When I really began digging into classic cinema, one of the films I started with was Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and it wasn't that long ago. According to Netflix, I returned the disc on January 8, 2008 after returning Bergman's Wild Strawberries about a month earlier (I wrote about them both briefly right here).
I'd actually received both discs at the same time, but kept Seventh Seal a little longer because it had so truly captured my imagination. I've written about it a few times since, including a review of the Criterion Blu-ray a little over four years ago. I've found Bergman's work captivating ever since, several as a result of the Criterion Collection including reviewing Smiles of a Summer Night, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monica, Fanny and Alexander and The Magician along with my discovery of Persona two years ago, whose two-shot imagery is repeated in a highly affecting scene in this month's Criterion Blu-ray release of Bergman's Autumn Sonata.
Here is a work 21 years beyond both Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries and marks a point in Bergman's career where virtually everything else he would make from that point on would be for television. Autumn Sonata also makes available the last major theatrical feature film for Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) and the only time the actress would ever work with her fellow countryman, not to mention a film she would make after just being diagnosed with the breast cancer that would later take her life. Her performance is a startling achievement considering the similarities with her own life as she plays Charlotte, a concert pianist that hasn't seen her daughter, Eva (played by Bergman regular, Liv Ullmann), for seven years. The story follows the mother and daughter relationship over the course of approximately 24 hours, with snarling confrontations and peeks into the duo's dark past that are almost sheer torture.
Most fascinating about Autumn Sonata, for me, was the way Bergman shows no allegiance to one character over the other. Charlotte's introduction is a cold one. We learn she hasn't seen Eva for seven years and we're appalled. It gets worse once we learn how she institutionalized her other, severely disabled daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), who is now being cared for in Eva's home. Charlotte's reaction to learning Helena is in the same house is one of horror and almost fear, afraid to confront what she's done and the revelations don't get any better from there. She didn't even visit Eva when her son drowned, which may be only fitting since she wasn't there for his birth. All of this leads to an evening of venomous revelations as Eva essentially blames Charlotte for all she's become, while equally affecting is Charlotte's reaction.
It's this evening confrontation that leaves Charlotte in tears and what is so absolutely astonishing about it is how Bergman (you decide if Ingmar, Ingrid or both deserve more credit) coaxes compassion out of us for Charlotte, a mother that chose her career over her entire family and still manages to find excuses for why she missed out on so many moments in her daughters' lives. "I was recording all the Mozart sonatas," is one such example and as much as this narrative reflected Ingrid Bergman's life, it doesn't fall far from Ingmar Bergman's either, but these are merely window dressing details compared to the overall feature.
Autumn Sonata wasn't able to immediately pique my interest, but I soon found it had engaged my personal defense mechanism as Eva begins hammering down on her mother with words that may as well be hammers, leaving her battered and beaten. There is no arguing Charlotte chose her professional career over her family, but at what point does a 40-year-old daughter cross the line when attacking her mother? At what point must we take responsibility for our own lives? I ask not as an accusation, but in sincerity.
Eva has every right to be angry and while she may be in her forties now, she was in her early thirties the last time she saw her mother. She's lost a child, a child we can presume Charlotte never saw, not even once, and Eva is now left caring for the sister her mother seems to have accepted is best left forgotten. Eva is due some sense of spiritual cleansing, but is the absolute shaming of Charlotte the answer? And why do I feel compassion at any moment for Charlotte taking all these things into consideration?
You begin to feel sorry for Charlotte as Bergman's eyes well with tears, but as soon as you feel compassion the story shifts. Charlotte runs away and we're left with an epilogue that is just as emotionally conflicting as the entirety of the second act and this is what Ingmar Bergman is so talented at doing. He presents a scenario, but doesn't answer all the questions. He creates complex characters with a multitude of flaws and he essentially says to the audience, "Deal with it."
He challenges us and as hard as it is to watch sometimes, it's rewarding.
As for this Criterion release, it looks immaculate, though many will speak to cinematographer Sven Nykvist's autumnal color palette as something to praise, Farran Smith Nehme calls it "haunting" in her included essay, I found it rather ugly at times. His work, however, on the flashback scenes is as good as you'd expect, particularly one scene where a young Eva closes a pair of sliding doors, leaving her mother to rest alone on the other side, or another where Helena has crawled out of bed and begins pleading with the mother that will never hear her, most likely, ever again.
I particularly enjoyed the new, 19-minute interview with Ullmann discussing the making of the film, Bergman as a father and the clashing between Ingmar and Ingrid on set and even in pre-production. Standard with pretty much every Criterion release of a Bergman title is the introduction by Bergman originally recorded in 2003 along with another highly informative audio commentary from Bergman expert Peter Cowie. Additionally there is a 1981 chat between Ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor from the National Film Theatre in London that almost serves as an Actor's Studio kind of feature.
Finally, running more than double the running time of the 90-minute film is a "Making of Autumn Sonata" documentary that runs three-and-a-half-hours long and it covers every aspect of the making of the film, leaving absolutely no stone unturned.
For anyone that already loves this film you can go ahead and purchase it without concern. The transfer is excellent, the extras are abundant and it should satisfy any Bergman fan looking for the utmost in in-depth coverage. For everyone else, this is a tough watch and it is sharply barbed. This isn't like watching a dialogue-filled, acidic Mike Nichols film, it's more like watching a Michael Haneke feature. It's well-crafted and devastating, yet tough to watch more than once.