Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ingmar Bergman's 'Autumn Sonata'

UNBENOWEST to me at the time, when I was nearly 13 in September 1977, and enthralled with North Melbourne's second flag in the VFL (over Collingwood at the MCG), Ingmar Bergman was working hard in Sweden making a film with the very ill Ingrid Bergman: 'Autumn Sonata.' It was a typical Ingmar Bergman film in that it was a chamber piece with only a small number of actors, mostly women, almost all of it set indoors. Another psychological study with a lot of close ups about the angst that exists between female family members, whether it be sisters or mothers and their daughters. This is evident in other Bergman films such as 'Persona', 'Cries & Whispers', 'The Silence', etc, etc. It has been said that Bergman enjoyed working with women, and exploring issues about women, much more than he did with men, and these are his best films. It has also been said that in 'Autumn Sonata' both he and Ingrid Bergman were working with very personal themes which involved material that they could both relate to and feel uneasy about.

I watched scenes from this film several times today, inspired by two sources. One was an essay about Ingrid Bergman by the Irish writer Colm Toibin. It was published a short while ago in 'The Guardian' and served as a commentary on a BFI festival on Ingrid Bergman's films in London. The second source was the lavish Taschen publication called 'The Chronicles of Ingmar Bergman' which not only has several beautifully produced interviews and photographs about all of Bergman's films, it also contains a DVD which features a twenty minute 'behind the scenes' documentary of the making of 'Autumn Sonata' that Ingrid Bergman was totally unaware of at the time.

The film is ostensibly about the relationship between Eva (Liv Ullman) and her mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Eva lives a quiet life at a vicarage with her loyal husband, Viktor, and her sister Helena who has a severe physical retardation. Eva hasn't seen her mother for seven years and longs for contact- possibly an explanation- and writes her mother a letter. Charlotte arrives suddenly and there is an initial warmth and a vague intimacy. Charlotte seems to talk about herself mostly, however, and ruminates for a long time on the death of a boyfriend (Leonardo), and makes continual reference to her career as an accomplished pianist. A sure early sign that there is a gap between mother and daughter comes early in the film when Charlotte is alarmed that Eva now looks after Helena at the vicarage, and shows a heavy reluctance to see her. The scene in which the estranged mother finally sees her sorrowful daughter in her anguished condition and looks to Eva for translation of Helena's own words chillingly reinforces her long absence and lack of care. Charlotte has simply been too busy to find time to see Eva- flashbacks tell us that this happened in Eva's important growing years as well- and as for Helena... well we get the impression that she is the cruelly forgotten daughter.

The climax of the film takes place at around midnight when Eva has been drinking and offloads her long built up frustration and anger towards her mother. These are brilliantly acted scenes- Liv Ullman is overwrought and at times almost hysterical. Ingrid Bergman is equally convincing in that she is at times withdrawn, exhausted looking and helpless." Touch me..." she says in a role reversal, just as a long suffering daughter might say to her mother. "Please hold me. Please love me." It is something that Eva wanted to say many times to her mother as she was growing up. It isn't revenge that Eva seeks when she rejects her mother. She is simply unable to reach out to her and provide her solace.

Ingrid Bergman was very reluctant to say these appeasing words. After Liv Ullmann's torrent of repproachment for years of bitter neglect, the veteran actress wanted to slap her face and leave the room. Apparently it took a great row and a lot of persuasion for Ingmar Bergman to convince Ingrid Bergman that his words were the best ones to use, and it is for the betterment of the film that he got his way. There were myriad other complaints from Ingrid Bergman in regards to the script. Perhaps it was due to many years of working in Hollywood that she thought the film should contain more jokes. There is a scene in which Bergman lies on the floor to talk to her daughter- a prelude to the climax of bitter words- and she thought the audience would laugh when they saw this. This is clearly not the kind of humour she was after.

I am sure the film has influenced many other film makers. I think in particular of films by Mike Leigh in which there is an incredibly emotional catharsis towards the end of the film between people who love each other. There is a midnight confrontation in "All Or Nothing" in which the taxi driver (Timothy Spall) tells his wife that she speaks to him like a piece of shit and she doesn't love him anymore. Both are crying either at this sudden realisation of the shocking truth, or that they have allowed things to deteriorate so badly in their relationship and making things better is going to take a huge amount of dedication. Whatever the relationship that is being explored, these are incredible roles for great actors and exhaustingly moving moments for the audience.

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