Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte), Liv Ullmann (Eva), Lena Nyman (Helena), Halvar Björk (Viktor), Arne Bang-Hansen (Uncle Otto), Gunnar Björnstrand (Paul), Erland Josephson (Josef), Georg Løkkeberg (Leonardo), Linn Ullmann (Eva as a child)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1978
Country: France / West Germany / Sweden
Autumn Sonata Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Autumn SonataFollowing the critical and commercial failure of The Serpent’s Egg (1977), a German-American coproduction starring David Carradine set in postwar Berlin, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman returned to more intimate, familiar territory in Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten), an intensely felt chamber drama about the emotionally explosive reunion of a wounded daughter and her self-absorbed mother who haven’t seen each other for seven years. The mother, Charlotte, a driven concert pianist now in her 60s, is played by the great Ingrid Bergman in her last major screen performance (she would die a few years later of the cancer she was fighting while the film was in production). The two Bergmans had planned to work together for more than a decade, and when Ingmar wrote the script, he specifically had Ingrid in mind. The role of the plain-looking, thirtysomething daughter, Eva, went to Liv Ullman, a regular collaborator with the writer/director who had first appeared in his groundbreaking drama Persona (1966) and had appeared in eight subsequent films. Like Persona, Autumn Sonata is a film about female psychology, in this case the pent-up rage of a daughter who feels that her mother has deserted her and the mother’s struggle to justify her parental apathy via her own emotional neglect. The film has a steady, accumulating power, and while it ranks high among Bergman’s dramas, it is not quite a masterpiece, at least not on the level of Cries and Whispers (1972) and Scenes From a Marriage (1973), his signature films of the period.

The majority of the action takes place over a 24-hour period in the remote Norwegian parsonage Eva shares with her older husband, Viktor (Halvar Björk), a genial, pipe-smoking pastor. The inherently theatrical nature of a chamber drama—a small number of characters confined to a limited set—is enhanced by Bergman’s pointed use of soliloquys throughout the film to allow his characters to express their inner turmoil, as well as the use of direct address. The film opens, in fact, with Viktor speaking directly to us, explaining his relationship with Eva and how he doesn’t feel that she can fully accept his love, the first indication that her emotional core has been mortally wounded by her relationship with Charlotte. Yet, it is Eva who seeks out her mother, writing her a letter when she learns that Charlotte’s longtime lover has recently died and inviting her to come stay at the parsonage. Charlotte accepts the invitation immediately, perhaps because she gravely fears being alone, and when she first arrives it seems that all is well, as mother and daughter exchange pleasantries and seem genuinely glad to see each other.

However, it isn’t long before the first barbed words slip out, and sly accusations begin the process of digging up the past, revealing old hurts and jabbing at never-healed wounds. Eva is the primary instigator, which makes us wonder if her decision to invite her mother was driven primarily by a subconscious desire to confront her with all her pain—to unleash what she has been repressing virtually all of her life. The first real moment of tension comes when Eva informs her mother that her younger sister, Helena (Lena Nyman, the star of the scandalous Swedish drama I Am Curious—Yellow), is living with her and Viktor and not in the home where Charlotte had put her years ago. Helena suffers from an unnamed debilitating “illness” that renders her entirely dependent on others; bodily distorted and incapable of speaking in anything beyond grunts and moans, she is the physical manifestation of Charlotte’s parental sins, a point that Eva drives home in the film’s most emotionally devastating moment when she fully accuses her mother of being responsible for Helena’s condition.

The tension between mother and daughter, however, is best seen in the scene in which Eva plays Chopin’s Prelude no. 2 in A Minor for Charlotte. Her performance is stunted, tentative, and amateurish, and she immediately senses her mother’s condescension in her strained compliments (“You didn’t like it,” Eva says, to which Charlotte replies, “I liked you”). When Eva insists that Charlotte explain to her what she did wrong, Charlotte slips into a pedantic teacher-student mode, busily explaining to Eva the difference between emotion and sentimentality and how Chopin intended the piece of express a sense of hurt, during which time we can sense Eva’s anger welling and boiling. This little moment of musical explication carries with it decades of emotional pain, as it reminds Eva how she always took a back seat to Charlotte’s musical career, standing perpetually in the shadow of her mother’s fervent desire to be loved and applauded as an artist, not a mother.

As was typical of Bergman’s later chamber films, Autumn Sonata was shot almost entirely in close-ups, with the exception of the flashbacks, which are staged like Vermeer paintings, their theatrical, physical distance putting them in stark contrast to the immediacy of the present-tense action, the acute pain of which is deeply informed by both Bergman’s concerns about his own failed parenting and his still-conflicted relationship with his parents, particularly his father. Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist mixes tones of warmth and chilliness, making us feel the autumn air outside just as surely as we feel the escalating hostility between Eva and Charlotte.

