Film Reviews

Autumn Sonata Ingmar Bergman

Rating - 9/10

In the opening lines of Ingmar Bergman's late 1970s masterpiece, Autumn Sonata, husband Viktor formally introduces his sequestered wife by narrating an excerpt from her first novel.  "One must learn to live," he reads.  "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."  Intriguingly, the sequence commences an articulate prelude that declares the following cinematic movements to be a quest for identity and acceptance.  Bergman chose to label diminished yet intense films of this nature to be "chamber" as one would define a small classical ensemble; Autumn Sonata utilizes a modest cast with naturalistic directing methods infused with bold philosophical ideas and two incredibly moving lead performances from the mother, Charlotte, and daughter, Eva (Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, respectively).

While Autumn Sonata is devoid of an original score and a troupe of dramatic actors, its eloquence and intimacy are provided by Ingmar Bergman's well-written screenplay and recurrent extreme close-ups that penetrate the souls of the two women engaged in heated recollection.  The film artistically unfurls gradually as a revelation of emotions and a confrontation of lost affections of childhood captured holistically in the muddle of patronizations and praise.  Through the nocturnal discourse between mother and daughter, Eva is driven to utter, "what a terrible combination of feelings, confusion, and destruction."  Not only is this reflected in the current state of events, but the quote characterizes the past perfectly with Ingmar's interwoven flashbacks complete with appropriate character voiceover to stress their repercussive urgency.

In accordance with its title, the beauty of the film would seemingly be an amalgam of seasonal foliage and romantic classicism, yet the musical integration in Autumn Sonata utterly sweeps one into the two dichotomous performances of Chopin's "Prelude No. 2 in A Minor."  These solo piano interpretations become even more prominent when examined in light of Ingmar Bergman's previous body of work, as he is known for his sparing use of compositions.  At the moment of the mother's demonstration of the Chopin prelude, the camera fixates on both Eva and Charlotte's faces with such a humane intensity; within these frames, Ingmar is able to convey two lives' worth of experiences without a spoken word.  Charlotte's pianistic zeal and Eva's unremitting devotion to winning her mother's attention are encapsulated in this gorgeous sequence.  The contrast of the daughter's amateurish rendition with the mother's confident perspicacity exposes the oscillating mood of the film and raw honesty of the composition, which is beautifully painful.  Ingmar is able to channel the choked entanglement of emotions through the playing that touches upon loneliness, self-consciousness, restraint, and the confrontation of youthful memories.  The performance is also the catalyst to Eva's profound thought and Charlotte's biting resistance.  As acclaimed film historian Peter Cowie discusses in the film's commentary, Charlotte's total rationality is only concerned with outward appearances as she will not accept the fragility of the human spirit unlike Eva who is a more of a romantic.

Even before this notable debate that peaks two-thirds of the way through Autumn Sonata, Eva sparks several philosophical questions in relation to the afterlife, childhood and generational disparity in the first movement.  Several years prior to the events of the film, Eva reveals that her son Erik drowned, and she is compelled to speak of his spiritual presence at her side to remain as a competent mother.  Yet, Erik, strangely, has physically manifested in the body of Helena, Eva's terminally ill and crippled sibling.  Helena exists primarily as a surrogate role, symbolic of the tortured repression and stunted development between Eva and her mother.  With Eva waxing poetic in her dead son's nursery, notions of suffering as a hereditary trait surface; she then later musters the audacity to ask her own mother, rhetorically, if pain is passed through generations.  With overwhelming evidence, Charlotte is compelled to speak of her childhood as a cold wretched affair with a lack of intimacy.  Through Eva's act, the film bluntly proposes the philosophy that if one is weak and unable to face the trials of youth honestly, they will undoubtedly resurface in a parental role.  Additionally, Autumn Sonata lends itself to the Freudian psychological realm by stressing childhood has such a critical impact on subsequent development that those scars and experiences never fully vanish.

Appropriately likening the film to a great musical sonata, Peter Cowie recalls its summative introduction, slow development through the middle movements that amplifies to a crescendo, then cascades to a finale that touches on all prior themes.  In that sense the film is a perfect succinct sonata, but it neglects a few details of its youthful presences, Erik and Helena, in the same manner that the mother has done to the daughter.  But the sheer spirit and intelligence of the film's director makes it worthy of repeated analytical viewings.  Like many of Ingmar Bergman's color films, particularly Cries and Whispers, the presence of red becomes symbolic for his own passion and the purity, love, and even hate represented here.  The multifaceted nature of red, which serves as an autumn color, is a pertinent instigator; the title credits delivered atop a meld of autumnal red, orange and yellow paints immediately prompt nostalgic memories, but Autumn Sonata is more than a one-dimensionally sentimental take.  It ultimately teaches forgiveness and mercy in place of obstinance and self-importance, and only then may we begin to accept and understand ourselves.