Ingrid Bergman (left) with director Ingmar Bergman
Bergman directing his daughter Linn Ullmann on the set
Sven Nykvist discussing the scene with Liv Ullmann
AUTUMN SONATA (Höstsonaten) B
Sweden France Germany (99 mi) 1978 d: Ingmar Bergman
Taking thirteen years to make (promising her a script when they first met), this is the first time Bergman worked with the “other” Bergman, namely Ingrid, the iconic Swedish star of CASABLANCA (1942), appearing in her final role (diagnosed with breast cancer at the start of filming), it pits the self-centered nature of an artist who leaves her family and children in her formative years to go off and pursue a career (much like the career trajectory of both Bergmans), leaving gaping holes of abandonment and emotional neglect, with adult relationships turned sour and dysfunctional, with a daughter believing the sins of the mother have been passed on to her, leaving her emotionally crippled, feeling incapable of love. Emerging from one of the darkest spells in Ingmar Bergman’s life, in 1976 he had gone into voluntary exile in Munich after charges of tax evasion, accused of hiding income from certain films, suffering a mental breakdown, where he was institutionalized for several weeks, so the film was actually shot in Norway, but spoken in Swedish, a native language Ingrid Bergman hadn’t spoken in over a decade of making films, where curiously she speaks Italian to her own children and English professionally. While the tax charges eventually proved false, Bergman later returned to his native Sweden to make what many consider his best film, FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), but his years in exile reflect a stinging anger and bitterness provoked by this experience. Released the same year as Mommie Dearest, a scathing memoir and exposé written by Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of actress Joan Crawford, describing the hell of living with the sadistic alcoholic exploits of her mother who had no business raising children, much of this film covers similar territory. Ingrid Bergman left her children from her first marriage for the notorious affair with director Roberto Rossellini, viewed as a major scandal at the time, while Ingmar Bergman had eight children, some of whom didn’t even meet each other until his 60th birthday celebration just a few months after shooting on this film finished, so this could be described as a “chickens come home to roost” film. Beautifully shot by Sven Nyqvist, using candles, lamps, and artificial light to produce an autumnal effect, using oppressive close-ups, there is a distinct coldness in every frame, revealing a psychological chamber drama exposing the damage caused by emotional suppression, where this is a bruisingly honest and searingly confessional memory play that is difficult to stomach with the degree of intense hatred on display pouring out of a mother and daughter saga, both blind by the consequences of their behavior, given an illusory tone, both denying their own responsibilities, believing in a perfect world that doesn’t exist. Similarly, Bergman has shown an antagonistic distrust of professional men in his films, whether it is a doctor or lawyer, military officer or college professor, skewering them with satiric barbs, constantly undermining their authority, yet he gives them a pass when it comes to the artist, showing a deference to creative personalities, often viewed as charlatans or fakes, as if their soul is on public display, subject to public humiliation, perhaps thinking this is punishment enough, as if trying to absolve himself of his so-called sins. And while initially it appears he is holding nothing back, allowing a full-fledged assault to take place before our eyes, yet the ferocity evolves into a kind of blind resignation, with both characters unable to grasp the truth of the matter and are none the wiser, rationalizing to themselves, finding a more restrained alternative fallback position that is easier to live with, though both seem perpetually doomed, in stark contrast to the words written into the daughter’s diary at the outset, “One must learn how to live. I work at it every day.”