The constant close-ups demand performances of great power and subtlety, and Bergman elicits two great ones from Bergman and Ullman. Stories about the various disputes between the two Bergmans are quite legendary, as the actress, who had spent much of her later career acting onstage, came prepared with an entirely different performance style than the director was expecting, and they clashed often and frequently during the first week of shooting before settling into a mutual understanding that resulted in one of Bergman’s finest performances. The multi-Oscar-winning star of such Hollywood classics as Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946) carries with her the golden glow of true stardom, albeit tinged with the weight of age and declining physical health (Bergman’s real-life cancer surely inflected the way in which she conveys her character’s exhaustion and back pain). Bergman has a tricky role in that Charlotte is a fundamentally selfish character, and Bergman the director does little to dispel Eva’s accusations that she was, in fact, a monster of a mother, even when she was trying to play the role. When Charlotte offers excuses first and later begs for forgiveness, we feel her pain to the point that we can understand, if not necessarily excuse, how difficult it was for her to love her daughters and why she was so often absent, putting her musical career ahead of everything else.

In that regard, Ullman’s performance is crucial to balancing Bergman’s, as she must embody all the pain and rage of the deserted child, who we see in bittersweet flashbacks (played by Bergman and Ullman’s real-life daughter Linn) being shut out of her mother’s practice room after waiting patiently for her to finish and standing in front of a mirror bemoaning the face and body she thinks is so ugly. Hiding behind wire-rimmed owl glasses, frumpy dresses, and tight braids, Eva is a repressed soul, which makes her eventual explosion so heartrending—a literal pouring out of years of anger, resentment, and disappointment, to the point that there is little hope for forgiveness, much less reconciliation.

In his book Images: My Life in Film, Bergman regrets several aspects of Autumn Sonata, particularly the fact that he abandoned his original, highly experimental approach to the material, which would have consisted almost entirely of tight close-ups of only the two main characters with virtually no background, and each act of the film lit in a different light: evening, night, and morning. Traces of that approach still remain (particularly in the way the film’s narrative structure is reflected in the lighting and time of day), but the final film boasts a much more conventional approach, at least for Bergman, who was fully ensconced in his chamber phase at that point. He recognized the potential problem there, as he found Autumn Sonata to be a “annoying example” of “Bergman making Bergman films.” That is probably a bit harsh, the result of a highly reflective and critical filmmaker thinking back on his work, but it does point up the fact that the best moments of Autumn Sonata, powerful though they are, often draw us to Bergman’s even more powerful films—a criticism, to be fair, that can only be leveled at a truly great director. I’d a take a hundred “Bergman making Bergman” films over most others.

Autumn Sonata Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Autumn Sonata is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • Swedish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Introduction by director Ingmar Bergman from 2003
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie
  • The Making of Autumn Sonata documentary
  • Video interview with actor Liv Ullmann
  • 1981 conversation between actor Ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor at the National Film Theatre in London
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 17, 2013

    Criterion’s presentation of Autumn Sonata on Blu-ray features a new 2K digital film restoration. The image was transferred directly from the original camera negative, and viewers who are familiar with the previous Criterion DVD will find it to be a dramatically different viewing experience. Gone is the heavy suffusion of warm reddish tones throughout the film; instead, the image has a much more naturalistic palette that actually verges toward the cooler end of the spectrum, except at very particular moments (especially the flashbacks). I don’t know why the previous transfer had such a different color temperature, but I can only imagine that this correction better reflects the intended look of the film. The disc includes an uncompressed monaural soundtrack of the original Swedish language track taken from a 35mm magnetic track, as well as an optional English-dubbed track (the source of which is not listed in the liner notes).
    The Blu-ray maintains the excellent audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie that was originally recorded for Criterion’s 1995 laserdisc and was also included on their 1999 DVD, but adds very, very much more. Now we also get an introduction to the film by Ingmar Bergman, which was recorded in 2003 as part of a series for Swedish television; a new 20-minute video interview with actress Liv Ullman; a 1981 conversation between Ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor at the National Film Theatre in London; and a theatrical trailer. The biggest addition, though, is The Making of Autumn Sonata, an incredible, rarely seen 206-minute documentary about the film’s production by cinematographer Arne Carlsson (who worked on the film as a still photographer) that begins with the initial meeting of cast and crew on September 5, 1977, and ends with the 50th day of production on November 8, 1977. This is a completely unadorned, fly-on-the-wall view of Bergman’s creative process, which, according to Robert Emmett Long’s book Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage, was being shot surreptitiously (when Ingmar showed it to Ingrid Bergman two years later, she declared it “the best documentary on the making of a movie I’ve ever seen”).

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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