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DVD Review: Autumn Sonata

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Ingmar Bergman’s almost fated 1978 filmic teaming with Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten), is amongst the very best of the films in his canon. It is also the most emotionally intense of the series of Strindbergian or Chekhovian chamber dramas he has filmed over the years, which includes his Spider Trilogy (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) and such other films as Cries And Whispers.

That said, it is perhaps the simplest film that Bergman ever directed, even simpler in plot than The Silence. It was filmed in Norway whilst Bergman was in his self-imposed exile from Sweden over trumped up tax evasion charges, and backed with British and American money. Ingrid Bergman, meanwhile, had just been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her a few years later, and this was her last acting role for film, although she did a final television movie portraying Golda Meier.

The whole film basically revolves around the tensions between a famous pianist, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), and her visit to her emotionally fragile and bitter eldest daughter Eva (Liv Ullman), a four-eyed frump, who lives with her pastor husband in a vicarage. Bergman always seems his best when two female leads are front and center. He may be the best director of actresses in cinema history, and certainly the best writer for them.

Eva could never forgive her mother’s absences from her life, nor her infidelities to her dead father, Josef (Erland Josephson), who is seen only in wordless flashbacks, as Liv Ullmann’s daughter with Ingmar Bergman, Linn Ullmann, plays the young Eva. As much of this film seems to mirror Ingrid Bergman’s own personal life, when she abandoned her husband and daughter to gallivant around Europe with her filmmaker boyfriend, Roberto Rossellini, the film caused quite a stir when it was released.

Many critics have commented on the similarities the film has with Woody Allen’s own Bergmanian drama, Interiors, released in the same year, which it does have; but a better analogue would be the drama he released almost a decade later, September, which was also about the strife between a mother and daughter, who also had a shocking secret — in the later film’s case a very Lana Turnerian murder cover-up.

Initially, it seems that the ‘bad guy’ in the film is Charlotte, who is obsessed with her career, making money, as she talks in English with her agent Paul (Gunnar Björnstrand), and the death of her latest lover, Leonardo (Georg Løkkeberg). She not only ignores Eva’s emotional needs, but those of her youngest daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), a spastic with a debilitating degenerative condition that drives Charlotte to avoid her progeny for seven full years. But by film’s end we see what a bitter, self-centered, and hypocritical person Eva really is, and the viewer is not allowed any easy answers as to the fictive ‘reality’ behind this familial strife.

The only calm and balanced person in the film is Eva’s husband, a much older vicar at a church named Viktor (Halvar Björk, who ironically, the DVD commentary by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie informs us, did much work as a Swedish porno star), who opens the film with a narration to the camera about his wife, a writer, and closes the film reading the letter his wife has written to her mother after she has driven her away, possibly for good. He is the only reliable narrator in the tale for we clearly see the mother and daughter tear at each other with justifications and accusations, which make up the body of the film, but which are written and acted so impeccably they seem wholly natural, and never truly stagy.

Helena, we learn, is not the only tragic victim in the family, although we do learn that she had an affair with her mother’s lover, Leonardo, a fact that Eva takes great pleasure in needling Charlotte with. But, when Charlotte went back on tour, Helena deteriorated rapidly from her disease, which is never named.

Bergman seems to be obsessed with not only the decay of the soul or mind, but with that of the body, as well. But, a greater tragedy struck Viktor and Eva, when their small, cute, blond son Erik drowned the day before his fourth birthday. Viktor suggests to Charlotte that her pregnancy with him, after being told she was infertile, changed Eva forever. Charlotte seems to have been oblivious to the very fact that she had a grandson, much less that he died so tragically. Yet, this loss haunts Eva all the more deeply because we later find out, when Eva and her mother argue, that Eva was forced to have an abortion as a teenager, by her mother. This is what resulted in Eva’s thinking she was infertile, and what made Erik’s loss even more personally catastrophic for Eva.

All of this then sets the main filmic drama on course. Eva tears into Charlotte, and basically dumps all her garbage at her mother’s door. Charlotte tries to explain herself, that as a woman and an artists she had extra demands, and that what may have seemed selfish was not, merely her way to cope in a world where the odds were so stacked against her.

But, Eva will have none of it. She has taken about to constructing a world for herself and no amount of reality is allowed to intrude. Helena has de facto taken her son’s place in need, and even though Eva even admits that she might be incapable of love, the only person who seems to be the innocent in this film is Viktor — a rarity, indeed, for usually men are the cause of ruin in Bergman’s films.

But not in this one. After Eva tells her mother she wishes that selfish people like her could be locked away from decent society, we cut to a scene of Helena crawling out of her crib, pleading for her mother to come. The blatantly obvious symbolism of the physically damaged daughter stating overtly what the emotionally damaged one cannot is perhaps the only thing that keeps this film from perfection. Knowing the depth of Eva’s loathing, we then fade to a scene on a train, with Charlotte and Paul, where she, again in English, tries to pretend all is well, as she did early in the film, before Eva attacked her so viciously.

