Autumn Sonata

91/100

By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s Egg was a box-office flop in Sweden, a critical and commercial failure internationally, and most of all a big artistic disappointment for Bergman himself–a decided stumble for a director riding high on the success of 1970s titles like the harrowing Cries and Whispers, which enjoyed huge success in the U.S. in the unlikely care of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and the audience-friendly The Magic Flute. At the same time, Bergman was embarking on what would prove to be an unhappy tenure at Munich’s Residenztheater, where he managed to mount eleven productions before being fired in 1981. In this turbulent context, the very Bergmanesque Autumn Sonata can be seen as a kind of comfort film–a deliberate return to roots. Someone once described it as “Bergman does Bergman,” and the gag stuck. Bergman himself eventually quoted the remark, calling it “witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.”


The second of three films Bergman made in this period of self-imposed exile (From the Life of the Marionettes is the third), Autumn Sonata was filmed in Norway during the fall of 1977, both on location in Molde and in the Norsk Film Studios in Oslo. There’s some irony in the fact that Autumn Sonata is technically West German in its financing (Bergman made it through an incarnation of his Personafilm production company) while playing as perhaps the most plainly Swedish of all Bergman films, with the greatest Swedish auteur directing the most famous Swedish actress in a deceptively simple chamber drama that takes place largely over a single night. The action is threadbare but lined thickly with Scandinavian angst. Charlotte, a celebrated classical pianist (Ingrid Bergman), visits her daughter Eva (Ullmann), a parson’s wife, for the first time in seven years. Over the course of a long evening, Eva begins to express the pain and resentment caused not only by her touring-musician mother’s general absence from her life as a child, but also by her controlling nature when she was present. Rather than forging new bonds between the two women, their reunion serves to drive them farther apart. In the end, Charlotte packs her bags and leaves early; hugs and kisses are not in the cards.

The audience’s point of entry to the story is the parson himself (Halvar Björk), who addresses the camera directly in the film’s first scene, and acts elsewhere as a passive but interested spectator. It’s tempting to read the parson as Ingmar Bergman’s intended surrogate on the screen: the even-keeled observer indirectly mediating the fraught relationship between women. But, as usual, Bergman puts a lot of himself into the female characters. Many viewers imagine Bergman’s sympathies aligning with Eva, the neglected child who finally lashes out by making her mother confront the monstrousness of her haughty self-regard–her elevation of the rigors of her career above those of family. In that regard, Autumn Sonata got the old patriarch of the Scandinavian film scene in trouble with some feminists, who thought he was entirely too eager to hang Charlotte out to dry for her maternal failings. Maria Bergom Larsson wrote an article titled “Open Letter to Ingmar Bergman: Make a Film About the Father,” urging him next time to consider a man’s parental responsibility.

It’s a fair point, but I see Bergman himself wholly wrapped up in Charlotte–the internationally celebrated artist who saw the plain choice between family and career and simply chose career. Bergman himself had eight children, some of whom didn’t even meet each other until his 60th birthday celebration at his home on Faro island in 1978–just a few months after shooting on Autumn Sonata completed. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, he recalled a moment where he tried to comfort his 19-year-old son Ingmar Jr. before the funeral of his mother, Gun Hagberg. “We had not seen one another for many years,” Bergman wrote. “I made a clumsy attempt to say something about his mother, but he made a violently dismissive gesture and, when I persisted, he suddenly looked at me with a cold contempt that silenced me.” In Autumn Sonata, that contemptuous glare belongs to Liv Ullmann, and it’s Mama Ingrid rather than Papa Ingmar who withers and flees her gaze.

Of course, a bit of stage-setting must take place before Bergman can really let the bad times roll. Charlotte’s visit comes on the heels of her husband’s death, and in one chilly scene she relates the story of his last days, wasting away in a tastefully-appointed hospital room that brings to mind, for me, Harriet Andersson’s death chamber in Cries and Whispers. As ever, Bergman cuts so easily between the picture’s “real world” (the scare quotes are there, of course, because every single image in the film is part of Ingmar Bergman’s own dream) and the images that dance through the characters’ minds (I don’t call them flashbacks because they’re so obviously present-tense expressions of the characters’ internal lives) that the effect is quietly breathtaking–the unfussy edits giving these moments the disorienting but not unpleasant quality of quick snaps in and out of reverie. Which is exactly the intended effect.

