Autumn Sonata
aka Höstsonaten
Reviewed in 1998
Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Halvar Björk, Lena Nyman, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Linn Ullmann. Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman.

Photo © 1978 Suede Film/Filmédis/ITC/Personafilm
Like many of Ingmar Begrman's best pictures, Autumn Sonata is so intense in its emotions and so masterful in its presentation that the world of its characters—in this case an isolated, roomy parson's house in the south of Norway—absolutely overwhelms our senses and becomes for 92 minutes the only reality we can know. The experience Bergman has constructed here is so total and compelling that we not only cannot look away, we cannot divert our thoughts from the piling of confessions, furies, and heartbreaks transpiring on the screen. Autumn Sonata grows a bit too static and its rhetoric a little too theatrical for the movie to reach the supreme level of quality of Bergman's otherwise similar Cries and Whispers. Also like that earlier film, Autumn Sonata contains so much hurt and anger that it is not an easy experience to behold, nor one that will appeal to all viewers. Nonetheless, two towering performances from Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann and an almost mind-blowing precision of shots make Autumn Sonata an indelibe experience quite aside from the violent force of its bruising emotions.

Bergman begins his film with a sequence that he repeats almost exactly at the picture's conclusion, a device that, by prodding us to contrast our different readings of the scene, demonstrates in retrospect just how much we have learned about the characters over the course of the story. In the beginning, a man's voice tells us how he sometimes watches his wife when she doesn't realize he is in the room, and he begins to describe his feelings for her, as she sits at a writing table far back in the shot. The camera turns slightly to the right, discovering Viktor (Halvar Björk), our narrator, now relating the history of his acquaintance with Eva (Liv Ullmann), his wife. From the first moment, then, we have no choice as viewers but to imagine ourselves within the walls of that house, alternating our concentration between Viktor's speech, delivered directly to the camera (i.e., to us, mandating our attention), and the straight-backed, slightly sad-seeming figure of Eva in the background. Bergman allows us almost no distance from these people, at most the handful of feet that separates one corner of a room from another.

The other idea crucial to Autumn Sonata that introduces itself in this scene is the impossibility, despite such physical proximity, of really seeing the people before us, of achieving a complete or even a reliable connection with their thoughts and feelings. Viktor reads a passage from one of Eva's books in which she speaks of the need all people have to be "seen for who they really are." Despite his private vow, though, that his marital devotion honestly springs from an accurate vision of the "real" Eva (though he cannot find the words to convince her of this), Sven Nykvist's camera belies Viktor's certainty of perception by rendering Eva completely out of focus throughout his soliloquy; the moment he swears to having a complete, rounded view of his wife is the same moment at which she is most obscured and unreadable.

Even that sort of cruel irony, however, cannot compare to the more direct cruelties that metastasize all through the film once the central scenario has been set: Eva invites her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), a world-renowned pianist, to stay with herself and Viktor in the parsonage after seven years in which the mother and daughter have not seen each other once. Charlotte, who has recently buried her lover of 13 years, agrees to the trip and arrives almost as full of maternal good will as Eva is brimming with loving, long-suppressed effusion.

From these very first scenes of reunion, Bergman and Ullmann inhabit their roles so completely, acting with such simultaneous power and finesse, that none of Autumn Sonata's occasional bouts of histrionics can distract us from their relationship. Bergman in a single frame can massage her neck to convey her age and fatigue, dart her eyes around the room to take in her new surroundings, and fight back tears or a croak in her throat to express the loneliness that has been her lot since Leonardo's death. Ullmann's face kaleidoscopes from a doting awe of her mother to a nervous surveying of the preparations she has made for her mother's visit; she belongs with Falconetti, Lillian Gish, Vanessa Redgrave, Mia Farrow, and Emily Watson in that rarest group of actresses whose faces are so exquisitely (and seemingly effortlessly) cinematic that they could, if necessary, give an entire performance from the neck up. Both women act with superlative nuance and economy, and neither is ever less than wholly compelling.

