Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Autumn Sonata

Ingmar Bergman, 1978, 92m, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman

...and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . .Chekhov

Storms rage beneath the placid surface of life, and hell and insanity are but a whisker away. Bergman's characters are often celebrities, just as Hamlet was a prince, and this allows him to focus on existential issues, which remain when basic human needs have been transcended.

The film is about the relationship between Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), a renowned pianist and her two daughters. The first, Eva (Ullman), is married to a clergyman, while the second, Helena, is mentally retarded. Helena was till recently institutionalized but is presently staying with her sister. Charlotte visits her daughters after a gap of seven years. Charlotte has been a career woman who had little time for her family. Her mind was always occupied with her ambitions and the pursuit of fame and fortune. She has very little of maternal feeling.

The deep disturbance is evoked through the performance of a piece of Chopin. The mother wants the daughter to play it, which she reluctantly does to the best of her ability. The mother, who is no doubt a professional of international stature, has a lukewarm response which she follows with a highfalutin academic discourse on the qualities of the pain expressed in the musical composition. This mercilessly thread bares the amateurishness of Eva's playing. Eva in no way has concert level pretensions, nor is seeking to compete with Charlotte. The discourse bears quoting for it'sown sake (interrupted by chords of music):

Chopin was emotional, Eva, not sentimental...There is a chasm between emotion and sensibility... The prelude you played speaks of suppressed emotion, not reveries... You have to be calm, clear and austere... Take the first few bars… It hurts, but he's not showing it...Chopin was proud, sarcastic, impetuous, tormented and very manly... He was no sentimental old woman. 

The mother follows this with her own no doubt superb interpretation of the same music. The daughter is deeply hurt by the cold and derogatory response of her mother, bordering on condescension and contempt. But then, what is Charlotte to do, she just doesn't have those feelings, and we all make do with pretenses or half pretenses or acting, as the primadonna has been doing all her life.

At another point Eva confides her own outlook, in no less memorable words (which could be no less than Bergman's own vision):

To me, man is an unparalleled creation. Like an unfathomable thought. Everything exists in man, from the highest to the lowest. Man is created in God's own image, and everything exists in God. And so man is created, but also the demons and the saints, the prophets and the artists and all those who destroy. Everything coexists, grows together. Enormous patterns that constantly change. Do you know what I mean?

Charlotte responds with a barely suppressed yawn.

The film, through its powerful script, portrays the terrible psychological traumatization of Eva, made all the more purgatorial since she never once gets to express her inner desolation through the eternity of childhood and adolescence. Eva even attributes Helena's terrible suffering also to her mother. Indeed, the terrifying screams of Helena, as she calls to her mother, are reminiscent more of Psycho than an elegant Bergman chamber film. Helena is the manifestation of Eva's invisible inner world.

The mother child relationship is the most powerful of human bonds. Bergman uses it as an example of the breakdown of the inter human.  Himself a great artist who faced a difficult childhood, Bergman is teaching us about the depths of human spiritual anguish which we struggle to hide. This void of the heart is not the luxury of a certain crust of society, but a pervasive phenomenon. It is a fact of life, barely hinted in this fine film, that people confined in the same domestic walls are separated by light years, like dark lighthouses. Silver spoons of wealth, beauty and talent can and often do prove problems in themselves. (There is nothing like a dose of shared poverty to bring people together.) It's a terribly lonely world, our state of Denmark.

This is Ingrid's last movie but looking at this hard woman with rectangular shoulders and the thin quirky self conscious smile, I could glimpse the icy Scandinavian goddess who acted in Casablanca and some of Hitchcock's films. She seems to me to have always been a Mata Hari, an adventuress with more beauty and talent than heart, more legendary than real. Perhaps this was just the role for her.


India Property said...

Wow, nice reflections on Ingrid.Great post.

Nathanael Hood said...


You never forget your first Bergman.

This was the first time I was ever exposed to the Scandinavian master.

I haven't looked back since...

S. M. Rana said...

True. My first was Wild Strawberries and there were no subs and I saw it through without understanding a word, struck by the cadences of beautifully elocuted Swedish and iridescent b/w. Life is too short to read enough books or to see enough movies. I share your enthusiasm for the "Gloomy Swede".