Svensk Filmindustri

Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)

Somewhat recently I read an observation along the following lines–Ingmar Bergman created great roles for actresses by giving them absolutely awful emotions to essay. Whoever said it (I’ve tried, without success to properly credit her) said it a lot better. But at around the hour mark of Autumn Sonata, I couldn’t think of much else. The film just over ninety minutes. An hour into it, everything is forecast.

The film opens with village pastor Halvar Björk introducing his wife, Liv Ullmann. He loves her, a lot, but doesn’t really know how to express it in a way she can process it. She’s writing a letter to her mother, happily inviting her for a visit. The village is rural, their house is tranquil, the colors are soft, warm browns and reds (Autumn).

When mother–Ingrid Bergman–arrives, she and Ullmann have a nice reuniting. It’s been over seven years. Bergman hasn’t been good about staying in touch. She’s managed to miss Ullmann is taking care of her sister (Lena Nyman) now. Nyman is disabled; partially paralyzed and with limited speech. It’s an unidentified (by the dialogue) illness and, the film later reveals, a degenerative one.

Bergman isn’t happy to see Nyman, which is the first hint maybe Bergman isn’t such a great mother. Or person.

There are some more character revelations in the first third–Ullmann and Björk had a son who died, tragically, as a toddler. Bergman apparently never even met her grandson. She’s a famous concert pianist. She was busy.

She wakes that first night from a terrible dream–which is a fantastically done nightmare sequence (easily the best bit of editing in the film)–and goes downstairs to shake it off. Ullmann comes to check on her. That checking on her soon turns into daughter telling mother exactly what she thinks of her.

Their conversation, with occasional flashbacks, takes most of the rest of the film. It’s that night, the two women in the same room. Ullmann hating Bergman, Bergman either begging forgiveness or making excuses.

At that one hour mark I mentioned earlier, as Ullmann’s revealing the laundry list of Bergman’s bad parenting, that observation came to mind and I couldn’t shake it. But not only is Bergman–Ingmar–giving his two stars all this awful emotion to play, it’s not even particularly good awful emotion. It’s affecting and seeing Ullmann stare thin daggers at a collapsing Bergman–Ingrid–is powerful, but… dead toddler? Nyman’s illness? Ullmann being surprised she and mom aren’t having a good visit even though the only reason Ullmann invited her, deep down (but not even particularly deep down), is to rend her? It’s all pretty slight.

The filmmaking slows to a halt too. During the day, there are those beautiful colors from cinematographer Sven Nykvist in the perfectly designed house (Anna Asp’s production design). Night time? It’s nowhere near as effective. And, even though the colors are great and then there’s the interesting way Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist do flashbacks–long shots with muted color so Bergman (Ingrid) always gets to play mom, Ullmann usually gets to play herself, Nyman gets to play herself–for some reason lots of the (albeit occasional) camera movements are jerky and distracting. The camera moves for emphasis on Ullmann or Bergman and instead of informing their performance, it jerks and draws attention away from the performance. You’re wondering how they messed up a simple pan and tilt, when there’s clearly so much professional competence (and excellence) on display.

Like when Bergman has her scene listening to Ullmann play the piano. It’s beautiful. Truly magical acting from Bergman; it’s silent, she’s just watching, reacting to Ullmann playing, her thoughts across her face. A very complicated affection. The two argue for forty-five minutes at least and there’s never anything approaching that complication again in Sonata. Though once Ullmann starts in on Bergman, even when Bergman gets a monologue–the film’s a sequence of them–it’s nowhere near as good as anything she has earlier. Once Ullmann goes into simple hatred mode too… her character becomes a whole lot less interesting. Meanwhile Björk is occasionally around, usually silent. The way Bergman (Ingmar) used Björk as a fourth-wall breaking narrator was cool and all, but utterly pointless as the film progresses. It’s a misdirect to position Ullmann from a particularly angle.

The finale is particularly lackluster, both narratively and visually. Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist can’t do a simple composition shot. Ullmann gets a bunch of contrary penultimate character development, which would’ve been a lot better if it had come at the beginning, but then the finale resets it all back to the start anyway.

Somehow, Autumn Sonata–maybe due to the somewhat obvious production constraints–manages to be too misanthropic to be manipulative. It’s exceptionally disappointing, since–until it becomes obvious Bergman (Ingmar) doesn’t have the emotional fodder for Ullmann and Bergman (Ingrid)’s erstwhile showdown, it seems like Sonata is going to be fantastic. The acting is good, the filmmaking is exquisite (save the pans and tilts)… it’s got all the right pieces.

