September 11, 2016
“A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction.” Says Eva (Liv Ullmann), our main character in Autumn Sonata (1978) directed by Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, the film is similar to some other works of his like The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Grief invades these characters everyday. Eva has a sick sister, Elena. “Lena” stays with her. Eva takes care of her and her desperate, nonsense screams. Another problem is Eva’s son, Erik, who drowned before the day he was four. His room is kept intact and she sometimes lies there to meditate, suffer and wonder what could have been. One may think that actually enjoying this film is a type of masochism.
The main problem in the film, however, is Eva’s mother, Charlotte, wonderfully played by Hollywood-legend actress Ingrid Bergman. The title of this post is because the first half of the movie is filled with pretentious smiles, Eva pretends she is happy to see her mother, who visits her house for a couple days, they pretend they are happy to see each other. This goes on for a while. But problems start to arise. Her mother easily mocks her piano skills (they are both artists, so you might imagine the temperaments). Eva later explodes in a series of declarations, a scene a half-hour long of pure grievance, with no physical violence, no bloodshed, and the film still feels as violent as an early Peter Jackson movie.
Eva’s husband, Viktor (Halvar Bjork) also smiles as if he was a happy man. He only suffers. He talks to us, the camera, the audience, saying how unhappy her wife is, and how deeply he actually loves her. He doesn’t know how to combine the words to express his feelings. He knows he is not loved. She told him when they met, but he still insisted. He spies his wife, he sees her suffer. He listens to every conversation she has with his mother. Eva sometimes insults him, not hesitating to at least articulate it euphemistically, as if she is sure he is not listening. We just see the pain being send from his ears to his heart, to his unloved soul.
After the final confrontation between mother and daughter, the movie feels like a revenge film. But as soon as we see Charlotte in a train, traveling with some sort of lover, Paul, played by Ingmar Bergman’s regular Gunnar Bjornstrand, in a role that feels more like a cameo: he acts solely as a listener, his mouth only moves to deliver a doubtful chuckle. Why do I write doubtful? He seems to hear this lady with despair as she enjoys leaving her children behind. She expresses of Lena, her sick daughter as: “Why don’t you die already?” So there you have it.
We know Charlotte doesn’t give a crap. Early in the film, while she is in bed, reading a book that she hates by an author that supposedly was crazy about her that she also probably hates (the fact that she is reading it only supports her deranged personality), she plans to give her daughter a new car. She later says she won’t, talking to herself. She takes away a nice detail without even giving it in the first place. She enjoys being evil without anyone else noticing. That’s a pure portrayal of antagonism.
I am lucky to have one of the sweetest moms, but I know there are mothers (or monsters) like Charlotte. I’ve seen them. They exist. And their children, especially the daughters suffer quite several. Like Charlotte says at one point in the film, “I was always the same, just my face and body aged.” That is the immaturity case that condemns many children in many families. In a great parallel word she would be always top 3 in the worst villains in film history.
The movie is still strangely beautiful in many ways. We see that outside the house the autumn evenings look calm and gorgeous, as if the problems are only inside. Anyone who can sense drama as pure action will be completely entertained for 90 minutes by Autumn Sonata, one of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest. My question to anyone who knew the Swedish auteur: How can he write such a powerful film if he was neither a daughter nor a mother? Hell: it’s significant that an artist can portray these problems in such a powerful picture about regular people struggling to find happiness.