Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Worth Watching: Autumn Sonata (1978)

Title: Autumn Sonata
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Language: Swedish (and some English)
Rating: PG

Eva (Liv Ullmann) and her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), haven't seen each other in seven years. Charlotte is a brilliant and celebrated pianist, touring around the world. Eva lives a quiet life in a parsonage with her husband, Viktor (Halvar Björk); she also cares for her sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers from a progressive illness. After Charlotte's longtime companion and lover passes away, Eva invites her to visit the parsonage. Eva hopes for some sort of reconciliation with her mother, a closeness they've never shared. When Charlotte arrives tension mounts between them, and in the course of the night years of pent-up anger, bitterness, and hurt boil over.

Liv Ullmann's magnificent performance as Eva bares layers of emotion, whether she's flying into a rage or quietly sitting beside her mother as Charlotte animates the room. There are a couple of scenes where Eva is observing her mother silently; no words are necessary because Ullmann's face expresses everything: sadness, admiration, resentment, longing and wonder. This especially comes out in the scene where Charlotte is at the piano explaining and then playing a Chopin prelude that Eva plodded through earlier.


Ingrid Bergman's performance is also powerful. She handles Charlotte's complexity beautifully, the shifts in her mood - she can be lively and coquettish, then stalk around a room looking anxious and lost. Charlotte is a passionate artist, living in her own world, loving the fame and admiration that isolates her from others even as she laments her difficulty connecting with people. She has also been a distant mother; her treatment of Eva is fond but superficial. In the company of both her daughters, Charlotte feels guilt-ridden and suffocated. She's probably ashamed of them too; she can make brilliant music but was unable to produce a brilliant daughter. Eva lives as a shadow, and Helena's illness is so unbearable to Charlotte that Charlotte avoids her.


Eva's husband, Viktor, observes the mother-daughter drama with resignation. Viktor is kind and perceptive but also passive. At the film's start he addresses the viewer directly and reads from a book that Eva has written: "One must learn to live. I practice every day. My biggest obstacle is I don't know who I am. If anyone loves me as I am I may dare at last to look at myself. For me, that possibility is fairly remote." He then tells us that he wishes he could make her understand that she is "loved whole-heartedly"; the difficulty is, he can't find the right words to make her believe him. He's a friend, a gentle companion, but too tired for any passionate emotions or interventions.

The Charlotte-Eva relationship dominates the movie. Eva can't live with her mother and can't live without her; Charlotte is a beloved mother, a hated enemy, an angel whose blessing is sorely desired, and a scapegoat blamed for every sin and mischance. The relationship at some points shifts from mother-daughter to accused and accuser, as Eva brings up every bit of childhood neglect, subtle cruelty, maternal inadequacy and selfishness ("All that was sensitive and delicate, you attacked. All that was alive, you tried to smother") and throws them in Charlotte's face. Charlotte isn't a good mother, but there are times when Eva goes too far, carried away with her need to blame Charlotte for everything, past and present. What does she want from her mother at this point? Would she be satisfied if Charlotte admitted responsibility for her mistakes? Does she still want her mother's love and approval?


Eva's own child, a boy, died at a very young age. In one scene, set in his old nursery, she tenderly speaks of how she senses him near her and feels that he's still alive. This strikes Charlotte as morbid and fanciful, detached from reality - more evidence that Eva is a disappointing neurotic daughter, an impression strengthened when Eva's musings turn philosophical: "To me, man is a tremendous creation," she says. "In man is everything from the highest to the lowest." She adds, her face dreamy and contemplative, "There are no limits. Neither to thoughts nor feelings. It's anxiety that sets limits." (This applies not only to love - once Eva moves past her anxious attitude of trying to please her mother, there is no foreseeable limit to her anger.)

Eva's warmth towards her son contrasts with Charlotte's limited ability to love. But one also wonders what sort of mother Eva would have been had her son lived and started growing apart from her, into his own self, as all children do. Would she have smothered him, stunted him, done everything she could to keep him secured to her? Or would she have been a wonderful mother? As it is she's much more of a mother to her sister, Helena, than Charlotte ever was to either of her daughters. I love how Ingmar Bergman presents these characters to us for close consideration, allowing us to see different sides of them.

Memorable sights and sounds
Autumn colors permeate the film. Fallen leaves and pink flowers. Walls and furniture in warm shades of yellow, brown, and cream. Eva, first seen in a long red dress (Charlotte will later wear a red dress too, with pearls). Eva's and Charlotte's hair. Their eyes red-rimmed with tears.

The camera often lingers on the actors' faces; I can't look away when this happens - the human face is a world in itself. Though the screenplay is powerful the dialogue is sometimes too stiff and stagey (maybe in part because I'm reading an English translation in the subtitles); the feeling of intimacy and humanity is preserved by the close-ups on the faces and the force of the actors' performances.

Stand-out scenes
There's one scene I returned to a few times: when Charlotte watches Eva play Chopin's Prelude No.2 in A minor and then plays it in turn, explaining the piece to Eva (the pianist Käbi Laretei, who was also Ingmar Bergman's ex-wife, played both Eva's version and Charlotte's). The camera settles on the actors - Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman both brilliant - and the scene as a whole sums up their characters' relationship. It's also I feel the best written part of the movie; to understand a work of music and write about it clearly and unpretentiously is difficult.
"Chopin was emotional, but not mawkish. Feeling is very far from sentimentality. The prelude tells of pain, not reverie. You have to be calm, clear and harsh. Take the first bars now. It hurts but he doesn't show it. Then a short relief... but it evaporates at once, and the pain is the same. Total restraint the whole time... The prelude must be made to sound almost ugly. It is never ingratiating. It should sound wrong. You have to battle your way through it and emerge triumphant."

Later in the movie Charlotte will speak of her own childhood, spent with cold parents; music became her means of expression. Unlike Charlotte, Eva's most profound expressions of emotion and thought emerge in her reflections on human nature and her abiding love for her son. Both Charlotte and Eva are capable of deep connections, but in such different ways. The scene of the Chopin prelude echoes throughout the whole movie; when I think about it now, my skin prickles.

Further thoughts
There's a raw nerve running through the movie. The characters tap at it and flinch. They can't help themselves. They're locked together in love, pain, rage, and endless struggle.

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster (community); Wikipedia)