Autumn Sonata (1978)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Halvar Bjork

Bergman is still Bergman in this movie, and I have no doubt that someone else has used that line to describe Autumn Sonata before and I don’t care. Ingmar Bergman is still addicted to close-ups, still putting our cheeks to the hot stove of emotional upheaval for as long as it can be stood and no longer. Ingrid Bergman still tosses her head in the same way she’d done thirty years before, her voice as precise and silky as ever. As the other Bergman proves in the film, Ingrid is as capable as ever at squeezing our hearts, allowing us into the private life of a character. In my admittedly limited experience with both – I blame my place for the former and my time for the latter – this has to be very near the top of their respective oeuvres.

Autumn Sonata is two merely good actresses away from melodrama. Charlotte (Bergman) is a domineering mother, and Eva (Ullmann) the repressed daughter; this should be a losing battle from the get-go, but they are trickier foils for one another than one typically sees in film. Both women are kind, although for the mother it is charm and for the daughter it is saintliness. Charlotte, who was and is a famous pianist, thrives on the attention of others, skating along on her joie de vivre and the generosity that she can very much afford to parcel out. Eva lives in a remote parsonage, hiding as the kind wife to her husband, Viktor (Bjork) and the perpetual nurse to her very ill sister, Helena (Lena Nyman). Charlotte’s chosen form of art is nuanced but still very auditory, entirely reliant on the previous work and interpretations of others, where Eva, who is a writer, has chosen a potentially silent form to be expressly personal. Charlotte defies expectations; her daughter expects her to wear a quiet dress to dinner one night to evince her recent widowing, but Charlotte wears a bright red dress instead. Eva is entirely predictable, putting her hair into braids and bumping around the house in her Frumpty Dumpty outfits, always the first to react to Helena’s cries or the one to sit alone.

The beginning of the film gives the lie to what could be a fairly boxed-in domestic drama. Framed in a doorway, and thanks to Sven Nykvist doused in autumnal light and colors, Eva sits writing at her desk while a male voice, her husband’s, tells of her great personal sadness, her long belief that no one can love her, the impotence he feels at not having the words to relieve her sadness or her perceived lovelessness. Narrators are hardly noteworthy on their own: it’s when they look into the camera and talk to us, the way that Viktor does, that we jump. It turns out that he was simply out of the shot, and when the camera moves back it includes him too. What’s the meaning of interrupting the fantasy onscreen, of breaking the fourth wall so early and with such calmness? It doesn’t really make the characters more knowable, or create greater familiarity between us and the characters; we are being let into a secret, but we have never met the secret-teller before. It’s certainly not supposed to make what they say or do funny. I think the best thing that breaking the fourth wall does for the viewer is just what it did to me: it’s startling. Before we can begin to get comfortable with another Bergman family drama, we are forced to confront a character from it. I think more than anything else it’s Bergman’s answer to how we can defamiliarize a recognizable plot: he defamiliarizes an entire medium first, and then the rest of the film takes on an unusual air.

Funny enough, despite a few of those flashbacks which we know to expect from Bergman, those portraits which feature barely-moving figures, there’s little else in the film which feels even remotely avant-garde. The flashbacks are beautiful, obviously. Leonardo, Charlotte’s partner, died slowly in a bare hospital room with a window stolen from a cathedral and lit in powerful monotones. When remembering the last gasps of Helena’s wellness, the room is lit in rich browns and yellows, with a fireplace in the foreground and Helena’s slightly crooked body sitting pertly in her chair. People looking for flash or flair rather than simplicity will find little of it here, even though Bergman quietly indulges in his signature long takes with his actors; the average shot length, per Cinemetrics, is about seventeen seconds. There are no tricks of the trade distracting us from the actors themselves, who by the back of my napkin are two of the three most famous Swedish actors to appear on screen. Bergman doesn’t have to do much more than point and shoot to get a reaction out of his viewers.

Bergman, in her final film performance, is the recipient of most of the press, and it’s understandable. She is completely convincing in her role of the woman whom we would never call a liar yet seems not to engage frequently with the truth. Her face when Eva tells her that Helena lives at the parsonage now is sternly woebegone, as if Eva had told her that a particularly large snake were sitting outside the window. You should have told me, she says. Yet when she greets Helena in her room – Helena, unable to speak any recognizable language and grinning broadly to see her mother for the first time in many years – Charlotte appears likewise delighted. She hugs her daughter, she smiles broadly at her, she gives her the watch off her wrist which was given to her by her recently dead lover, and she leaves quickly and without ever engaging herself. It’s a key pair of scenes for the character, and Bergman gives us the two ends of Charlotte’s spectrum. Somewhere in the middle (although closer to the “terror-stricken” side) is the scene where she thoroughly corrects Eva’s interpretation of a Chopin prelude. It is a humiliating scene; Eva has offered her playing to her mother, at her mother’s insistence, and she fumbles through it. Charlotte, instead of appreciating it, takes it as an opportunity to prove her own superiority. It becomes clear through Eva that Charlotte has a mean competitive streak, even when no one has spoken any desire for competition.

Autumn Sonata needs Ullmann at least as much as it needs Bergman. Ullmann is one of the few performers I’ve ever watched who can pull off whiny; in each film I’ve seen her in, her character drops a polite or well-meaning facade and begins to complain, like a child, of her misfortune. In Autumn Sonata it is well deserved whining which reveals her mother’s chief flaws. Her mother’s absence was traumatizing; it built desire for her mother and made her lonely, creating serious abandonment issues. But when her mother came home for good, hobbled by an aching back which limited her time to practice and thus sent her career off the rails, her vast energy became the great cross for a young, impressionable, and completely feeble girl to bear. Without Eva’s testimony – delivered tearfully, hysterically, calmly, quietly by Ullmann – the strange flaw in Charlotte’s character would never become clear. Plenty of people are vilified for not loving their children enough, or for ignoring them; this is the root of many filmic tragedies. But Charlotte is the only character I can recall whose flaw is that she has too much energy. It is her mother’s vast energy – her insomnia, her will to practice, her flowing movement, her sharp eye – that beats Eva into a pulp. You thought my hair was too long, so you had it chopped off. You said my teeth were crooked, so I got braces. You, she screams at Charlotte, made me hideous. And from the scene we’ve witnessed at the piano, where all Eva can do is look plaintively at her perfect mother through her round glasses, we can guess why: it was a way to make her daughter less than her. Nobody says as much. Eva’s speeches make the implication more often that her mother needed control. But her mother’s cheerful sadism is the more apparent gesture here, and it’s terrifying. Forgive me, she says to Eva after a long night of accusation and condemnation, her eyes and nose red. As a viewer, I was as horrified by that plea as anything else she says or does, and even more horrified by Eva’s ultimate surrender: a conciliatory, soothing letter she sends her mother after she has unceremoniously left her daughters. The cycle has come around to the top again, immutable and unstoppable.

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