy, a film by Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein, is a hagiography, filled with fluffy titles, loving tributes and hotel lobby jazz music. The atmosphere makes Ephron indestructible, even to reasonable criticism—not the best way to examine someone with as thorny a legacy as hers. She began as a journalist and essayist, respected and feared for her brutal honesty. After her second marriage to Carl Bernstein crumbled due to his infidelity, her decision to go on the attack ultimately gave her her second wind and her career as a writer/director. Heartburn, her memoir of the divorce, became a best-seller and a movie by Mike Nichols (who, in a truly strange turn of events, was a signatory on their divorce proceedings), which led to the scripts for When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, among others. Ephron’s success as a director came at the expense of her reputation as a writer, as her soft-peddled romantic fantasies seemed to fly in the face of her angry, confessional feminist essays of the 70s. Her words had led many women to discovering their identities and now she was selling the idea of everlasting Hollywood romance like it was the only outcome for strong women.

Bernstein isn’t up to or interested in the task of doing more than smiling broadly and throwing up his hands at the bundle of enigmas that was his mother. His biggest mistake (and he makes several) is trying to squeeze himself on the couch with his interview subjects and turn himself into a character. Everything is Copy suffers mightily for his doe-eyed perspective, which leads to rookie mistakes like the choice to have wealthy guest stars trade on their famous names in order to talk in generalities like they’ve read about Ephron on Wikipedia. Most distracting? Amy Pascal, most recently famous for bad-mouthing one of the strongest, most powerful women in Hollywood. Bernstein should have and could have relied on family and close friends, or her simply let his mother tell her own story, something she did professionally and charismatically for most of her life. Bernstein doesn’t the chops to hone in on Ephron’s essence. She was fearlessly bitchy and refused to behave like everyone’s idea of “a lady,” and in her way made a generation of women realize you don’t have to behave according to standards invented by men. You can act however you want and then write about your experience doing so, thereby recording the emerging independent feminist identity, one that needn’t adhere to one strict set of ideological tenets. Ephron’s writing showed that identity can evolve and should be kaleidoscopic, especially after men imposed a didactic ideal upon women for so many lifetimes. Did she betray that with her movies? Bernstein would rather you think about that on your own time.

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On the other hand is Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words. A fiction filmmaker who became a chronicler of the first century of Scandinavian film artists, Björkman has a grammatical edge on many documentarians. He can create environments in which his subjects flourish on both their own and his terms. He constructs one version of Ingrid Bergman’s identity through her home movies, clips of her acting roles, her journal entries, and the testimony of her surviving children and a few peers. Björkman seems aware that his Bergman isn’t the truth, so to speak, but he commits to the woman he uncovers, and conjures an atmospheric bubble to allow her to express herself. The sound design is frequently tomb-silent around the voiceover, recalling Nancy Buirski’s similarly excellent and melancholy Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clerq. Of course Björkman has an ace up his sleeve that eluded even Buirski: a Michael Nyman score, which soars across the images. Nyman is the greatest living film composer, and his work is naturally stellar, creating a bed of graceful momentum which the voice of Bergman can lean on for support. Hilariously, the voice Nyman so elegantly props up is that of Alicia Vikander, reading Bergman’s journals in Swedish. Vikander is one of the few actresses I could cite who doesn’t need a note of music to earn pathos. Her performance is spellbinding, effortlessly expressing a diffidence born of a life in the public eye. After a forced departure from Hollywood, following her affair with director Roberto Rossellini, Bergman’s long-hidden delicacy replaces the ingenue’s nerve. A clip of Ed Sullivan asking his audience, earnestly, whether they’d be ok with allowing an adulterer onto his show is almost impossible to believe. The star of Casablanca had to endure this scrutiny from a country whose primary export was Hollywood glamour and gossip? When Bergman later describes getting to work with Renoir on the great Elena and Her Men, her joy is heartbreaking—the relief of landing on her feet when all seemed lost. It’s tough to tell who gives the more tragic performance in this film, Bergman or Vikander.

Björkman’s film, like Bernstein’s, is a love letter to a subject we’ve been told many things about over the years. Björkman’s rendering has confidence that Bernstein’s. He only moves to interviews as they matter in the emotional chronology of Bergman’s life. Rather than leading with a bunch of famous faces to entice you, it lets the film flow exactly as her story demands. The film allows for conversations between its fascinating subjects rather than directing their interviews to reaffirm its thesis. It knows the flow can withstand a momentary break in its fabric and unruly additions to the subject’s persona. There is no sure fire way to successfully tell the story of an artist, but In Her Own Words is a great place to start looking for one.

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