November 14, 2005
The Wayward Girl, 1959
One of the clear highlights of the Norwegian cinema series for me was Liv Ullmann's personal appearance for the introduction of her film debut as lead actress in what would prove to be the final film by Norway's first female director, Edith Carlmar, The Wayward Girl. Admitting that she initially found it odd that program director Richard Peña had chosen this somewhat (then) scandalous, low budget independent production by the husband and wife production team of Otto and Edith Carlmar, Ullmann subsequently realized that it would be an exciting opportunity to re-visit the film some 47 years later to see, not only to see how much she had changed since then (as she noted, the film was made five years before she met Ingmar Bergman and changed the course of her professional and personal life), but also how much society had changed since that time, when members of her own fairly religious family tried to keep the film from getting distributed after they had caught wind that she had appeared nude in some scenes. (Ms. Ullmann does, however, note that her grandmother was quite supportive throughout the entire ordeal and proud of the film and that, in fact, she had invited all of the residents in the wing of her nursing home to the screening after which, she jokingly adds, they never spoke to her again.)
Ullmann's anecdotes of the notoriously parsimonious Carlmars were also refreshingly candid, engaging, humorous, and delightful, such as her first contact with the Carlmars to express interest in the role (after having just finished a stage production in the title role of Anne Frank in a provincial theater company) upon which she was granted an interview with the provision that she pay for her own airplane fare in case they decide not to cast her (later on, she was also told that she was to provide her own wardrobe as part of her salary). Fondly remembering that the first question ever posed to her by the Carlmars was to ask if she was a virgin (which, she reasoned that if she had told the truth, that they would not even entertain the idea of her playing the part of the wayward girl), she promptly responded that she was not, which, although she realized immediately that they did not believe her, she self-effacingly jests that that they must have been swayed by her acting. Ullmann shares another anecdote in her character's befriending of a sheep in the film that, as she recalls, died in real-life (as it does in the film). Looking to economize, the Carlmars then served the sheep as part of the wrap-up party. As Ullmann would eloquently conclude, her acting may not have been the most polished (a remark that says more about her own exacting nature when it comes to her craft than in the detection of any perceptible weakness in her characterization of Gerd), but it remains, for her, certainly the most honest of her performances that she would ever commit to film, made by a young artist who wanted to prove her skill, mettle, and passion for the craft, both to the world and to herself.
As it turns out, The Wayward Girl is something of a minor gem - a film that, not only pushes the artistic bounds of filming sexual liberation given the morality of the times, but also captures the dichotomy of the exuberance and freedom of youth and the subconscious realization of the eventual need to conform to societal expectations that comes with growing up. At the heart of the film is a pair of runaway young lovers, Gerd (Ullmann), the illegitimate child of a perennially absent, self-absorbed mother, and Anders, a university student from an upstanding middle-class family, who sneak away into an abandoned cabin in the woods to lead a Garden of Eden existence of love, complete abandon, and self-reliance. Rather than rendering a simple cautionary tale of reckless young love, Carlmar creates a thoughtful and provocative portrait on the process of maturation and awakening to social constraints and moral responsibility that ultimately serve to extinguish the light of youth.