Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s ostensible valedictory film, is most clearly and obviously about the pleasures of family — even the farting, adulterous and shame-faced family that’s so often exposed here. In that respect, I suppose, it’s an old man’s film. Bergman may identify, to some degree, with the matriarch of the Ekdahls, who is seen early on gazing out her window as her relatives stumbling noisily through the snow outside toward home. She murmurs happily, “Here comes my family.” What surprises, then, is the way the story becomes a sort of fairy-tale-cum-horror-movie – this is a ghost story whose subjects are the living and the dead, magic and imagination and the nature of God.
Despite numerous, direct allusions to the body of his work, Fanny and Alexander is very unlike the films Bergman, then 64, had become known for, particularly the increasingly austere exercises that characterized his films in the 1970s. As Michael Atkinson recently pointed out in The Village Voice, it may actually be his youngest film in sensibility. Certainly the first act, which takes places at a rather vulgar overnight Christmas party at the Ekdahl family residence, is somewhat adult in terms of content. Grandmothers grow old and mourn the passing of their youth, wives forgive the blatant infidelities of their cheery husbands, and ruminations take place on the relationship between the real world outside and the sheltered little world of the theater that belongs to the family, and to which the family belongs. But the narrative is deliberately and delicately filtered through the eyes of the titular children, who watch it all happen. Their experiences are shaped by what they see going on, even if they’re not fully aware of the ramifications of the actions and attitudes on display.
There’s much for them to see. So impressed have I always been by the theatrical version of the film, which runs a mere 188 minutes, that I was doubly excited to get my hands on the entire five-hour version that was shown on Swedish television. (It’s now available in a typically excellent Criterion DVD package.) I can say that the feature-length version of Fanny and Alexander is a fine film in its own right; the five-hour version is both more expansive and more indulgent, but it never feels padded or windy. The differences between the two versions are subtle, but some of them are critical; let’s say that the theatrical version may benefit somewhat from ambiguity, but the complete opus is unlikely to disappoint aficionados, who will find in it an even richer tapestry of Bergman’s pet themes and concerns. More than ever, it’s a film for viewers who love Bergman.
The film is named after two children, but it’s mainly about the young boy. The dark-haired Alexander is handsome but slight of build and pensive; the blonde Fanny is treated almost as a prop by comparison. Alexander always reminds me a bit of that skinny kid at the beginning of Persona, the one who reaches out toward the translucent screen on which a projection of a character’s face is beginning to take vague focus, and who may thus represent that early urge toward narrative. (In a film that’s all about the physical and mental process of cinematic storytelling, the boy may well represent the director himself, as a concept if not in the autobiographical sense.) Indeed, we see Alexander in this film’s very first scene, which may be a deliberate echo of Persona. He’s peering into a playhouse in miniature. We see him from an audience’s point of view, framed by the proscenium — his huge face, shoulders and arms looming as he places the little miniature figures on a stage lit by a row of tiny candles. (A legend inscribed above the stage reads, “Not solely for pleasure.”) Has there ever been so efficiently visual a screen metaphor for the craft of direction?
When Alexander retreats to a darkened bedroom at day’s end, he fires up a magic lantern and entertains the other children by projecting stories onto the blank wall. The smell of paraffin draws his parents into the room, and his father, Oscar, lingers, picking up an ordinary wooden chair and regaling the children with a fanciful story about its alleged origins in Imperial China. This scene, not included in the film’s theatrical version, is important because it gives away the game — it is echoed later in the film, from the mouth of another storyteller, in a way that clearly suggests the narrative has moved inside Alexander’s own mind, where it’s embellished with the presence of magic, wonder and even ghosts.
The film’s main dramatic thrust comes after Oscar’s death, as the family is broken up. Emilie, the children’s now-widowed mother, turns in her grief to the local bishop, in whose severe demeanor she hopes to find clues about the true face of god. They marry, but Bishop Edvard Vergerus turns out to be a cruel patriarch who expects servile obedience from his stepchildren. Alexander provokes the bishop when he spins a story about him — Alexander claims the bishop murdered his wife and children, earning a beating. In the U.S. release of the film, this story thread plays out eerily, leaving the audience with the impression that perhaps Alexander has somehow learned a dark secret from the evil Bishop’s past. But in the longer version, Alexander is berated by the spirits of the children themselves for making up fibs. (Is it telling that, even in Alexander’s free-wheeling imagination, God himself eventually turns out to be a parlor trick?) In this regard, part of me likes the shorter version better. The more expansive version is a bit twistier, and maybe a little less magical. But it does make more clear exactly what Bergman is up to in showing the awakening of a mischievous young imagination not so unlike his own — despite his protests that the film isn’t autobiographical. That said, the sequence where the children are deftly spirited away from the Bishop’s home by a magical Jew remains, at least in my eyes, a stubbornly and deliberately inexplicable theatrical flourish.
As much as it’s a paean to the classical extended family, Fanny and Alexander is a valentine to the idea of theater — and while Bergman’s career as a stage director continued long after his film career had been laid to rest, he’s recently announced that, at the age of 84, he’s truly and finally retiring. Theater, of course, creates its own family, and, at its most involving and enchanting, can perhaps most credibly suggest that the impossible, or at least the highly improbable, has taken place up there on stage, just past the proscenium arch. “Theater is the beginning and end and actually everything,” he recently told a Swedish newspaper in words that were reprinted the world over, “while cinema belongs to the whoring and slaughterhouse trade.” But he also said this, writing in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, about shooting a crucial scene from the final act of Fanny and Alexander: “Sometimes there is a special happiness in being a film director. An unrehearsed expression is born just like that, and the camera registers that expression …. That is when I think days and months of predictable routine have paid off. It is possible I live for those brief moments. Like a pearl fisher.”
It seems to me Bergman’s valedictory film is fiercely appreciative of the intangible; it argues vehemently that we make room for the idea of magic, at least within the walls of the theater and maybe in the cinema, too — if not, God willing, in the greater world outside. A
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist
Edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson
Starring Bertil Guve, Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö and Allan Edwall
Screened 6/13/04 on Region 2 DVD