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Autumn Sonata was the only collaboration between cinema’s two great Bergmans—Ingmar, the iconic director of The Seventh Seal, and Ingrid, the monumental star of Casablanca. The grand dame, playing an icy concert pianist, is matched beat for beat in ferocity by the filmmaker’s recurring lead Liv Ullmann (Scenes from a Marriage) as her eldest daughter. Over the course of a long, painful night that the two spend together after an extended separation, they finally confront the bitter discord of their relationship. This cathartic pas de deux, evocatively shot in burnished harvest colors by the great Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander), ranks among Ingmar Bergman’s major dramatic works.
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I had a few small problems re-seeing it 32 years later.
But, in the end, it is a remarkable film, featuring two amazing performances from Liv Ullman and
Ingrid Bergman as a mother and daughter desperately hashing out old wounds during a visit paid
by the mother, a famous pianist and cold perfectionist. Meanwhile her daughter has clung to old
hurts to the point of self-paralysis.
A moving testament to the need for forgiveness and growth.
But some of the peripheral story elements feel a bit tacked on, and to perhaps stack the deck too
easily to one side, particularly a sickly younger sister that Bergman's character can barely deal with.
It's a minor flaw, since the power of the key confrontations carries the film to the heights (and depths).
But I couldn't help wishing Bergman had trusted us a bit more to work out our own feelings about
two complex characters, as he did with the even more brilliant `Scenes From a Marriage'.
The transfer is also amazing. Great restoration job. I noticed no scratches, or any visible damage to the print. The audio was clear & the subtitles easy to read. Special features include an interesting & insightful introduction by Ingmar Bergman, a new interview with Liv Ullman, which I also enjoyed, & a three hour making of documentary. This is a must for anyone who likes the three main names involved.
An aging but still magnetic Ingrid Bergman is Charlotte, a concert pianist with an international reputation. She gets a letter from her daughter Eva (an incandescent Liv Ullmann) inviting her for a visit. The two haven't seen each other for seven years. In that time, Eva has married Viktor (Halvar Bjork) a pastor in rural Norway and moved to the parsonage with him. They've had a son together, Erik, who drowned when he was four. Charlotte has another daughter, Helena, with a spastic condition that renders her nearly mute and mostly immobile. After Charlotte arrives, Eva informs her that she's moved Helena into the parsonage, which Charlotte reads as a rebuke to her own decision to place Helena in an institution.
This is one of Ingmar Bergman's chamber movies, in which he puts a small number of characters in a claustrophobic setting and steadily builds up the pressure until emotions explode. Charlotte and Eva start off cordial to one another, but Eva's anger at her mother for sins of omission and commission can't be contained. Her sense of grievance builds, reaching a crescendo in a late night scene where the wine comes out and the gloves come off.
As is often the case with Ingmar Bergman's chamber movies, a somewhat schematic script is offset by brilliant moviemaking. This begins with the actresses. Ingrid Bergman (ill with cancer during the filming) gives a superb performance. Ullmann's would be astonishing if he hadn't seen her hit these heights in Bergman's movies time and again. Cinematographer Sven Nyquist's captivating lighting shows the characters moving in and out of the shadows in the parsonage, an analogue for the moments of illumination and concealment Eva and Charlotte experience in their confrontations with one another.
The blocking and framing and editing are superb. In one particularly mesmerizing scene, Charlotte is at the piano playing a difficult concerto. All of her attention is on the instrument. Eva sits on the bench next to her, and we see Charlotte in profile to the right of the frame and Eva facing forward. As Charlotte plays, a lifetime of emotions pass across Eva's face: appreciation tinged with envy at her mother's talent; sadness at the price her mother paid to pursue that talent, and sadness at the cost to those who loved her; and, finally, anger as she realizes she's lost her mother yet again to music, the one thing that truly matters to Charlotte. It's a stunning piece of acting and filmmaking.
Charlotte leaves for her next concert. We see her on the train with her agent. Her makeup is in place, and the confusion and vulnerability she let peek out during the long night with Eva have been tucked away. Charlotte is a tough woman for whom the show must go on, no matter the price. Our last glimpse of Eva is back at the parsonage. She's written another letter to her mother; she hopes they'll continue trying to reach out to one another. Eva has had her catharsis, but she's still locked in to the little girl she was, endlessly yearning for what she'll never get. We see Charlotte reading the letter, skepticism spreading across her face: she's not going back there.
As Peter Cowie points out in his commentary, the characters' scripted emotions resonate in Bergman's personal life. As he reveals in Bergman Island, the recently released biographical film by Marie Nyrerod, Bergman felt guilty about neglecting his own children while he poured all his emotional energy in to his film and theater families. This movie is an earlier attempt to come to grips with that guilt, and makes the case for both the narcissistic artist and the victims damaged by the artist's emotional triage. The two great actresses use their magic to bring this dilemma movingly and memorably to life.