Ingmar Bergman: Autumn Sonata (1978) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Autumn Sonata (1978)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

"You yourself were a stranger, already on your way."

Andrew COMMENTARYLike many of Bergman's best films, there are two women at the core of Autumn Sonata.  A mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) and her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullman), have lived a life of what Charlotte feels to be mutual love and appreciation.  Eva does not feel the same way, and has been wounded by years of Charlotte's neglect and casual tortures.

Eva lives her life modestly and, in her greatest flaw, still loves her mother.  In spite of her casually dismissive and occasionally cruel words, Eva embodies the Christian spirit that Bergman faces with reluctance so many times.  Autumn Sonata begins as Eva's lover Viktor (Halvar Bjork) looks fondly on his wife and narrates to us the time that he asked her to marry him.  She did not respond, replying instead that the building they were in was "...nice.  I feel at home here."  Eva has love for Viktor in a way that she cannot express because so much of it has been saved for appreciation her mother will never give.

It's a place for her to be safe.  To try and forge something for herself away from the mother that she wants to push away but still yearns desperately for approval from.  One day, at Eva's urging, Charlotte comes to visit and the subtle tortures prove to be too much for Eva.  Over the course of the night the pain that Eva has been feeling for years comes out in waves, and when the morning comes Charlotte seems to be unchanged while Eva prays for the guiding light to come to her since she is afraid to commit suicide.

It wasn't until Ingrid Bergman's twilight years that she worked with Ingmar. She fits in so well that it's sad that they did not get to work together sooner.

I must confess that I'm typing out the details of Autumn Sonata so succinctly because my second viewing of this film caught me completely off-guard.  The first time I watched the movie I was enraptured by the gentle colors that slowly gave way to a deep, guilt-ridden red sheen.  I loved the performances by Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman, and I scoffed slightly at some of the extraneous plot details about Eva's sister Helena (Lena Nyman), a cripple who can barely speak and has little control over her body.

This was a foolish reaction for me to have and it's only through experience and reflection that I can say that Autumn Sonata is one of Bergman's most heartbreaking movies.  The inability for one to express affection and tenderness for another is territory that Bergman has covered many times in the past but never so directly.  In Cries and Whispers we were still at a distance as the two sisters caressed each other out of fear and in The Silence the rift was made so metaphorically explicit that it was difficult to separate that tension from the visuals surrounding the performances of the two sisters.

Much like in Scenes From A Marriage there is very little separating the pain that Eva feels from the audience.  It almost feels as though Bergman is trying to cushion the blow somewhat by framing the story as a narrative expressed by Viktor.  Even with that cushion, if the story is told from Viktor's perspective then the love he feels for Eva, who cannot return what he offers, is tragic and the pain that Eva feels because of the way Charlotte is unfathomable in a way that Bergman had to rely on Liv Ullman to get across.

The tortures that Eva dealt with are so readily apparent in Ullman's face during a pivotal scene at a piano early in the film.  Eva is excited to finally play some Chopin for her concert pianist mother.  Charlotte uses this opportunity to critique Eva's technique and show her how a proper pianist performs a piece by Chopin.  Then, in a career filled with memorable faces, cinematographer Sven Nykvist holds the light on Ullman's tortured face.  We'll learn soon enough that there were never any kind words from Charlotte, and the only tenderness that Eva felt when she was 18 was cut short by Charlotte - who quickly returned to harsh criticisms and quick "I love you's" before going back to focusing on her career.

Charlotte is terrified to touch her invalid daughter Helena. Helena is pure emotion and experience, something that Charlotte has never been able to navigate. Then there's poor Eva, caring for Helena and yearning for her mother's touch.

Everything that I've typed so far is basically an excuse for me to stall talking about the last thirty minutes of Autumn Sonata.  They are painful in a way that, to be perfectly straight, I did not want to deal with tonight.  Eva tells Charlotte of every humiliation and torture that she's suffered by Charlotte's hand and by the end we're led to believe that Charlotte has finally realized something about herself.  But Charlotte goes back to her career and her lovers while Eva continues to love her mother.

Liv Ullman is nothing less than absolute perfection in these moments.  She was Bergman's best actress for many years but in this performance she tops herself.  There is absolutely nothing concealed in her face, her voice, her body.  Ullman lays the pain, regret and love that she's been feeling for so many years in an agonizingly real display of tears and restraint.  Ingrid Bergman, while one of the greats, can only keep up with what Ullman is doing in these scenes but I cannot fault her for that.

Even the story details that I thought merely passable before, such as Helena's sickness, take on a new light.  Helena is the near opposite of Charlotte.  While Charlotte has full and proud control over her body (as much evidenced by her piano proficiency), Helena is desperate to express herself and can only muster small movements and painful moans matched by the occasional word.  Helena's torture is to feel the emotions so brutally that Charlotte can only pretend to.  This helps underscore the tragedy of Eva that much more, who possesses both the means and the emotion, but still utilizes them for her mother.

Ullman's performance is scary to watch at points because of how much she is able to lay herself bare for the camera.  Then we shrink back knowing that we're still not seeing the full depth of pain Eva is experiencing.

Nykvist's photography, as I mentioned, is tricky in establishing a peaceful mood for the film to take place in.  He allows Ullman and Ingrid space to breathe and maintain distance from one another in brown and amber hues.  Until those last words are spoken and the camera rarely leaves one another's face as the red drenches them both in knowledge and guilt.

Bergman makes no claim that the love Eva feels for Charlotte is admirable.  But he expresses it through the necessary distance that Viktor establishes.  Even Bergman, that chronicler of the dark times we all feel, knew that he could not get close enough to completely show what Eva went through.  Trying to imagine that pain, even purer than what is presented here, is nearly unbearable.  Autumn Sonata is an overlooked Bergman masterpiece, and one that I will be returning to very soon.

Next week I'll be taking a look at what was supposed to be Bergman's "retirement" film, the lovely and life-affirming Fanny and Alexander.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman.

Posted by Andrew

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