Anchored by the best performance ever by the Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman, and matched by an equally mesmerizing Liv Ullman, Ingmar Bergman presents to us a visceral unforgettable two–hander of a mother and daughter hashing out latent conflicts with devastating emotional power.
Autumn Sonata (1978) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullman, Halvar Björk
by Alan Bacchus
Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman) is a concert pianist who not seen her children in years. Now, widowed after the death of her second husband, she’s been invited by her eldest daughter Eva (Ullman) to her home. As written by Bergman he is careful reveal the extent to which their relationship has soured. Since it’s been years we immediate sense this would not be a rosy reunion.
But Charlotte and Eva both put on welcoming faces and greet each other with familial congeniality. The downward trajectory of this picture is buried deep in the subtle subtext of their conversation and cold reactions of the actors. Upon arrival Eva tells her mother that her mentally disabled sister is living the house, a revelation which scares Charlotte to death. And watching Eva’s apprehension playing a classical piece on the piano for her mother requiring the summation of much courage we start to see the deep rooted inferiority complex Eva feels when with her mother.
Then after being lubricated with some wine, Eva finds the gumption to spill her guts, sparking a lengthy and emotionally cathartic confession by Eva to her mother - a remarkable speech by Liv Ullman revealing the pains of Charlotte’s passive aggressive emotional torture which has caused a lifetime of regret, guilt and feelings of inadequacy.
Ullman’s confession is matched by the reaction and counter-confession by Bergman, an admonition of her failings as a mother and her place in the cycle of maternal neglect passed down from mother to daughter.
Occasional flashbacks to times gone by briefly visualize this coldness of their household; otherwise Bergman choreographs his actors like a theatrical production. He’s not shy to have his actors perform Shakespearean-style soliloquies as their inner thoughts brought forward to the audience as monologues. There’s a conscious unnaturalness to this staging, but as framed and shot by the impeccable eye of Bergman’s master lensman Sven Nyvkist the unorthodox style serves the material.
Bergman’s compositions are unmistakably his. We can trace his use profiles and frontal close-ups composed in the same frame back through a number of films specifically Persona, his use of colour filters to grade specific scene in reds, yellows and other autumn colours recalls the visual design of Cries and Whispers, and the use of long lenses and frames within frames travels through much of his career.
But it’s the second half of the picture, the verbal jousting of Bergman and Ullman containing emotional revelations as tough and emotionally scarring as anything ever depicted in cinema, which hits us the hardest. And by exploring through the Criterion special features we learn how the relationship of Eva to her mother served as a mirror to the personal relationships of both Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman as well as Ms. Ullman, all of whom sacrificed, to some degree, the love of their children for success in their careers – just another level identification and engagement in this memorable picture.
Autumn Sonata is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.