Eva, meanwhile, is out at the grave of her son, while Lena has an apoplectic attack, trying to compose her final letter to her mother — a weak and unfelt apology she likely knows will never be read, even as she realizes her role in her mother’s abrupt departure the next morning, yet the camera ends up focused on Eva reading it, Charlotte reacting to it, and Viktor eventually sealing it up to be mailed. Nothing has effectively changed in the film. Yet, while both parties are to blame, neither is guilty of anything more than only human weakness.

The camera work by Sven Nykvist is not as blatantly showy in this film, although quite painterly in the gorgeous colorful interior of the vicarage is stunning in its reflection of the autumnal feel of the film and the state the characters are in, especially the gallery of close-ups that sear these characters and their emotions into a viewer’s mind. However, the transfer is not good, a shock considering The Criterion Collection is usually excellent in cleaning up prints. In this one many splotches appear, but they are a minor distraction, at worst.

The film’s music comes not from the actual music, which is brief – Händel's Sonata in F (Opus One), played during the credits, and a Chopin Prelude – but from the music of juxtaposed human facial portraits. The commentary by Cowie is excellent. He is a very knowledgeable Bergmaniac, and thankfully this film comes not only with English subtitling, but with an English dubbed soundtrack by the actual actors. There is also a trailer for the film.

The film also does not go on too long, for it’s only 92 minutes long. At two hours it could have been tedious. The film gained Oscar nods for Best Actress (although Bergman lost to Jane Fonda in Coming Home), Best Original Screenplay, and deservedly won other Best Picture awards, such as the Golden Globe, the National Film Critics Circle Award, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics award, and the Italian National Syndicate award. It is a writing tour de force, and those critics that dismissed it as a talky Psychology 101 film are just trying to sound quotable, for this film is talky Psychology 101 the way Othello is merely soap opera.

Charlotte reminds me much of the Maureen Stapleton character, Pearl, from Allen’s Interiors, right down to her garish red dress, which clearly shows that she is vibrant and faces life, and to the motto she claims came from her lover, Leonardo: "A sense of reality is a matter of talent. Most people lack that talent and maybe it’s just as well."

This is right in synch with Interiors, again, and the middle sister Joey, who has yearnings to be expressive, but no real talent. But where Charlotte takes life on, Eva cravenly hides from it, like a dog rapped on the snout once too often with a newspaper, and she clearly resents her mother’s strengths as much as her perceived flaws. Yes, Charlotte’s self-absorbed, but the more we learn of her the more we understand her. For example, her ignorance over the fact Helena lives with Eva, and not at the asylum she was put into, can be seen more sympathetically once we know that Helena cuckolded her mother with her lover. Charlotte’s disgust with her daughters isn’t merely knowing that two cripples, one emotional, one physical, poured out of her womb, but that both eventually betrayed her.

This disgust is no more manifest than in a scene where the mother and daughter play a Chopin Prelude. It’s a simple scene, and Chopin is a passionate, but formally restrained and highly strung artist, just as Charlotte is. Eva plays the piece rather dully, and cannot accept her mother’s attempts at being nice, and snaps at her. Thus, hurt by the rebuff of her kindness, Charlotte responds with sarcasm and condescension:

"Chopin was rich in feeling Eva, but not gushy. Theyre not the same. There’s a great difference between emotions and sentiment. The prelude you just played tells of anguish that’s suppressed. It’s not about grievance. Take the opening for instance: it hurts but he never shows it. And then a short release but it’s very fleeting and it hardly lasts, and the pain is the same, neither heightened nor diminished. Chopin was proud, sarcastic, passionate, tormented and very male. In other words, he wasn’t a sentimental old woman. This second prelude must be made to sound almost ugly. Never allow it to become ingratiating, it should sound wrong. You battle through the piece and finally manage to end up triumphant."

Yet, even after wounding her daughter, after Eva acts self-pitying, she shows some humor by stating, "Well, I have been playing these Chopin pieces for thirty-seven years."

This quality is the saving grace for Charlotte, and its lack is what dooms the dour, anomic Eva at film’s end. Lena fares the worst of all, condemned to a slow death, seemingly as punition for betraying her mother in a very Woody Allenish way — having a pseudo-incestuous affair with her mother’s lover. Yet, she seems to truly want her mother in her life, although the reverse is not true, for in one scene Charlotte dreams Helena’s hands (for they wear the same yellow frock as we’ve seem Helena in) try to smother her. It is this very symbolic dream which sends Charlotte downstairs to recuperate, but which leads to the row with Eva, and propels the film to its greatness.

Ingmar Bergman is certainly a great director, but that greatness stems from his being a great writer, first and foremost. His writing is for adults, and not the deliterate preteens that current publishers (think Dave Eggers, James Frey, Elizabeth Wurtzel) and Hollywood studios aim their wares at. Be thankful for that, and for this film. Autumn Sonata is a masterpiece. Period.

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