For her part, as Ullmann watches Bergman emote, she wears the impotent expression of a worried but incapable child, eyes wide, brow furrowed. Later, when Charlotte learns of the unexpected presence of Eva’s sister Helena (Lena Nyman) in an upstairs bedroom, where she suffers from a degenerative nerve disease, it’s as an unmistakable reminder of her shirked parental responsibilities. Charlotte–who had Helena admitted to a home and then left her there–is all forced affection and intensely phony smiles, in stark contrast to Eva and Helena, who are both beaming with joy. Watch the movie another time or two, however, and you may start to imagine a slight chill in Ullmann’s eyes. Is she really overcome with joy at this awkward family reunion? Or does she realize that a trap has just been sprung? Cut to: Charlotte pacing in her room, wrapped in a pure white bathrobe and complaining peevishly, “Why do I feel like I have a fever?”

Autumn Sonata’s single most iconic scene is the justly famous Chopin performance that throws the already poisoned relationship into harsh focus. Eva sits at her piano and takes a run at Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in A minor as Charlotte listens. Eva’s performance is clearly undisciplined, even to untrained ears. As she plays, Bergman shows us Charlotte listening, oddly intense and perhaps pained expressions crossing her face. “Did you like it?” Eva asks. “I liked you,” comes the response–well-intentioned and honest perhaps, yet woefully condescending. Then she takes her seat on the bench next to Eva and shows her how it’s done, explaining her interpretation of Chopin’s work in a way that, indirectly perhaps, utterly dismantles Eva’s performance. The thing is, she’s correct. Her playing is sterling, her insights illuminating, her interpretation revelatory. Eva watches Charlotte, in her element for the first time since she arrived, and finds her grand artistic prowess somehow monstrous. Would that Charlotte were as attuned to her own daughter’s feelings as she is to Chopin’s. Her expertise brings back bad memories: “I got pretty tired of you and your pianos,” Eva says, in one of the great understated lines from the Bergman filmography.

After Charlotte goes to bed, there’s another one of those eerie dream sequences that Bergman does so well–a terrifying nightmare in which a sleeping Charlotte is startled awake by groping fingers and a sudden, suffocating physical intrusion. Not just a hint of the otherworldly, the scene affirms a guilty conscience that Charlotte won’t otherwise acknowledge. (Later, as the level of emotional turmoil in the house increases, we see Helena stirring upstairs, tumbling out of bed and onto the floor, where she attempts to crawl, writhing. towards the sound of their palaver, like an avatar of their emotional pain.) Unable to sleep, Charlotte returns to conversation with Eva. As the overnight goes on, Eva becomes more confident and emboldened in her sustained attack on her mother. Eva’s status changes before our eyes from victim to aggressor. The relationship is visualized in one of Bergman’s famous close-ups, where Charlotte’s face is centred in the frame and Eva suddenly looms large behind her, like the heavy in a Universal horror movie, or an animal stalking its prey. It feels like a callback to that famous scene in Persona with Ullmann creeping up behind Bebe Andersson like a vampire, though I was also reminded for some reason of the scene involving the children and the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, with Charlotte equally defenseless against her attacker. And then, from that high point of great threat, Eva’s ferocity begins to recede, though the uninflected truth may be even harder to take. “The mother’s unhappiness will be the daughter’s unhappiness,” she says. “It’s as if the umbilical cord had never been cut.”

Heady stuff–and maybe a little ripe if not for the intensely committed performances by Ullmann and Bergman and the extraordinary cinematography by Sven Nykvist, who captures, in that scene of great cruelty and tragedy described above, such an intensity of blue in Ullmann’s eyes that the moment becomes an indelible, almost supernatural part of the Bergman filmography. The first sections of Autumn Sonata are lit brightly and mostly evenly, melding the autumnal dirty greens and light browns in Inger Pehrsson’s costumes and Anna Asp’s production design in a unified palette with the pinkish skin tones. In the latter half, as the story turns darker, the lighting grows more dramatic and painterly, with faces falling partly into shadow as the frequent close-ups become more unsparing of the actresses’ emotionally naked faces.