The last work made expressly for the cinema, as from here on out, every Bergman film, even those screened theatrically, was made for television. Given a theatrical structure, Bergman opens the film with a husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) in the foreground staring directly into the camera commenting upon his continued fascination with his wife Eva (Liv Ullmann), initially seen out of focus in the background sitting at a table writing a letter that she eventually reads out loud enthusiastically inviting her mother to come stay with them. Reading several passages from her diary, we quickly learn of the remote isolation that has become their lives, a country pastor and his devoted wife living an idyllic life among the Norwegian fjords, yet their life has been fraught with pain and anguish at the death of their only son from drowning a day before his fourth birthday, where his room remains unchanged after several years, and his photographs are a constant presence throughout their home, which is like a shrine to his living memory. At the arrival of her mother who she hasn’t seen in seven years, we immediately see mixed expectations, as Eva is nervous, yet excited, while Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman) is a classical pianist renowned throughout the world, described by critics for her “generosity” and “warm tone,” but she’s coming off an extensive break caring for an aging second husband who recently died, leaving her lonely and bewildered, yet she appears in a time warp, sped up, on a different wavelength, completely out of sync with a slower pace of life in the hinterlands (with Bergman requiring her to tone it down for the film due to the close intimacy of the camera), speaking as if she’s still the center of attention in a major European metropolis, with Eva listening obediently to a constantly chattering mother who couldn’t be more self-absorbed. She’s shocked to discover Eva’s seriously disabled sister Helena (Lena Nyman) is also living there under Eva’s care, bedridden from cerebral palsy, a degenerative disease that leaves her unable to control her speech and body movement, with Charlotte clearly unhappy at this revelation, believing she should be in a nursing home, where she left her, though she’s polite enough to go through the motions of an awkward greeting. Things grow more disturbing after dinner, with Charlotte encouraging her daughter to play Chopin on the piano, Autumn Sonata (Hostsonaten) 1978 - (Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann & Halvar Björk) YouTube (7:29), which she does (played by Bergman’s wife Käbi Laretei), though shy and hesitatingly, demonstrating a complete lack of self-esteem, still under the thrall of her mother, openly inviting criticism afterwards, as if expected, which her domineering mother is more than happy to provide, painstakingly correcting her, explaining that Chopin wasn’t a “mawkish old woman,” offering a masterclass on how Chopin should be played, manly, avoiding sentimentality, meant to express “pain, not reverie,” of course, then doing it herself, with Eva staring intently as much in awe as disbelief, like waking a monster, with all the old feelings returning at once, where the film changes with her utterly aghast facial expressions. This sets the stage for an obviously traumatized daughter attempting to crawl out of the abusive and tyrannical control her mother holds over her.
With her husband faded to the background, Eva is docile, dressing plain, a parson’s wife, looking intentionally unattractive so as not to attract attention, living a life of empty self-sacrifice, emotionally barren, while her mother makes a grand entrance, dressed all in red, though Eva is overly concerned about her mother’s welfare, wanting to spoil her, offering her a room of her own with a private bathroom, looking after her every need, intending to serve her breakfast in bed the next morning, though following her mother’s strict dietary protocol. The facade of polite friendliness is quickly broken, as Charlotte awakes from a bad dream screaming in fright, surprised it was all an illusion, as she felt someone was suffocating her. This foreshadows what follows, as any pretense of politeness is quickly thrown out the window as Eva reminds her mother what her childhood was like, from her perspective, recounting specific instances of her mother’s deplorable behavior, as she simply didn’t want to be bothered by having children around, avoiding them at all costs, instead escaping obsessively into her work, spending most of her life on the road, avoiding both her husband and her children who were left waiting for her to return. With brief flashback sequences, these scenes are illuminated and charged with Eva’s decidedly one-sided denunciations of her mother, holding back nothing, going for the jugular, as scathing and ferociously accusatory as anything captured on film, the stuff normally associated with live theater, where the verbal attention to detail is meticulously written and staged, perfectly choreographed in small, claustrophobic moments of grueling intimacy. Surprisingly, hysterical theatrics are allowed to prevail, becoming an exaggerated tour de force of bitter discord and overtly confrontational melodrama, a tearful unleashing of repressed emotions that come pouring out like a gusher of untapped recriminations, born out of a reservoir of soured hurt, where it has gestated over the years into something wildly detestable, each displaying aggressive feelings, seeking out yet finding the other repulsive, echoed by Helena’s unsettling utterances, sounding more like symphonic chaos of internally wounded pain. While the autobiographical aspect of the source material feels familiar, the incendiary manner in which it is expressed is unusual, even for Bergman, where it’s an all-out, savagely cruel assault by a longtime victim of oppression, believing her grief is her mother’s secret pleasure, targeting that boot on the back of her neck, desperately seeking an escape route. While the mother acknowledges her shortcomings, claiming as an artist she never fulfilled the promise of her youth, where her own disappointment drove her obsessive desire to succeed, but Eva refuses to step off the gas, unleashing all her buried resentments. It’s cringeworthy territory veering into the horror genre, especially coming from Liv Ullmann, who projects so much inner warmth, but she refuses to be deterred, tuning out everything her mother says, only to pile it on even more, growing over-the-top and exaggerated beyond belief, where the meek rises from the ashes and offers a tumultuous knockout blow, one with catastrophic results. Perhaps the heart of the film is a devastating remark spoken by Eva aimed squarely at her mother, “There can be no forgiveness.” Imagine that being the final word. With her mother whisked into their lives and just as quickly whisked away, making a furious escape after an eventful night, both have serious regrets afterwards, but it’s an open question asking what each has learned, as both remain somewhat delusional afterwards, where self-protective amnesia and lies have a way of altering painful memories and turning them into blind spots of cold indifference, where you can simply put them out of your mind as if they never existed.