Friday, December 19, 2008

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden

While the holiday season is perhaps the most appropriate time to revisit Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, any time of the year is a good one to see this enchanting piece of cinema - especially given its cyclical structure. And really, why wouldn't you make an excuse to see this embracing, beautifully-made work by one of the true masters of cinema?

At first, one may be daunted by the size of this film, be it the three-hour film version or the five-hour cut that originally aired on Swedish television (which is the one I've continually chosen to watch since I first saw it, and which this review specifically focuses on). On top of the running time, it is a rich, sprawling work that covers many subjects and themes - which is fitting, since it was much publicized as Bergman's last foray into filmmaking (although he made a small number of television projects since then and emerged from retirement one last time to make Saraband in 2003). It is certainly a fitting swan song to a body of work that has explored numerous aspects of humanity and mortality; life, death, identity, love, family, disease, time, art, memory and so much more have all appeared before Bergman's camera at one point or another, and Fanny and Alexander certainly serves as a summative reconsideration of such themes.

However, despite its size and scope, this film never feels overlong, pretentious or contrived. It is a very simple tale that unfolds at just the right place and never exceeds its status as such. Yes, it's a five-hour film, but it's exactly the length it needs to be in order for the story to unfold in the way it does. And truly, Fanny and Alexander is one of the great marvels of cinematic storytelling in terms of economy, style and substance. Bergman's material is extremely well-written, but what's even better is how he presents it, which is in such a way that you want to keep following his characters and see how they fare in the situations that arise in their lives. Essentially, the film is of the hallowed tradition of stories that plunge you into their worlds, where you want to keep exploring and living long after they have ended.

Fanny and Alexander are two young siblings living in turn-of-the-century Sweden with their prodigious bourgeois family, the Ekdahls. At the head of the clan is the matriarchal Helena, followed by her three sons: the boisterous, joyful old scoundrel Gustav Adolf, the moody, debt-laden Carl and the quiet, good-natured Oscar, director of the local theater and father to the two titular children. The entire first part of the film is dedicated to exposition as most of the film's main characters are introduced during the famous Ekdahl Christmas celebration. In it, we meet the children, the three brothers, their wives and Helena, but time is also given to smaller characters like the various servants of the household and the members of the theater company. During this long party sequence, there are so many fascinating dynamics between these characters as they interact with each other, creating several micro-narratives that play out within the Christmas sequence. The relationship between the servants and the higher-class family members alone is fascinating to observe as some of the older maids reveal the hidden bitterness that has come with several years of serving the Ekdahls. Scene by scene, we learn the habits and personality of each character, gradually coming to know what to expect from each of them for the rest of the night (and the film, for that matter). I would definitely call this one of the better depictions of Christmas in film simply for the multitude of emotions that arise - not only the positive, joyous ones (which are played up to death in nearly every Christmas movie, TV special and song out there), but also the more negative, pent-up ones that simmer all year (or, in the case of some characters, all their lives) before they are finally uncorked during the big family get-together. This kind of honesty is rare in holiday films, and rarer still in North American ones.

After Christmas, though, the main narrative thread really gets rolling, seeing Fanny and Alexander through a number of harrowing adventures after unfortunate circumstances force them to live under the oppressive rule of Bishop Vergerus, one of the most memorable villains to ever grace the screen. I don't want to reveal too much else about the film's plot, as part of what makes the film so enjoyable comes from seeing many of the characters who were so lovingly developed in the Christmas sequence face new and unexpected challenges throughout the rest of the film both as individuals and as the family unit that ties them together.

As I said before, Fanny and Alexander is essentially a good yarn; a fairy tale told in a beautifully rich yet extraordinarily simple way. There are wonderous elements to it such as magic and ghosts, but they are just as much fun as the various characters and settings that make up Bergman's world (special kudos go out to the Oscar winning costume designer Marik Vos, art director Anna Asp and set decorator Susanne Lingheim for helping create that world). Legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist captures lush colors and shadowy realms in images that indulge the eyeballs and fire the imagination. There are funny little inconsistencies and odd, unexplainable moments that occassionally turn up, but you can't help but accept them as they happen, simply because a) the characters accept them (so why shouldn't you?), and b) you're already so immersed in the story that you just want to shut up the logical part of your brain and keep watching.

Fanny and Alexander is one of my all-time favorite films (as of this moment, it's certainly in my top 10), an opinion shared by my cousin Yves (who says it just might be his number one favorite) and countless others. Utterly enchanting, fantastically well made and packed with moving moments and strong emotion, it is one of the most rewarding film experiences you could hope to discover.


Plus, as a "happy holidays" sort of thing, here is a list of five of my favorite Christmas movies (or, to be more precise, arty movies that happen to take place around Christmas).

1) Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden) - see above!

2) Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, Canada) - Often touted as one of the greatest Canadian films ever made, this is kind-of the Great White North's equivalent to Fanny and Alexander - often dark, centered on a young boy's coming of age in an uncertain world and equally concerned with the forces of life, death and sex.

3) Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, United States of America) - Another fairy tale, this time set in a New York that never existed, as realized by another of cinema's great orchestrators. See if you can spot a Christmas tree in every setting!

4
) C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada) - Come back to Canada with this stylish story of sexual discovery and sibling rivalry in Quebec through the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The film with the best soundtrack on this list.

5)
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, United Kingdom) - A little holiday cheer with terrorists, bombs, government incompetence, plumbing, conspiracy, more government incompetence and a giant computer chip-laden samurai thrown in for good measure.


Well, this has been a great start for this little blog of mine, a
nd I thank all readers around the world for tuning in. Until my last little blurb before the new year, I wish everyone a happy holiday season wherever you are. Cheers!

1 comment:

Jeff V. said...

You should watch A Christmas Tale. It takes a lot from Fanny and Alexander.

Other than Godard (who remains a legend), Arnaud Desplechin may be one of the best living French filmmakers.