Bergman was lucky to have a troupe of talented performers speaking his language, and Liv Ullmann comes through with flying colours here–on point from the opening scenes, guiding the audience through moods ranging from carefully-measured joy to dismay to genuine sadism and back to something resembling pity and forgiveness, and finally again to measured (though futile, one suspects) optimism. She’s an unhappy woman, and Ullmann helps you understand how she suffers. Charlotte suffers, in her way, although you get the sense she is buoyed considerably by the sweetness of her status as an artist. While Ingrid Bergman’s performance is stiffer and more Old Hollywood than Ullmann’s, the disparity works to the film’s advantage, illustrating the gap between Eva’s simple (if devoid of traditional love) life at the parsonage and Charlotte’s grand-dame-on-eternal-tour routine. Bergman was himself a temperamental artist with an ego that needed to be reckoned with by those close to him. If he treats Charlotte harshly, there’s no reason to think he figures himself blameless in the same regard. To some degree, Bergman must find himself in Charlotte just as surely as he dwells in Eva. Comfortable and disturbing, reassuring and deeply troubled, Autumn Sonata can be read in part as the director’s own confession and in part as his regretful nightmare, not so much mea culpa as Kyrie, eleison. Family hands down misery upon itself; may the lord help us all.

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THE BLU-RAY DISC

Criterion’s reissue of Autumn Sonata in a comprehensive Blu-ray edition boasts among its extras The Making of “Autumn Sonata”, an unfussy documentary nearly worth hyperventilating over. Three-and-a-half hours seems like a very long time to spend behind the scenes of a 94-minute movie, and maybe it is, but in truth the sustained glimpses of Bergman at work on offer here, without analysis or commentary, feel like treasure. The footage is presented in chronological order, one day at a time, with dated title cards marking the progression of time through pre-production and production. We see Ingrid Bergman questioning her dialogue and the serious tone of the film during table reads and rehearsals. At one point, as Ullmann works out the particulars of a line that’s difficult to parse, Ingrid Bergman says, “I think I could help, if my face is visible,” and suggests that she react to what Ullmann says in a certain way to underscore the substance. Bergman, hunched over a copy of the script, suddenly draws himself upright and stands, arms akimbo, forbidding it. “Can’t we help the audience out?” she asks with a laugh. And Bergman, who is not laughing, responds, “No, we can’t help them at all here.” “Imagine that,” Ullmann murmurs. A little while later, Ingmar further darkens the mood: “You’re whispering now,” he directs the women, speaking very quietly himself, “so that you’re barely audible… This is the abyss, you see… There is no darker moment. There are demons in the air here.” And the gooseflesh rises.

It might take a few sittings to digest this much fly-on-the-wall material. Among other highlights, we see Bergman directing his own daughter, Linn, in the scenes that have Eva remembering her childhood, and I especially enjoyed seeing him climb into bed with Bergman and Nyman to more precisely direct Charlotte’s nightmares. The film also testifies to Bergman’s intimate working relationship with Sven Nykvist, who is so often right by the director’s side. If only it followed Bergman into the editing room, revealing his alternate takes and deleted scenes to the world!

There’s nothing wrong with the rest of the package, either. If you’re like me, learning that Criterion has included a 206-minute documentary in high-definition on the same disc as the 94-minute feature film sent one of your eyebrows sliding so high up your forehead it tickled your scalp. Turns out skepticism isn’t warranted in this case. The making-of doc does look a little soft and blurry, but it’s sourced from videotape–I’m guessing a PAL transfer of a 16mm original, now blown up to 1080p–so quality was never going to be stellar. Criterion’s bit budget for the documentary is chintzy by most standards but probably adequate to the task.

The actual film comes in at an average just over 20 Mbps for video, which is significantly better if not exactly generous by Criterion standards. Still, watching the picture, I was pretty hard-pressed to find complaints. Swedish restoration specialist Mars Motel, part of the Chimney Group, got access to the camera negative, and it shows in the exquisite layer of heavy, period-appropriate film grain that blankets most of the scenes. Look very carefully at the screen at certain moments and you may detect some digital artifacting as the compression algorithms struggle to encode all that grain, especially when Nykvist’s camera is moving. Many of the darker scenes have a muddier texture and resolve much less detail, a rather sharp difference that I attribute largely to the use of less pristine elements–scenes involving optically printed dissolves, for instance, thereby necessitating a loss in generational quality. A few shots near the end of the film are slightly out of focus, but that’s merely an indication that Bergman chose takes for performance, not necessarily for their technical perfection. In truth, it’s probably harder to spot those out-of-focus shots in 35mm than it is on this Blu-ray.

