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Blu-ray Review: Fanny and Alexander – The Criterion Collection

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Similar to his Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander began as a Swedish television miniseries and had its runtime shortened for an international theatrical release. The title is curious because young Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) is almost inconsequential to the story in contrast to her older brother Alexander (Bertil Guve), standing in for Bergman in this autobiographical tale, who plays a major role. The film was promoted as his final theatrical release, which soon proved to be inaccurate, and won four Academy Awards: Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography (Sven Nykvist), Best Art Direction (Anna Asp, Susanne Lingheim), and Costume Design (Marik Vos-Lundh). Like Scenes, Criterion makes available both versions of the project in a single set.

The 312-minute, four-part miniseries plays out like an epic novel as it tells the story of the Ekdahl family, led by matriarch Helena (Gunn Wållgren), at the beginning of the 20th Century. After the prologue where her grandson Alexander is shown to have a vivid imagination, Helena’s three sons, their wives, and grandchildren gather at her opulent home for Christmas dinner in 1907. Oscar has taken over the family’s theater business with his wife Emilie (Ewa Fröling). They are the parents of Fanny and Alexander. Gustav Adolf Ekdahl (Jarl Kulle) is a restaurateur. His wife Alma (Mona Malm) accepts his philandering ways, which is a good thing since he finds himself in the bed of the young maid Maj (Pernilla August) by the end of the night. Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) is a professor. He is extremely unhappy with his life, envying the success of his brothers and angry he’s not receiving financial support from his mother. His self-loathing causes him to abuse his wife Lydia (Christina Schollin).

Oscar’s family experiences quite a dramatic turn in their lives when Emilie remarries soon after his death. Her new husband is Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), an extremely stern man who delivers cruelty and punishment when his authority is challenged. Emilie realizes she made a mistake and wants to leave but learns if she seeks a divorce, the Bishop will retain the children.

Helena sends her friend Isak (Erland Josephson), a Jewish antiques dealer, to sneak the children out of the Bishop’s home. He does so by way of magic, which is startling. It’s an abrupt change in what is possible in the world Bergman has set up because all previous supernatural occurrences didn’t seem real. Alexander’s imagination is shown to be active. Ghosts are seen but always appeared to be a projection of the person viewing them. Here, Isak magically whisking the children away is given no other explanation and doesn’t fit, especially considering no other “magic” is used to this extent.

One of the best scenes of the film is the pre-negotiation between the Bishop and Gustav over how to resolve matters between he and Emilie. It’s tense and exhilarating, yet most of the dialogue is delivered while the actors sit across from each other. They do a marvelous job delivering Bergman’s dialogue with passion, intensity, and wit.

Fanny and Alexander ends with an epilogue where the family gathers for a christening. Life continues, constantly offering new opportunities, which is why it’s no surprise Bergman continued to write and direct as his imagination and desires drove him back to storytelling.

The video has been presented in an 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1, bringing to life the sumptuous work of the crew. The color palette is exquisitely rendered. The reds seen in Helena’s are stunningly rich and lush and while the gray, stone walls in the Bishop’s residence deliver the coolness of its owner. Object detail is sharp even in shadows. The audio is Swedish LPCM Mono and dialogue heavy. The party scenes deliver an unexpected sense of space in lieu of the audio limitation. There’s very little in the way of bass.

The second disc contains the truncated 188-minute theatrical version with much of the fantasy sequences cut. It includes the commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, recorded for Criterion’s 2004 DVD release and the theatrical trailer (HD, 3 min).

A third disc contains previously released extras also from the 2004 release. Aware of the historical significance of what could have been his last film, Bergman created the feature-length documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander (HD, 110 min) from behind-the-scenes footage shot over the seven months of shooting. It’s absolutely wonderful to watch him at work with the actors and the crew, like only a lucky few have over his decades-long career. His mind seems to constantly work as he pays attention to details in different areas, such as concerned about how slippery it may be to have children run in slippers to discuss camera movement with cinematographer Sven Nyvkist. I noticed he got next to the camera to watch a scene play out rather than stuck behind a video monitor. Highly recommended for fans of his work.

“A Bergman Tapestry” (1080i, 39 min) is a 2004 documentary about the director and the film. It includes interviews with producer Jorn Donner, production manager Katinka Farago, art director Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Schlidt, and actors Pernilla August, Ewa Fröling, Bertil Guve, and Erland Josephson. Filmed for Swedish television in 1987, “Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film” (1080i, 59 min) finds the director sitting with film critic Nils Petter Sundgren for an interview that covers his life and career.

In addition to familiar extras like the Stills Gallery (1080p), taken by photographer Arne Carlsson, and the 34-page illustrated booklet featuring Stig Bjorkman’s “In the World of Childhood,” Rick Moody’s “Bergman’s Bildungsroman;” and Paul Arthur’s “Just a Director: The Making of Fanny and Alexander,” there are a couple that focus on the work of Oscar-winning crew members. The Costume Gallery (HD) offers sketches and finished outfits by costume designer Marik Vos. Photographed in 2004, “Set Models” (HD, 7 min) reveals some of the work of art director Anna Asp and set decorator Susanne Lingheim. Unfortunate there’s nothing to highlight Nykvist’s tremendous work.

Though epic in length, the miniseries is the recommended version of Fanny and Alexander. With the inclusion of the making-of documentary and the impressive look of the high-definition video, Criterion makes the Blu-ray well worth the investment of time and money.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS