Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Bjšrk, Marianne Aminoff, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Bjšrnstrand, Erland Josephson, Georg L¿kkeberg, Mimi Pollak, Linn Ullmann
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: Swedish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 93
Date: 09/08/2013

Autumn Sonata (1978)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Facing the Music

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ingrid Bergman began making movies in her native Sweden in the 1930s. She came to Hollywood around 1939 for a remake of one of her Swedish movies, Intermezzo. She quickly became a star in movies like Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944), and Notorious (1946). She received seven Oscar nominations over her career and won three Oscars.

Meanwhile, the director Ingmar Bergman -- no relation -- who was born three years later, broke into the Swedish film industry just after Bergman left, making his directorial debut in 1946. By the 1950s, he was making some of the world's most respected and admired movies. Finally, at some point in the 1970s, these two met, and Ingmar promised Ingrid that they would work together.

That promise was fulfilled in Autumn Sonata, a simple but extremely powerful and focused drama centering around four people. Two of those are Eva (Liv Ullmann) and her mother, the famous concert pianist Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman). Eva has not seen her mother in seven years. When Charlotte's significant other, Leonardo, dies, Eva invites her mother to stay.

Eva has a sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers from a kind of degenerative nerve disease. She can barely move or speak. Eva rescued her from a "home" and took her in. Eva is also married to the kindly Viktor (Halvar Björk). Viktor loves Eva and likes watching her from across the house, but he senses that Eva does not share his longing.

Anyway, Charlotte arrives in a storm of chatter. She and Eva share some pleasantries, but when Charlotte learns that Helena is there, her face drops. We learn that she has never been much of a mother. She often escaped on concert tours, or used them as excuses, to avoid motherhood.

Over the course of a night, Eva and Charlotte stay up talking, and they reveal painful emotional truths to one another. Director Ingmar focuses mainly on their magnificent faces (Ullmann was about 40 and Ingrid would have been about 63). Ingmar occasionally gives us a flashback (always shot from a long, wide angle), yet even when the women are just talking, we can often picture or feel exactly what they're saying.

Ingmar Bergman's writing has rarely been so pointed or effective. (He received one of his five screenplay Oscar nominations for it.) Everything unfolds in a tight 93 minutes, with very little time spent on reflection, dreams, nightmares, or anything else. At the end, Eva doesn't even have enough time to take in everything that's happened. She remarks that she needs to get home to make dinner.

Though the women have no solutions for their conflicts, it's clear what's going on. Charlotte says she was homesick all the time, but as soon as she was home, she longed to hit the road again. This unsettled feeling and a lack of acceptance for Eva left the daughter with an inability to love. She calls Viktor her "best friend" but rarely expresses any affection for him.

It's true that Autumn Sonata could have been a movie of talking heads, but cinematographer Sven Nykvist helps to turn it into something much deeper and more profound. The faces in this movie alone are worthy of volumes, and Bergman develops a significant rhythm as well, with moments of love, hope, and joy, amidst the sadness and bare, aching truth. One sequence is a truly revealing music lesson in which Charlotte tackles the mysteries of all that timeless music.

I have not seen anything quite like this movie made anytime recently, aside, perhaps, from Ingmar Bergman's final film Saraband (2005). No one alive writes quite as acutely as he did, and even if anyone did, no one has the precision or the soul to film it properly. And even if Autumn Sonata were released today, it would have been roundly ignored (as Saraband was). It's a shame that movies were once capable of looking so deeply into human souls and that it has happened so rarely ever since.

As it was, Autumn Sonata was distributed by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, and though I can't find any actual box office details, Corman always reported that he did well with these art house imports.

The movie received two Oscar nominations, one for Ingmar's screenplay and one for Ingrid's performance. It's a shame that Ullmann was not nominated; she deserved notice for being the equal of the Hollywood legend and holding her ground in a powerful tête-à-tête. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and Siskel and Ebert both chose the movie as one of the year's ten best. Oddly, however, it has not gone on to be one of Bergman's most acclaimed movies. On the website They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, it has never even ranked among the top 1000 movies, even though twelve other Bergman films are on the list.

I certainly don't want to sound mournful. I am ever hopeful that many more great movies are yet to come, and I'm grateful for a chance to have seen Autumn Sonata. It's just that it has also raised the bar for what cinema is capable of.

The Criterion Collection released this movie on laserdisc all the way back in 1995, and then on DVD in 2000. Now they present a new, 2K digital restoration on both Blu-ray and a 2-disc DVD set. Nykvist's colors are truly a thing to behold, and the classical music performances come through beautifully. The commentary track by Peter Cowie remains the same as on all the releases, but the extras on this new release include an amazing 3-1/2 hour behind-the-scenes documentary, interviews with both Bergmans, and a new interview with Ullmann. We also get a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

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