The tone of their relations, however, vacillates wildly from mutual love to paralyzing despair, from forgiveness to rage. First, Bergman reveals hidden secrets in the house that make Charlotte increasingly uncomfortable and make Eva's reasons for extending the invitation seem darker and more predatory. Helena (Lena Nyman), Charlotte's other daughter, who is terminally ill and unable to speak or care for herself, has been living with Eva and Viktor quite unbeknownst to Charlotte, who had had her installed in an expensive private hospital. Eva confesses she didn't mention Helena's relocation because she knew Charlotte would not under those terms have agreed to visit. "I'm sure I would have come," Charlotte hisses, but Eva retorts, smiling, "And I'm sure you wouldn't have." Later, hoping to ask Eva's company on a walk around the countryside, Charlotte finds her sitting in the untouched bedroom of Viktor and Eva's son, Erik, who drowned when he was only four years old. Charlotte worries for Eva's happiness, as well she should, for once she has given Eva clearance to voice her feelings, what comes out is a torrent of past abuses and harbored resentments against which she affords Charlotte no room for excuse or refutation.

The freshness and unexpectedness of Eva's accusations are crucial components in the staggering potency of Autumn Sonata, and I hesitate to delve much further into the specific reasons of her animosity, lest I dilute the impact of the film. Suffice it to say, however, that Eva—who makes a living writing philosophical tracts and nursing her own theories about ontology, mortality, and self-realization—has so fully assimilated into the world of ideas that she wages her war against her mother on a broad, theoretical level against which the older woman hasn't a prayer of protecting herself. Living in that isolated parsonage, Eva has had plenty of time to track her unhappiness and perceived misfortunes back to Charlotte's demeanor (a smiler and praiser even when she was angry), her career (the long absences necessitated for an entertainer), and a gamut of other offenses ranging from utter neglect to smothering domination. "Don't you think you're being unfair?" Charlotte asks early in the dialogue, and at that point Eva concedes that she is. More and more, however, the daughter is uninterested in Charlotte's point of view, feeling that she mandated her daughter's silence for so long that now Eva must seize the chance to present her own notions of their family life and the quality of her upbringing.

Meanwhile, having rolled herself out of her confining cot, Helena pulls herself pathetically across the floor screaming for the two women, her face flushed and her body straining to make contact with Eva and Charlotte. Neither of these women hear Helena's calls, but the gradual process by which Helena inches across the floors exemplifies how deeply the concepts of "disease" and "handicap" penetrate their way into Eva and Charlotte's mutual regard.

All sorts of ambiguities spring out of these developments. Would Eva feel so entitled to criticize Charlotte, particularly through general statements about "mothers" and "children" if Erik had not died and she herself had known the challenges of raising a child? Does her inability to hear Helena's desperate calls spring directly from her newfound ability to voice the angers of her adolescence—in other words, does self-expression limit one's capacity to care for other people? Are the instances when Charlotte confesses to the negligence and steeliness with which Eva charges her genuine moments of regret, or are they prime examples of Charlotte's tendency to avoid real emotions by saying what she believes is expected of her?

Eva's interrogation is merciless and comprehensive, so much so that we eventually wonder if it can possibly be fair. After all, at this point in her life, Charlotte comes across very much as a well-intentioned conciliator who would change many of her past decisions if she could, and who just wants another start. Moreover, Bergman throws in plenty of clues that Eva's perceptions are not necessarily reliable. Ullmann wears a thick, unflattering pair of spectacles throughout the picture, connoting a natural impairment of vision, and there are a handful of scenes that catch her in specific moments of faulty surmise—for example, her prediction that her mother will come down for the first night's dinner in a pity-seeking widow's garb, though Charlotte actually appears in a bright red robe.

We cannot absolve Charlotte of all responsibility for Eva's unhappiness, since her motherly and, if we can trust Eva, her wifely attentions seem to have had obvious flaws. Still, the great question raised by Autumn Sonata—explicitly and surprisingly so in its closing sequence—is how much room any human being has to criticize another as self-righteously and fully as Eva does her mother. After all, as Charlotte confesses in her own defense, "I wanted you to know I was as helpless as you were." In Bergman's dark existentialism, we are all vulnerable to the piercings of hurt, mistreatment, and disease that are life's most defining qualities; faced with such antagonisms, we can only be faulted for failing to achieve the camaraderies of devotion and acceptance that will shield us in a state of near-contentment. Or is such camaraderie a hopeless ideal? The profundity of the writing, the acting, and the delivery of Autumn Sonata lies in its refusal, like that of a complex musical composition, to boil down to a single, unchallenged idea or emotion. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman
Best Original Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Drama): Ingrid Bergman
Best Foreign Film

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Bergman)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Bergman)
National Board of Review: Best Director; Best Actress (Bergman); Best Foreign-Language Film

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