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The Boston Phoenix Song of Norway

"Kristin Lavransdatter" is a great film.

By Jeffrey Gantz

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Kristin Lavransdatter, Directed by Liv Ullmann. Written by Ullmann, based on the novel Kransen, by Sigrid Undset. With Elisabeth Matheson, Bjørn Skagestad, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Henny Moan, Rut Tellefsen, Jørgen Langhelle, Svein Tindberg, Erland Josephson, and Lena Endre. A Norsk Film release. At the Museum of Fine Arts, December 19 through January 10.

The outstanding novel of our almost-concluded century is . . . Finnegans Wake? As I Lay Dying? Maybe Camus's The Stranger. Or Kafka's The Trial. Or Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. Surely not a Norwegian epic written back in the '20s by a woman most Americans have never heard of, even if she did win the Nobel Prize.

Kristin Lavransdatter will hardly go down as the quintessential novel of our era. Set in the 14th century, Sigrid Undset's three-volume work -- Kransen ("The Garland"), Husfrue ("Housewife"), and Korset ("The Cross") -- is the story of a woman who weds the man she chooses instead of the one her father has selected for her. There's no sugarcoating here: Kristin takes Erlend Nikulaussøn for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health; and she endures her share of poverty and sickness and sorrow, even before the appearance of the Black Death. Bereft of existential angst and anguish, Kristin Lavransdatter gives us life stripped bare: love and marriage, family and society, sin and redemption. It's like an Icelandic saga, as elemental as the log houses these people live in. Undset's prose is as spare as her eye is keen: brutal honesty goes hand in hand with an astonishing capacity to affirm and love.

What makes Liv Ullmann's adaptation (which opens at the MFA next Friday) so astonishing is the way she taps into Undset's virtues: she's just as spare, just as brutal, just as loving. She had the good sense not to attempt the entire novel (which runs to some 1100 pages), opting instead for just the first volume, Kransen, where Kristin's pallid liking for the steady, affable Simon Andressøn gives way to her passion for Erlend Nikulaussøn, a man with a (married) mistress and two children. The original 200-minute version (reported to have been seen in Norway by more than half that country's population -- a comparable American film would gross close to $1 billion) has been chopped to 145 minutes by Ullmann's lily-livered producers; even so, most of Kransen's glories survive. But don't think this is just an illustrated novel. What Ullmann has brought from her experience as Ingmar Bergman's premier actress (Persona, The Hour of the Wolf, Shame, A Passion, Scenes from a Marriage, etc.) is the ability to think in images. One is tempted to say she's adopted Bergman's style, but when you consider how different Persona and the subsequent films are from his early work, you might instead conclude that he learned from her, too.

Whatever, Ullmann draws on Bergman's virtues and adds her own. Like Bergman, she understands that film means faces -- faces open to our scrutiny, our judgment. She cast a plain, long, thin-lipped face -- the magnificent Elisabeth Matheson -- as Kristin; and Matheson exudes an intensity, a passion, that few actors can command. Erlend's mistress, Eline Ormsdatter (Lena Endre), with her round face and wavy blond hair and full lips, is much prettier (Ullmann surely is thinking of the way her deliberately plain Alma Borg stacked up against Ingrid Thulin's glamorous Veronica Vogler in The Hour of the Wolf), but you can see right away why Erlend prefers Kristin: Matheson is straightforward and upright in a way that speaks to the eternal. Erlend himself, as played by Bjørn Skagestad, glories in a kind of aquiline splendor; Skagestad is a fine actor, but what counts (and what Ullmann is clearly counting on) is a countenance that could make Kristin forget everything else. As her father, Lavrans Bjørgulfssøn, Sverre Anker Ousdal is good-naturedly bearish (you might have wished for the Max von Sydow of The Virgin Spring); but the angular, world-weary faces of Henny Moan as Kristin's mother, Ragnhild, and Rut Tellefsen as Erlend's aunt, the Lady Åshild, are beyond cavil. Tellefsen makes the most of her best line: when Kristin says, "At least you have always had Bjørn, your husband, with you," Åshild replies enigmatically, "Yes, that too."

The face may be the essence of humanity (Ullmann, like Undset, understands that love transcends sex), but Kristin Lavransdatter propounds a world that's more than merely mortal: the icy-blue mountains; the magnificent parish stave church (it's struck by lightning and burns, a stunning metaphor from Undset stunningly realized by Ullmann); the bells that ring as the Hovedø convent door closes, cutting Kristin off from her father (Ullmann wasn't given the money to film this as Undset wrote it, so she improvised); the way a curving iron fence becomes a crown of thorns as Kristin argues with Lavrans. Most of all, the horses (more prominent, it seems, in the uncut version) -- the way they run around, whinnying, you wonder whether they don't have a direct line to God.

Everywhere you see Ullmann confronting the naked truth, whether it's the man sitting backward on the horse who's being led to the scaffold (for what?), or the way Kristin's convent friend Ingebjørg gets married off to a toothless octogenarian. The scene where Kristin gives herself to Erlend is discreet, understated; what persists is the way she falls asleep in his arms after they've danced together, or how, after Eline's death, she stands by her man, growing up before your eyes. Very few films have the capacity, or the courage, to tell us what life is all about. This is one of them.

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