Bibi Andersson, who has died at the age of 83, will forever be remembered for her stage and screen collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. The great Swedish director discovered her while directing a commercial, in which the 15-year-old had to kiss a swineherd 100 times to get a bar of Bris soap. After a single scene in Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), he went on to cast her in 12 further features.
For much of her early career, Andersson was essentially the Swedish Doris Day, as her “professional innocent” came to symbolise “simple, girlish things”. Bergman exploited this image in The Seventh Seal, in which she escapes Death as part of the surrogate Holy Family, and played against it in Wild Strawberries (both 1957), which saw Andersson double up as Victor Sjöström’s treacherous lost love and a pipe-smoking hitcher.
She shared the best actress prize at Cannes as an unmarried mother weighing up her options in the director’s Brink of Life (1958). But it was Vilgot Sjöman who shattered the demure myth, as Andersson followed a Berlin festival prize for The Mistress (1962) with the incestuous saga My Sister My Love (1966).
Such performances prompted Hollywood offers, with Andersson performing solidly as the mother of an Apache son in Duel at Diablo (1966), the wife of a Russian colonel in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970), whistleblower Steve McQueen’s supportive spouse in the Ibsen adaptation An Enemy of the People (1978), and an ice age survivor alongside Paul Newman in Robert Altman’s Quintet (1979).
But Andersson was always more at home in her native Scandinavia, following a poised cameo in Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987), with best supporting actress triumphs at the Swedish Guldbagge awards for Shit Happens (2000), Elina (2002) and Arn: The Knight Templar (2007), in which she plays a scheming mother superior.
The Devil’s Eye (1960)
Director Ingmar Bergman
Between playing the minxish maid seduced by Max von Sydow in Bergman’s The Magician (1958) and the cellist’s mistress who sleeps with a journalist in the same director’s All These Women (1964), Andersson reverted to type as the epitome of blonde wholesomeness in the director’s undervalued satire on bourgeois morality.
It may lack bite, but this reworking of a Danish play drolly toys with cinematic theatricality, with Satan (Stig Järrel) sending Don Juan (Jarl Kulle) to corrupt vicar’s daughter and virginal bride-to-be Britt-Marie (Andersson), who glows with Nordic goodness, although her purity only proves to be skin deep.
Director Ingmar Bergman
Andersson was initially frustrated at being cast as the garrulously naive Alma rather than mysteriously silent actress Elisabet Vogler in Bergman’s famous psychodrama, but she came to appreciate the nurse’s hidden depths, as she seeks to coax her patient out of her shell during her convalescence at a remote coastal cottage.
Bergman described his chamber play as a “sonata for two instruments”. But wisps of horror pervade proceedings, as Alma begins to lose her composure in the face of a perceived betrayal. Liv Ullmann is exceptional, but Andersson took the Guldbagge for best actress in redefining herself as an artist.
The Girls (1968)
Director Mai Zetterling
Liberated from her prim persona, Andersson followed strong performances in little-seen pictures like Alf Sjöberg’s Ön (1966) and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze’s Le Viol (1967) by joining fellow Bergman regulars Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom in Mai Zetterling’s bold feminist treatise on career, romance and motherhood.
Unhappily cast in a touring production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Liz invokes the spirit of the Athenian women rebelling against their menfolk by confronting a slumbering matinee audience and the press conference reporters more interested in her looks and likes than her artistry. Stylistically ambitious and scathing in its denunciation of complacent chauvinism, The Girls awaits rediscovery.
The Touch (1971)
Director Ingmar Bergman
Coming between The Passion of Anna (1969) and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bergman’s first English-language outing allowed Andersson to complete a triumvirate of disgruntled wives. As Gotland’s equivalent to Emma Bovary, Karin Vergerus throws herself into a relationship with American archaeologist David Kovac (Elliott Gould) after he is treated by her doctor husband, Andreas (Max von Sydow). The Touch might have been a very different film had Bergman succeeded in casting Paul Newman, Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman, but Andersson is outstanding as the model housewife shaken out of her domestic idyll by a dangerous liaison she is powerless to resist.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)
Director Anthony Page
Producer Roger Corman secured the rights to Joanne Greenberg’s bestseller (written under the pen name Hannah Green) hoping to cash in on the success of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). But, while the Oscar-nominated screenplay lingers on the harsh treatment that 16-year-old schizophrenic Deborah Blake (Kathleen Quinlan) receives on being institutionalised, the standout scenes involve her consultations with Dr Fried (Andersson). The latter’s readiness to listen to the reasoning behind Deborah’s fantasies and attempts at self-harm demonstrates the intelligence, generosity and humanity that underpinned Andersson’s unique talent.