A Woman’s Face / En Kvinnas Ansikte (1938)

It’s the hundred year anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth this year, so when I came across En Kvinnas Ansikte, which is one of Ingrid’s last works before her Hollywood debut featured, in an introspective of her career, I knew I had to check it out. And it was a good thing I did, as it’s a remarkable Swedish film noir classic.

Prior to this film, I largely knew Ingrid only from her few Hitchcock collaborations and of course from Casablanca. It had been quite awhile since I had seen any of those films, so I really got a perfect chance here to look at Bergman’s performance from a fresh set of eyes, and as you would expect, she is quite formidable. She’s absolutely stunning in her dual role as the two Annas of the story. It’s a dazzling performance from her, playing the two sides of the same coin as the one and same character. As the scarred criminal Anna, she’s venomous, not to mention completely ruthless criminal, but with her beauty restored, as Anna the nanny she becomes this fragile little maiden who you could not in million years suspect of having a sordid criminal past.

In a way, Anna’s transformation feels awfully old fashioned and a bit sexist. The way the story asserts that being a law abiding proper lady means you’re automatically more timid, fragile and overtly meek, emotional creature is pretty frustrating. She does get to show some teeth when she confronts her old partners and tells them to back off once they try to worm into her new life, but it doesn’t change the fact that prior to that scene she’s depicted incredibly fearful and timid when sharing the room with the uncle who knew her real identity and her real past as a criminal. I can see how she would be afraid to have her secret revealed, but for a hardened career criminal such as she, you kinda expected her to hold her ground better in their initial private tête-à-tête. Just acting slightly fearful and helpless was frankly jarring. But despite the outdated gender depiction, it does not prevent the film from being a pretty great picture.

For such a dark thriller it’s surprisingly bright in its presentation. You do have a minor blackmail subplot to establish Anna as a tough ruthless criminal, and there is the whole scheme to kill a child for inheritance money, but nothing particularly dark ever actually takes place, even if there are certain dark twists in the story and a certain somebody ends up dead. It’s a bit paradoxical. Yet, rather than having a to a tonal whiplash because of this, the story glides through the film with this engrossing, electric tension. The character progression is pretty laughable, because Anna basically swings back and forth in enormous leaps in the depiction of her personality at the drop of a hat. She goes from a career blackmailer to a completely hapless victim in a second when she breaks her leg and is caught red handed by the doctor whose wife she had been mercilessly blackmailing five minutes earlier, and after she has her face restored she remains the cold, mean spirited woman for maybe fifteen seconds before her heart is completely melted by the child she is suppose to take under her wing in her role as the new nanny. But somehow it all still works, which just proves how brilliant actress Ingrid Bergman was.

The ending is suitably bittersweet and beautiful in its sombre tragedy. I was half expecting a sappy happy ending, but thematically it works better for her to once again to choose forgetting her past and set forth to a new tomorrow, no matter how sad it is. This film was remade in Hollywood only few years later, starring Joan Crawford, and I can’t help but to wonder just how much they changed things to fit American audiences, especially regarding the ending. I can’t see it remaining the same, so I suppose I’ll just have to track a copy of it down some day to find out, now don’t I?

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