It just doesn’t have the story for it. It’s a shame, given how good Bergman (Ingrid) and Ullmann are when the material’s there.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson; production designer, Anna Asp; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva), Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte), Halvar Björk (Viktor), and Lena Nyman (Helena).


Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

Wild Strawberries is about a septuagenarian doctor (Victor Sjöström) being awarded an honorary degree. Sjöström’s narration sets it up in the first scene, before the opening titles. Director Bergman’s script, through the narration, lays out the entire ground situation before the titles, in fact. Sjöström is a widower, he has an adult son, he has ninety-five year-old mother, he has a housekeeper (Jullan Kindahl) who takes good care of him.

Then the titles roll and Bergman starts the film proper, though he immediately goes into a foreboding dream sequence. Mortality has come knocking for Sjöström and he can’t shake it. Sjöström’s performance and his narration are two different things. Whereas his performance has some moments of levity–along with the despondency–his narration is from somewhere else entirely. Bergman doesn’t draw attention to it, just lets Sjöström’s voice inhabit the frame.

Following the dream sequence, Sjöström–who’s already been narrating–annouces to Kindahl he wants to drive to the award ceremony, not fly. Before Bergman even gets to the flashbacks–set forty and fifty years earlier–Wild Strawberries already feels detached from present reality. The roads Sjöström drives are usually empty, the trip itself a further detachment from modernity. Only Sjöström isn’t on the trip alone, he’s got daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) along for the ride.

Thulin comes into the film after Sjöström’s done his domestic banter Kindahl and without any warning. Bergman continuously wakes the audience throughout the film, beating two rhythms, one for Sjöström, one for the film itself. Because even though he’s on trip journey through his memories, everyone else is moving forward. Thulin’s got this entirely different, almost joyous story arc–though nothing’s too joyous in Wild Strawberries, as too much warmth would shatter Sjöström. The film’s about Sjöström’s confrontation with that past, spurred in some ways by Thulin’s presence and disinterested hostility, sure, but… once Thulin sets Sjöström spinning, the road trip bringing things up is inevitable.

Most of the straight flashbacks–the ones untinged with dream–are about events Sjöström didn’t witness firsthand. He’s being haunted by the reality of the past, which he’s spent his life avoiding. Bergman doesn’t even try to be subtle about it–if Wild Strawberries has a eureka moment, it’s when memory forces Sjöström to acknowledge his emotional detachment. Bergman’s been showing it throughout the film, particularly with the first flashback. The star of the first flashback is also Bibi Andersson, playing Sjöström’s childhood sweetheart.

Then Andersson reappears in the present, like she’s stepping out of the dream, but she’s really just in need of a ride. She brings along Folke Sundquist and Björn Bjelfvenstam; they’re “kids” (the guys are in their thirties, Andersson is twenty-two, but lets say late teens). Sjöström and Thulin have some great bonding over the kids’ frivolity, since neither get any of their own. Sjöström’s too much of a curmudgeon to want any, Thulin is actively avoiding it.

Andersson acts as the film’s anchor, but Thulin is what perturbs it. She’s present for Sjöström’s journey. She’s also got one of her own, but it only gets room when it figures into Sjöström’s character development. So much of Wild Strawberries is Thulin taking in all, helping the viewer find the punctuation marks Sjöström is skipping across. At the same time, Thulin’s building her own character alongside–but (mostly) detached from–that main action. It’s a great performance, probably the film’s best.

Though it’s hard to really assign that particular accolade. Sjöström’s performance, and Bergman’s direction of it, is Wild Strawberries. The opening narration says it’s going to all be about Sjöström and then it’s all about Sjöström. It’s Sjöström listening, remembering, watching, dreaming, waking, walking, talking. It’s Sjöström.

So while Thulin’s performance is more impressive in what she gets done without the focus Sjöström’s performance gets, Sjöström does excel with the difference.

All of the performances are good. Andersson’s successfully enigmatic–dream, memory, and nymph, all ostensibly alternating. Kindahl’s a fine foil for Sjöström. Bergman directs the actors quite well.

Excellent music from Erik Nordgren and photography from Gunnar Fischer. Oscar Rosander’s editing is magnificent. Technically, it’s all great, but that Rosander editing is otherworldly. Bergman and Rosander control the narrative distance with the editing. It’s awesome.

Wild Strawberries is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Oscar Rosander; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, Gittan Gustafsson; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Victor Sjöström (Isak), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald), Jullan Kindahl (Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), and Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Borg).


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