Monday, November 19, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #205 - Autumn Sonata (1978, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Ingmar Bergman is one of the all-time greats of world cinema, the Swedish director whose name is for many synonymous with capital-A Art in film for exploring both complex spiritual and psychological themes and unflinchingly observing the difficulties of human relationships. If he hadn’t passed away in 2007 at age 89, he’d be celebrating his centennial year in 2018, and in honor of his legacy the Criterion Collection has released Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a handsome box set containing 39 of his films. (Don't worry, I'm not reviewing all 39.) Ingrid Bergman, had cancer not claimed her in 1982, would’ve celebrated her centenary in 2015. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1940s due to celebrated performances for Alfred Hitchcock, as Joan of Arc, and in a little film called Casablanca, Bergman came from Sweden to the United States, left her family here to go to Italy in a scandalous affair and marriage (and several great films) with director Roberto Rossellini, and later returned triumphantly to the States and Hollywood. Though the Bergmans share a name, they are unrelated, and they worked together exactly once, on 1978's Autumn Sonata, which would prove to be Ingrid’s final feature film and the first time she had made a film in Swedish in over a decade.
Though Autumn Sonata received mixed reviews on its initial release, time has been exceptionally kind to it, and today I think it can be seen as one of the highlights of Ingmar Bergman’s family dramas - more down-to-earth than his period piece Cries and Whispers, less excessive than the 5+ hour televised cuts of other dramas like Scenes From A Marriage and the later Fanny and Alexander - though no less intense than any of them. Film historian Peter Cowie in an essay on Criterion’s website even goes so far as to say “As a tour de force of screen acting, Autumn Sonata stands unchallenged as the finest work of Ingmar Bergman’s last few years as a movie director.”
The story is simple: internationally acclaimed concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is invited by her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), whom she hasn’t seen in years to stay with her in her rural home after the passing of her Charlotte’s longtime companion. They banter a bit upon arrival, Charlotte breezing in, used to being the center of attention, hijacking an accomplishment Eva, looking girlish and mousy despite the almost 40-year old Ullmann’s beauty, tries to relate about a local piano recital she’s given by topping her story with one of sold out shows in L.A. Then Eva reveals the first of several surprises she has in store for her mother: Charlotte’s other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers from a degenerative nerve disease and who had been moved to a nursing home, is now living with Eva and her husband. This unexpected news cracks Charlotte’s glittery facade, and there’s a mildly malicious delight as Eva relates to her husband how she expects her mother to handle herself now that she’s seen Helena again. They also talk in the nursery of Eva’s deceased son, who was born and died at age 4 without Charlotte ever having met him. But this is only a prelude as they have a chilly dinner followed by Eva playing a piano piece for her mother who can’t hold back a pedantic tongue - though to be fair Eva asks her for her honest opinion. Once they retire to bed Charlotte awakens from a nightmare and goes downstairs to find Eva already there, awoken by her nighttime cries. The two begin talking and the film settles in for its central movement. An angry Eva starts things off simply and directly enough by asking “Do you like me?” and they’re off, Eva accusing Charlotte of never being there for the family, telling of her deep love and admiration that was never returned by her mother, angry about Charlotte abandoning Helena to her fate, and more. Charlotte, for her part, defends herself, and what at first seems like righteous accusations from Eva grow into anger and memories twisted by their years of buried and repressed resentments into something unfair, bigger even than Charlotte could have done to her if she’d deliberately tried to psychologically damage her.
The delight of the film is in watching these two actors at the height of their powers bringing to life Ingmar Bergman’s deeply incisive dialogue (the film was nominated for Best Screenplay). Each pulls our sympathy and our disdain at points, and each of them undoubtedly dug deeply into their own lives to inhabit these characters. Ullmann had written a year earlier of her own shortcomings as a parent to her daughter Linn (whose father was Ingmar Bergman), while Ingrid Bergman’s earlier public scandal stemmed from having abandoned her husband and daughter to go to Italy to make films with (and marry) Rossellini. And Ingmar, for his part, once boasted to a biographer about not knowing his own children’s ages, but dating his life by his films. Together, these three - plus key acting support from both Lena Nyman as the disabled daughter and Halvar Björk as Eva’s husband, passively observing parts of the tempest and acting as Eva’s pillar (also setting up for viewers Eva's deep insecurities in an address directly to the camera which opens the film), create a chamber drama of withering intensity and seriousness, without even Ingmar Bergman’s occasional experimental tendencies to lighten the drama. And it would be criminal to leave out the name of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose 19th collaboration with the director this was, and who was always uniquely able to render Bergman’s interior worlds in light and images, here all warm, subtle tones befitting the title and underscoring the brutal emotional storm that passes through the home that night.
This 45th feature he directed was Ingmar Bergman’s final film made expressly for theaters; it would be Ingrid Bergman’s final theatrical film as well (one for which she received her 7th Academy Award nomination) - both would do work for television after this, but it is the culmination of two stellar careers in cinema. Three, actually, because it’s also one of Liv Ullmann’s great performances. Put Nykvist in there as well, and let’s call it four. It's a great one. Back in 1978, the critics just got it wrong.
-          Patrick Brown

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