Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden

The other day, I finally got around to sitting down and revisiting Autumn Sonata. The film is one of Ingmar Bergman's later color triumphs, an elegant chamber drama clearly made by a mature artist. But there is another figure who attracts just as much of the audience's attention in front of the camera: acting legend Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in, unfortunately, her only collaboration with the great filmmaker. But perhaps the rarity of this collaboration makes it all the more special - or perhaps we should be thankful that it happened at all, as its result is truly something to be experienced.

Autumn Sonata mostly takes place over the course of one day and night in the home of Liv Ullmann's Eva and her husband Viktor (Halvar Björk). Eva's mother Charlotte (Bergman), a renowned pianist, comes to stay with them for a few days, her visit at first starting off with a friendly reception, but soon giving way to more painful confrontations. Among the sources of tension between mother and daughter is Helena (Lena Nyman), Eva's sister who is stricken with a crippling illness and whose presence makes Charlotte very uncomfortable, and buried feelings of resentment that stem from Eva's neglected childhood.

Autumn Sonata, as well known as it is for its two headliners, is remarkable for so much more than the meeting of the Bergmans, serving as a perfect convergence of several artistic forces. Liv Ullmann is at her typical best here, giving a both powerful and subtle performance that ranks among the most memorable of her many collaborations with Ingmar. In similar fashion, the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist produces absolutely gorgeous imagery, suitably making good use of autumnal colors all throughout the film. Especially worth noting are the beautiful stylized flashbacks theatrically portrayed with isolated shots that stand out as miniature masterpieces of lighting, set design and composition. Also, keep an eye open for Bergman regulars Erland Josephson and Gunnar Björnstrand in minor roles.

While Eva's husband and sister serve as interesting and important characters in the narrative, it'd be a joke to place any relationship in the film above that of the mother and daughter. The entire "sonata" of the film is built around their inevitable conflict, even when the two of them greet each other warmly enough when Charlotte first arrives at the remote house. A precursor for what is to come is presented in a scene in which Eva practices one of Chopin's preludes on the piano for her mother, after which Charlotte performs her own rendition of the piece. In a way, the scene is a variation of the double monologue scene in Persona, as the camera lingers on each woman's face as the other plays the Chopin piece, recording every subtle flicker of emotion as she regards her opposite in quiet contemplation. However, unlike the Persona scene, Bergman now no longer needs the device of direct repetition nor the aid of dialogue - wisely, he lets Chopin's music do all the talking (though before her turn to play, Charlotte does offer a rather brilliant analysis of the composer, his character and how it should be reflected in his music).

Then all of the elegant exposition soon gives way to the middle portion of the film, a veritable emotional tempest as the two women reveal their pain and anger towards one another. At first, one could call Ingrid's character a monster based on her authoritative, confrontational nature - one could easily draw that assumption from her decision to wear a flowing red dress so soon after her partner Leonardo's death, which she does mainly to thwart her daughter's expectations of her. However, the long nighttime dispute sequence and the way it shows both Eva's and Charlotte's perspectives towards one another simply makes it impossible to conduct so simple a reading. Each woman takes turns as both victim and antagonist, digging up bitter memories of sacrifices made and regrets long harbored.

While an often bleak affair, Autumn Sonata is also an irrefutably brilliant work of art, and upon this recent viewing, I'm fully prepared to list it among such other Bergman favorites of mine as Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander.

Along with this review, I thought I'd include a topic- and season-appropriate treat: a gallery of photos I took of some of the wonderful autumnal sights around my home town of Oakville, Ontario that can be seen around this time of year. I hope you enjoy 'em.


drewbacca said...

Wow. Your photos actually got me to read the review. That one of all the leaves on the ground look like it was photoshopped there are so many amn colors. Amazing shots.

This is a Bergman film I've not seen. Will add to Netflix queue immediately.

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Many thanks for the compliments, Andrew! I guess that's one way to get people to read the reviews!

Hope you enjoy the flick when you receive it!