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Monday, September 17, 2018

Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (40th anniversary) and Liv Ullmann's character revelation

The renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman would have been 100 years old this year, and the only film he made with the other famous Bergman, actress Ingrid B., turned 40. The Coolidge Corner Theatre screened a 35 mm print of Autumn Sonata yesterday, but did their audience one better by welcoming the only surviving star, Liv Ullmann, to introduce the film and then answer questions during a live interview afterward.
Liv Ullmann recounts her experiences with Autumn Sonata
for Jared Brown, WGBH Executive Arts Editor
and a capacity crowd at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Sunday
I was a little cautious approaching this film, as my experience with Bergman's films has been minimal and not always joyful. I dozed a bit during a screening of The Seventh Seal at the TCM Film Festival in 2013, reacted with indifference to another film considered a masterpiece, Persona, about a year ago, but loved Wild Strawberries when I caught it on TCM. But after my experience yesterday, and encouraged by the discussion afterward with my local arthouse/classic film group, I felt moved to get to at least a couple additional films screening in the next few weeks as the joint Bergman 100th birthday retrospective at the Coolidge, the Harvard Film Archive, and the Brattle continues. 

Ullmann (left) and Bergman struggle to deal with decades-old
hurts and guilt in Autumn Sonata.
Autumn Sonata (in original Swedish--Höstsonaten) portrays a complicated, explosive mother-daughter relationship over a few days when after seven years, the mother, Charlotte, a concert-pianist (Ingrid Bergman) comes to stay with her daughter Eva (Ullmann), a seemingly naive, retiring wife of a local minister. Also in the house is Charlotte's invalid daughter Helena, who is confined to her bed and cannot communicate except for a few grunts and unintelligible words (exactly what is wrong with Helena is not fully explained). That all will not be well during the visit is hinted in the first scenes when Eva's husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) surreptitiously reacts with frustration when Eva announces her plans to host her mother. After warm and loving initial greetings, the relationship deteriorates as Eva exposes her anger over her mother's self-centeredness and neglect in favor of her career. The scenes in the middle of the movie are harrowing, as Bergman frames the two women's faces in opposition, and both actresses are called on to emote. The film ends on a somewhat hopeful note, although I sensed that those final scenes just previewed what would be a sad pattern of interaction between these two women for the remainder of their lives.

If the majority of scenes in close-up were emotionally loaded, occasionally Bergman set up the flashback scenes with the camera far back, with stillness and simplicity and lighting that looked like a some spare Scandinavian painting. Those moments provided a bit of visual relief even as they enhanced the narrative.
Screen capture of a scene late in Autumn Sonata

I also loved that the film created shifting sympathies for the two women -- it was obvious that Charlotte was attention-seeking and vain, but when Eva shifted from a victim to an aggressor, the film felt so timeless and real.  It posed questions about the validity of past memories, parents' accountability for the difficulties of their children, and the pros and cons of dredging up past hurts and using them as weapons when family relationships are simultaneously everlasting and fragile.  On the topic of her character's motivations, Liv Ullmann made a stunning admission yesterday -- within the last year she watched the film and was struck by the revelation that it might be possible that everything her character says in her hate-filled 'monologue' directed at her mother is a "lie". Before, she was convinced of the sincerity and veracity of her words, and played it that way. She said director and screenwriter Bergman never revealed one way or another the motivations of the characters, and, as an aside, this caused conflict between the two Bergmans since Ingrid had difficulty believing her character would utter some of her lines (she acquiesed eventually). 

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman when they were
romantically involved.
At my movie discussion group's post-film conversation, we focused on Ullmann's revelation and what it said about how our perspective changes with time. Is Ullmann now seeing the two women's relationship through the lens of an older woman and mother, who despite being imperfect, tried to do her best by her children while juggling the demands of a career in the limelight? Is a daughter's bitterness related to feelings of inadequacy? Do memories of past hurts take on a disproportionate role in how we perceive our childhoods? Will a mother's guilt be magnified compared to other kinds of guilt? Some of us shared similar challenges in our own families, and the painful estrangements that sometimes resulted.  Bergman would likely have approved of our discussion, as according to Ullmann, he valued the importance of human connection and the need to prioritize relationships, themes that informed most of his films.

Coming back to her interview, Ullman shared a few other thoughts about making the film as well as her long career in the dramatic arts. On her relationship with Ingrid Bergman, Ullmann said, "I sat in quietness and admired her" when she clashed with director Bergman; in Ullmann's view, "you don't question the writer,"  and she felt sorry for Ingmar who was hurt at having his art questioned. When asked if she was most proud of her acting or directing career, she shared that her experience directing Cate Blanchett in a theatrical production of A Streetcar Named Desire was among her most rewarding. At the end of the afternoon, the audience rose to their feet to applaud Ullmann, and most likely grateful for the opportunity to share in this terrific cinematic experience.

Autumn Sonata is currently streaming, with extras, on