Movie Review #758
Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Writer: Ingmar Bergman. No credited producer. Produced for Personafilm, Filmédis, ITC, and Suede Film. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullman, Lena Nyman, and Halvar Björk. Other appearances: Marianne Aminoff, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Georg Løkkeberg, Mimi Pollak, Linn Ullman, Eva von Hanno (uncredited), and Knut Wigert (uncredited). Distributed by New World Pictures in October 1978 (dubbed). Also released in Sweden on October 8, 1978; in France on October 11, 1978; and in West Germany on October 19, 1978. Distributed by the Criterion Collection in 2004 and 2013. Rated PG. Runs 99 minutes. (UK release: 92 minutes.)
There’s a scene early in “Autumn Sonata” wherein Eva (Liv Ullman) seats herself at the piano to show her mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) just where her skill is in playing the instrument. As she plays Chopin’s “Prelude No. 2 in A minor”, we are given cuts between the expressions of Eva and Charlotte. Eva plays rather choppily, but she is excited to be playing for her mother, the woman who inspired her to play the piano at a very young age. Charlotte is a very experienced and egotistical virtuoso. She’s very hard to appease, especially when there’s a woman in front of her giving an apocalyptic performance of Chopin. Eva may in reality be Charlotte’s daughter, is just another woman to her, and she finds all those missed notes terribly distressing. We can see Charlotte itching to correct Eva.
This scene is powerful because it’s not about the fact that there’s a person playing the piano. If that were the case, then this would be ugly, because Eva misses note after note. It’s powerful because not a word is spoken, and yet so much about these two characters is stated. Director Ingmar Bergman has yet to introduce us to who these characters actually are, at this point in the film. He’s just told us that Eva is good, Charlotte is bad, and he’s told us why, but only to a very short extent.
Speaking of the man who helmed this beauty, this was not my expectation of an Ingmar Bergman film. I’d seen his “The Seventh Seal”, which I hated so much that I refused solidly for two years to watch another Bergman movie. It turns out that perhaps “The Seventh Seal” was merely the wrong movie to start with. “Autumn Sonata” presents the true Ingmar Bergman, who is the stuff of legend. The Ingmar Bergman who defined cinema in Eastern Europe. The Ingmar Bergman who has inspired and, I suspect, continues to inspire American filmmakers.
His 1978 movie “Autumn Sonata” is a tragic burden of the human emotion. We learn that not only is Charlotte vain, she is driven to care only about herself. Her disabled daughter Helena has survived only under the care of her sister Eva. She gave not a care when Eva decided to marry. Throughout Eva’s childhood, Charlotte continually took hegemony over Eva, dictating every last emotion Eva felt and every last one of Eva’s desires. When Eva became pregnant at 18, she forced her to have an abortion. And as a child, Eva always wanted to speak to her mother, because she honored her mother and wanted to spend time with her. But Eva never understood Charlotte as her mother as much as she ever understood her as an icon. Her mother spent far more time at the piano and on tour than she did with Eva.
There are moments that assimilate “Scandinavian telenovela” in “Autumn Sonata”, and I’m willing to forgive those, because the movie is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and paramountly realistic tragedy. The movie is, for the most part, a drama of two women’s confession’s to each other. The mother and daughter reveal their lives through confessions in a matter of just over 90 minutes. It’s a bit too much grief to handle at times; that we turn away for this reason is just why the movie is so effective. Most of its effect is thanks to the screenplay and the performances. This is a great script that wouldn’t have worked with a different cast; it’s as if “Autumn Sonata” were written for Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman.
Of course there’s more to the movie than just the cast and script, but it all seems comparatively trivial. Even cinematography maestro Sven Nykvist plays second fiddle to the performances of Ullman and Bergman. The cinematography is terrific, but if we were to subtract it, “Autumn Sonata” would be just as beautiful. ✴
– Alexander Diminiano