“Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” is the latest example of what we’ll have to start calling primary-source documentaries: nonfiction films that avail themselves of their subjects’ personal home movies, video, audio, scrapbooks, diaries, grocery receipts, to-do lists, and so forth. Last year we had “Amy,” an Oscar-nominated film that derived its strength from a friend’s home videos of Amy Winehouse in her youth, and “Listen to Me Marlon,” an eerie resurrection of Marlon Brando using the audio diaries he kept for decades.
Bergman, too, appears to have documented her life from one end to the other — is that why she became a movie star? Because in a sense she already was one? Directed by Stig Björkman and with major input from the actress’s grown children, “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” makes the case that Bergman saw herself and her loved ones through the lens of a camera and the frame of a screen, and she treated life as her very own adventure film. Daughter Pia Lindstrom argues in one heady interview segment that Bergman’s intense relationship with her own father — he was a widower, Ingrid his only surviving child — was defined and strengthened by the 16mm home movies he took of their life together. It also meant she had a tendency to fall in love with men on the other side of the camera: war photographer Robert Capa, directors Victor Fleming and Roberto Rossellini.
We see those early home movies in Björkman’s film and they’re immensely touching. Using diary excerpts from adolescence onward and passages from letters Bergman wrote to friends — read on the soundtrack by actress Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) — “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” follows its subject from early success in Swedish theater and films to Hollywood and producer David O. Selznick in 1939. The documentary includes her studio screen test, in color, with a chalkboard that reads “NO MAKEUP.” Bergman is so naturally ravishing that the film seems lit from within.
She was passionate and ambitious; outwardly shy and inwardly confident. Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Bergman wrote a friend “Last night a man at the table said to me ‘You’ll never be an actress. You’re too tall.’ I said to myself, ‘He knows nothing about me.’ ” Her years in Hollywood included the apotheosis of “Casablanca,” of course, but also an Oscar for “Gaslight,” a peak Hitchcock film with Cary Grant (“Notorious”), and a quixotic Joan of Arc epic for producer Walter Wanger. Lindstrom remarks that her mother had had a Joan of Arc obsession since childhood, perhaps moved by the notion of “a young girl who hears voices saying she’ll go do wonderful things.”
“Joan of Arc” was a flop, in part because Bergman had already left her husband Petter, Lindstrom’s father, for Rossellini by the time it came out. She gave birth to a son, Roberto, and later twin girls, Ingrid and Isabella, and America reeled from the scandal. The actress was denounced on the floor of the US Senate, and Bergman decamped to Europe, where another wave of home movies capture the growing brood at play. Eventually, Bergman returned to America for “Anastasia” and a second Oscar, was abandoned by Rossellini, married a Swedish theatrical producer, and worked steadily until her death in 1982 at 67.
“I have seen so much, yet it is never enough. . . . I have never understood the kind of happiness I was longing for.” So wrote Bergman in a letter and that restlessness was integral to the charm that streamed from her and to the damage she caused. You could even say the two were inextricable. The grown children, interviewed, speak with a mixture of awe and rue: she was delightful to be with, she was never around. “I missed her a lot,” says daughter Ingrid. “I’m going to have as much fun as her,” Isabella recalls thinking (and she did). “Why didn’t you want to live with us?,” Pia wonders with an adult’s recollection of primal hurt before shrugging that “the reality is that children aren’t all that interesting.”
At times “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” isn’t all that interesting — at times you really do feel you’re watching someone else’s home movies and your attention starts to wander. But in its occasionally over-gentle way, the documentary testifies to the ego necessary to be a great star and to live a great life. And it has the temerity to suggest that it might be worth it — both for the person living the life and for everyone watching, near and far.
★ ★ ★
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words
Directed by Stig Björkman. Written by Björkman, Dominika Daubenbüchel, and Stina Gardell. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini, Pia Lindstrom, the voice of Alicia Vikander. At Kendall Square. 114 minutes. Unrated (as G: adult behavior in all its contradictions).
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.