The colour palette is particularly eye-opening, diverging dramatically from previous transfers that now seem to have been pushed hard into the red to emphasize the deliberately autumnal tones of the sets and costumes. This version of the film was cooled way down, presumably under the supervision of Svensk Filmindustri (which will have to do since neither Ingmar Bergman nor Sven Nykvist are around to call the shots), and I have to say that I found it leagues more striking–and more clearly representative of Nykvist’s work in the mid-1970s–than the crimson-toned image home viewers had known previously. Muted greens now come to the fore and previously-unseen blues are clearly visible, including Ullmann’s piercing irises, jabbing out of the dark. Whether this more closely resembles the theatrical prints is another question, but I like to think that it does. (I’ve never seen it on the big screen.) Though some dirt on the negative is occasionally visible, for the most part dust and scratches have been digitally eradicated. In all, it’s a mighty fine presentation.

The uncompressed monaural soundtrack (24-bit/48 KHz PCM) is similarly outstanding, using a 35mm mag track as its source. Dynamic range is impressive for a chamber drama, and loud and soft voices as well as the strains of Chopin are beautifully rendered without distortion. Noise reduction has been employed but with a light touch–it seems you can still hear every little thing going on in the mix, while the slight presence of hiss means the audio at no point drops out to leave only that dreaded digital silence. Since Autumn Sonata wasn’t released in 70mm, 35mm release prints, with their optical audio tracks, never sounded nearly as good as this disc. If you want to get that feeling of a U.S. arthouse circa 1978, switch over to the monaural English-language track, which is offered in lossy Dolby Digital. In the 1970s, Bergman was known for putting an extraordinary amount of effort into recording quality English-language dubs with the original actors, and this one is as good an example as any. Technically, the track is harsher, with lots of sibilance and a higher noise floor.

The third listening option is a commentary by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie dating all the way back to Criterion’s LaserDisc days. The DVD and Blu-ray markets have retreated somewhat from the once-ubiquitous commentary track, especially where overtly erudite yakkers like this one are concerned; I think they get a bad rap. Sure, Cowie comes off as a know-it-all, but that’s mainly because he takes his time to prepare. (Also, he does know an awful lot of stuff.) If you prefer first-person accounts, go directly to the brand new interview segment “Liv Ullmann on Autumn Sonata” (19 mins., HD). She’s still got those blue eyes, although they don’t look anything like they did in Nykvist’s lens all those years ago. Ullmann freely addresses the most obvious questions about Ingrid Bergman’s disruptive presence in Bergman’s troupe, noting that the director had never had anyone systematically question his creative decisions before. “I don’t think that, in the end, Ingrid and Ingmar found a real way to communicate, because they came from such different worlds,” she says. “Ingmar was used to understanding in silence and people creating from themselves with no questions.”

Ingrid Bergman gets more screen time in “Ingrid Bergman at the National Film Theatre,” which clocks in at 39 minutes, though only a small fraction of that time is dedicated to Autumn Sonata. Bergman was interviewed on stage in 1981 by critic and author John Russell Taylor, who begins by asking her about the films she made in Sweden and Germany before coming to Hollywood. She starts discussing Autumn Sonata around the 25-minute mark, explaining how she met Bergman through her third husband, Swedish theatrical producer Lars Schmidt. She returns to the subject during the audience Q&A, when she’s asked about pretending to play piano in the famous Chopin scene. Then she gets a more pointed question about how much the role reflects her own life. “Leaving your home and your children is very difficult and heartbreaking,” she says, describing how the scenes with Linn Bergman as her young and lonely daughter reminded her that her own daughter, Pia Lindstrom, must have experienced the same kind of absence as her mother worked on her films. Some of the questions–did she have any ambitions on the London theatre scene? Was there anything she wanted to do in her career that she hadn’t yet accomplished?–take on a special poignancy with the knowledge that Bergman would die of cancer the following year, on her 67th birthday.

What else? In addition to Farran Smith Nehme’s booklet essay (which astutely compares Bergman’s bad-mama gambit to common tropes of Hollywood melodrama), the disc includes one of those introductions, common to Criterion issues of Bergman films, with Bergman sitting in his screening room with journalist and documentarian Marie Nyrerod to discuss the film on offer (8 mins., 1080i). Last up is a Swedish-language theatrical trailer (3 mins.), transferred in 1080p. That’s all, but it’s plenty. Criterion special editions have been called “film school in a box” since the days of LaserDisc, and this one is a master class, easily among Criterion’s finest Bergman efforts to date. That’s saying something.

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