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Ingmar Bergman had directed almost fifty films by the time he made Autumn Sonata in 1978, and in some ways its intimate scale, emotional density, and clarity of expression this somber drama is typical of his work. It also reflects the remarkable talents of collaborators who had worked closely with him before: Liv Ullmann plays one of the main characters, Sven Nykvist did the cinematography, and the quintessential Bergman actors Erland Josephson and Gunnar Björnstrand appear briefly in small, wordless roles. In addition, Bergman's wife at the time (named Ingrid Bergman!) was one of the production administrators; Linn Ullmann, his daughter with Liv Ullmann, plays Liv's character as a child; and his former wife Käbi Laretei, a concert pianist, recorded the Frédéric Chopin prelude that both main characters play during the story. Two other elements of the film are unusual, however. One is the provenance of the production, which Bergman filmed in forty days at a "primitive" studio facility in Norway during the exile from Sweden that he imposed on himself starting in 1976. The other is the performance by his near namesake, the great actress Ingrid Bergman, in her last theatrical picture before her death four years later. This was the first and only joint venture of Bergman and Bergman, and despite disagreements on the set they proved to be an excellent team.
Ullmann plays Eva, a shy and insecure woman who lives in rural Norway with her husband, Viktor, the pastor of a local church. Ingrid Bergman plays her mother, Charlotte, a world-famous concert pianist who hasn't seen Eva for seven years but comes for a visit while recovering from a loss in her own life. Eva is greatly excited at the prospect of this reunion, but tensions start building immediately after Charlotte's arrival, as chance words and ill-considered remarks push emotional buttons and reopen old wounds, especially with Eva, who has felt neglected and overshadowed by her professionally preoccupied mother as long as she can remember. Adding to the stress is Charlotte's shock at learning that her other daughter, Helena, is living in Eva's house after years of treatment for an incurable degenerative disease that Charlotte prefers not to think about, much less face up to in person. In a series of increasingly painful confrontations Eva and Charlotte pick over the past, dredging up grievances and discontents galore. The ending holds out a slender thread of hope for the future, but it's likely that mutual incomprehension will continue to plague them for the rest of their lives.
Ingmar Bergman conceived Autumn Sonata at an agonizing time in his career. At the beginning of 1976 he was arrested by the Swedish government on allegations of tax evasion; although the charge was later reduced from a serious crime to a matter of simple underreporting, Bergman suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized for several weeks. This experience led to his idea for a movie that seems gloomy even for the creator of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Cries and Whispers (1972), two of the dramas that Autumn Sonata most resembles. "The night after the acquittal," he wrote in his journal, "when I cannot go to sleep in spite of sleeping pills, it occurs to me that I want to make a film about the mother-daughter, daughter-mother relationship, and I must have Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann in the two roles, and no one else." Their confrontation would lead to a "grand unmasking" that becomes "even more profound: The daughter finally gives birth to the mother. Through this reversal they unite for a few brief moments in perfect symbiosis." Then the mother abruptly ends her visit because her "raw feelings" are too strong for her to bear. Bergman added the husband and daughter characters as he wrote the screenplay, and he regretfully abandoned the idea that Eva somehow gives psychological birth to Charlotte, replacing it with a more realistic conclusion a foreclosure of forgiveness so total that "their hate becomes cemented," as he put it in his 1993 memoir Images: My Life in Film.
The process of filming Autumn Sonata was "draining" for Ingmar Bergman, partly because of Ingrid Bergman's acting methods. At the start of rehearsals, he was upset to discover that "she had rehearsed her entire part in front of the mirror, complete with intonations and self-conscious gestures" that contradicted the naturalistic style he cultivated in his usual repertory company. "She was still living in the 1940s," he recalled later, and in his 1989 book The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography he is harsher still: "So many false intonations had not been heard since the 1930s. The star had [also] made her own deletions and refused to say nasty words." To get through to her, the director resorted to "tactics that [he] normally rejected, the first and foremost being aggression." Ingrid eventually decided he was right to impose his methods on her for the sake of the picture, and her change of heart was confirmed when she saw a documentary about the making of Autumn Sonata in 1979. In the book Ingrid Bergman: My Story she describes her feelings: "I said to Ingmar, 'I wish I'd seen this [documentary] before we started to work. Then maybe I would have been a little less difficult.' Because I couldn't believe I was so difficult. I talk all the time. I argue all the time. I was very embarrassing." This notwithstanding, the partnership succeeded brilliantly in the end. The role brought Ingrid a "level and intensity of praise unique in her career," according to biographer Laurence Leamer, with accolades that included an Academy Award nomination, a Donatello prize in Italy, and the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actress.
Ingmar Bergman once commented that "work in films begins with the human face." Close-ups are his favorite camera device, and Autumn Sonata contains some of the most unsparing portraits he ever shot; for one example out of many, watch Eva's face when she gazes tearfully at Charlotte while Charlotte plays the Chopin prelude and gives a lecture about why her interpretation is more correct than the one Eva uses. He also believed that music is the art most similar to cinema film is "mainly rhythm," he said and he makes spare but stunning use of music in Autumn Sonata, which is even named after a musical form. No other film contains a scene quite like the one where Eva and Charlotte play the Chopin piece in turn, and their treatments of the music uncover depths of personality that dialogue could never reveal with such concentration and intensity.
Autumn Sonata has been compared with Bergman's earlier Wild Strawberries (1957) and Face to Face (1976), which also deal with tormented families, and its theme of women with intertwined selves has echoes of Persona (1966), arguably his greatest film. Ironically, though, Bergman himself was dissatisfied with it. He explained why in Images, quoting a French critic who stated that "with Autumn Sonata Bergman does Bergman," meaning that Bergman fell back on old habits rather than opening up new artistic territory. "If I had had the strength to do what I intended to do at the beginning," Bergman wrote, "it would not have turned out that way....So the time has come for me to look in the mirror and ask: Where are we going? Has Bergman begun to make Bergman films? I find that Autumn Sonata is an annoying example." He's entitled to his opinion, but countless admirers of this extraordinary movie have a very different view.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Producer: Katinka Farago, Lew Grade, Martin Starger (all uncredited), Richard Brick (English Language version)
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
Film Editing: Sylvia Ingmarsdotter
Set Designer: Anna Asp
Music: Frédéric Chopin, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel
With: Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte Andergast), Liv Ullmann (Eva), Lena Nyman (Helena), Halvar Björk (Viktor), Marianne Aminoff (secretary), Arne Bang-Hansen (Uncle Otto), Gunnar Björnstrand (Paul), Erland Josephson (Josef), George Løkkeberg (Leonardo), Mimi Pollak (piano teacher), Linn Ullmann (Eva as a child).
by David Sterritt