By 1982, writer-director-genius Ingmar Bergman had slowed his prolific pace to a more manageable level, only to announce he was leaving the cinema forever. He would continue to work in the theater, his first love, but this would be his defining swan song. As such, he put everything into this intimate epic: costume and set design, characters and cinematography are meticulously crafted to feel as though they exist right outside your doorstep. Bergman called the film "the sum total of my life as a filmmaker," a statement that carries added weight for the creator of masterpiece after masterpiece. (Does any other director have as many classics under his belt as the Swedish philosopher? Only John Ford and Howard Hawks come to mind).
Originally a five-hour TV miniseries, Bergman reluctantly cut it down to a three-hour international version to be shown in theaters. Considering the personal nature of the project, I decided to watch the longer cut. Now I cannot see myself ever watching the theatrical version that comes in Criterion's wonderful box set for any reason other than curiosity. You see, I don't ever want to see a shorter version of this movie. For five hours I sat transfixed, swept away into a story that touched upon Bergman's usual themes of melancholy and despair, but it also contains his most overlooked sentiment: hope. Fanny and Alexander, his most autobiographical film, is also his most uplifting, and I defy anyone not to walk away from this film without feeling anything.
By placing the film in the perspective of 10-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), Bergman can get away with anything he pleases. Born to a family of thespians and theater directors, Alexander's imagination runs even deeper than the average child's, though anyone could relate to the grand adventures in his head. We meet him and the rest of the Ekdahl family in the midst of their Christmas celebration in 1907.
The first act of the film is jubilant and free, interweaving the mad lives of these eccentrics as they revel their heads off before church the next morning. Alexander plays with his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), a more sensible and quiet child who nevertheless enjoys her brother's sense of adventure. Their father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), is the eldest child of the family; when he gives the dinner toast, he suddenly finds himself overcome with emotion and cries. His wife Emilie (Ewa Fröling) is beautiful but composed, though she lets down her hair a bit for the festivities. Alexander's two uncles are polar opposites: Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) is a boisterous philanderer, and his wife accepts his affairs because she loves who he is. One of his conquests is the beautiful but lame maid Maj, who cares for the children as deeply as their true relatives. Carl (Börje Ahlstedt), on the other hand, is a failed professor married to a German woman whom neither he nor anyone else in the family likes. Why is unclear, as she is overly doting and completely amicable.
Heading the family is the matriarch, Helena. Bergman himself cited Gunn Wålgren's performance as the best of the film, and you'll find no argument here. Helena is kind and giving, and she respects all in her home, including the many servants. A widow, she finds comfort in a Jewish merchant and family friend, Isak (Erland Josephson). Their relationship breathes even more life into this raucous first act. Shortly thereafter, Oscar is practicing at a rehearsal for Hamlet. The sets are unfinished cardboard, and the performances amusingly histrionic. Then Oscar suffers a stroke, and the children's world is upended. The family takes him back to Helena's summer home (which is equally as lavish as the winter palace), and Alexander awakens that night to his mother's wrenching screams that herald his father's death.
The real drama of the story enters the story in the third episode. Emilie, still grieving, turns to the local bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö). In her attempts to find solace in God, she equates Him with the bishop, and soon the two are wed. Quickly, though, we see Edvard's true demeanor. Emilie and the children move from Helena's opulent, inviting homes, both full of color even when the walls of one are white, into ascetic coldness. Edvard's house is a paean to Protestant efficiency: the house is white and barren, with just enough furniture as necessary. Before he invites them into his home, Edvard instructs the mother to bring nothing with them, not even the children's toys or even books. Edvard treats his new wife and stepchildren as prisoners: they may not leave the house, nor may they communicate with the other Ekdahls.
Interspersed with these scenes of intense emotional drama are moments of Alexander's imagination and the supernatural, which blur the line of reality and fiction until they become one and the same. The initial shot of the film, of Alexander playing with a miniature theater until his face is at last framed within the proscenium, tells you everything about the nature of this film: shown through a child's eyes, it has no filter on emotions or thoughts. We watched a rehearsal of Hamlet earlier, in which Oscar played the ghost of Hamlet's father, and so Alexander sees his father's ghost, warning him about Edvard. He tells a maid of a vision of Edvard's first wife and children who told him how they drowned when they attempted to escape the house after the bishop denied them food and water for five days. The maid brings this to the bishop's attention, and he viciously beats the boy, who nonetheless stands his ground and makes clear his hatred for the old man. That night, the ghosts of the children indeed visit him, but they accuse him of fibbing.
The ghosts who visit him in this episode unsettle us because Alexander is frightened, but the magic of the final installment takes on a lighter note, even when it's far darker. Isak manages to smuggle the children out of the house in a dresser. When Edvard runs upstairs to check on the children, however, they're sitting calmly in their room. Alexander meets Isak's nephew Ismael, who is played by a girl. She reads Alexander's mind, and later that night the bishop dies horribly when his house catches fire.
As with Cries & Whispers, red is a dominant color in the film. The scenes in Helena's winter home bookend the film, and they contain all the passion that was restrained in Cries & Whispers. Gustav's revelry in the opening act gives him a baby daughter in the benediction, which he proudly displays to the family. Carl, so morose and defeated at first, finds a renewed purpose in his role freeing his relatives from that horrible bishop. Those middle passages obviously reflected the director's childhood with his authoritarian father, a Calvinist minister who actually served the king. But these moments with the Ekdahls work both as recognitions of the beauty of family as well as his ideal, in which private life is inseparable from the theater.
At the start of the review I called the director a genius, a word that has been sadly stripped of all meaning because of overuse, particularly when it comes to popular artists. (If all the people who proclaimed their favorite performers "geniuses" really were, there would be more Nobel Prize laureates touring arenas than there would be curing cancer.) But when I watch a film like this, or Persona, or Winter Light, or many others, I see an insatiable passion and an understanding of humanity. For all the supernatural, religious, existential themes and ideas that float through his movies, he rarely puts forth one solution as conclusive. When he does (Through a Glass Darkly, The Seventh Seal), these seemingly didactic conclusions invite enough differing interpretations to reward multiple viewings. In Fanny and Alexander I see everything that makes the director great, arranged in such a way that I was never bored for a second of its five-hour length.
Bergman once said, "The theater is my wife, and the cinema is my mistress." As with Gustav Adolf, he loves the two in equal, open measure here. Bergman clearly grew up with the theater, and made a comment in recent years that praised the theater as artistic truth while "cinema belongs to the whoring and slaughterhouse trades." But he also acknowledged the power of cinema to capture unrehearsed emotion, and that the doldrums of constant re-takes could give him something that the hectic, ever-shifting nature of live performance never could. Fanny and Alexander is a love letter to everything -- theater, cinema, life itself -- a richly photographed work that displays Sven Nykvist's talents with a number of style and tones over the course of a single film (the cinematographer won his second and final Oscar for his stunning work) and Bergman's ability to capture the raging contradictions of the human condition with an inimitable mixture of objectivity and boundless vigor. In the career of a man with enough masterpieces to set up at least five lauded filmmakers, Fanny and Alexander stands out as one of his defining creations. It's such a thorough valediction to the cinema that I almost had a hard time believing that people continued to make films afterward. Its beauty, the beauty of all performance art, is summed up in the final lines, recited by Helena from The Dream Play as she comforts young Alexander, who saw the bishop's ghost and fears a lifetime of haunting:
"Anything can happen, anything is
possible and likely.
Time and space do not exist.
On a flimsy ground of reality
Imagination spins out and weaves new patterns."