While Ingmar Bergman’s films have often been marked as methodical and arguably slow exercises in emotional rigor, which is often unfriendly to lay audiences, Fanny and Alexander is a wholly accessible, truly haunting journey for its two main title characters.
Fanny and Alexander (1982) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Börje Ahlstedt
By Alan Bacchus
It’s the celebrated ‘final’ film of Bergman’s, although he would write screenplays and direct some notable television mini-series afterwards. This was the intention of the great Swedish master of cinema, to create an opus maximus of a very personal nature, essentially the story of his youth, his life in a theatrical family and the deep penetrating effect of Catholicism on his outlook on life. It ended up as a five-hour film released in its full length on Swedish television but a mere three hours in theatres.
We meet Fanny and Alexander both as young impressionable children of a stage family, the Ekdahls. The opening act, an hour-long Christmas party during which we see the hedonistic extremes of the more drunken and libidinous family members, establishes their whimsy, flighty lifestyle. If anything the scene reminds us of Coppola’s wedding scene in The Godfather, another story about family set up with a similar scene of domestic reverie. But this is the first hour, which had me squirming in my seat. Without any forward movement in the narrative, the carefree decadence of the family felt indulgent and superfluous. But it’s all part of Bergman’s grand plan, setting up the eventual trough of despair experienced by the kids and their eventual triumphant resurrection by the end.
The shoe drops hard when Fanny’s and Alexander’s father dies during a performance. The anguish of the loss is depicted by Bergman in one magnificently shot scene from Alexander's eyes through the crack of a door. The scene shows his mother and grandmother grieving inconsolably – a point of view that typifies the filter on life and family in which Bergman frames his story. It also showcases his remarkable eye for composition, which remains as precise and controlled throughout all three hours of the film.
It doesn’t take long for the mother, Emilie, to move on when she announces her intention to remarry the local bishop, a hasty decision that doesn’t sit well with the family, but a decision to which she is completely devoted. Once in the care of the clergy, the kids find a most barbarous and cruel household, one in which they are commanded to leave all possessions behind in order to start anew and fresh like newly birthed infants. Things turn from bad to worse when Alexander stubbornly resists the Bishop’s authority thus infuriating the authority figure and creating an even deeper power struggle. Heinous acts of corporal punishment, such as caning and prison-like isolation, drive the kids and Emilie mad until the Ekdahls execute a glorious set-up and escape plan.
Knowing Bergman’s previous work, we have to expect the worse for these children, a brainwashing of sorts in the most cynical manner. Yet the finale, including the Bishop’s comeuppance, is so genuinely heartwarming and triumphant it could have been written in Hollywood.
Bergman’s infusion of fantastical elements, such as the Shakespearean-worthy ghostly haunting of Alexander and the ambiguous magical touches of the theatre troupe, set us in the world of magic realism. It also allows Bergman to craft a few moments of truly terrifying suspense. The most affecting comes at the end, in one of the most haunting shots in the history of cinema (yes!). After fully escaping the clutches of the maniacal Bishop, presumably safe and sound in the company of the theatre, Alexander's life would appear to be back to normal. But the return of the Bishop’s ghost, who pushes him to the ground announcing his ominous return, is truly haunting. This moment had me gasping with earth-shattering shock, an effect rare for me these days and a moment that reminded me of my reaction to, say, the rising corpse in the bathtub at the end of Diabolique. It’s that affecting.
Bergman’s masterful control of tone and imagery is evident, as are his artful cinematic tools, which in this picture come together arguably more cohesively than any of his previous films.
Fanny and Alexander is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.