#CriterionMonth Seasons of Grief: Remembering Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata

Criterion Month is a massive collaboration across 5 websites in honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday and of the films of the Criterion Collection. We hope the celebration of this incredible director -and these classic films – inspire others to find new cinema they love and share their discoveries with others

For Ingmar Bergman, 1976 was possibly the worst year of his life. Tax authorities arrested Bergman after a dispute regarding paying foreign actors, but the charges were later dropped. Still, he became distraught and cancelled two projects. He vowed to never make a film in Sweden again, deciding to maybe even throw away his directing career, and self exiled in Munich. However, he changed his mind and started producing films in West Germany with some financing from other countries. In 1978, he directed one of his last great works Autumn Sonata. Clearly, the films themes and ideas bubbled up from the depths of ennui and possible sense of failure from Bergman, but this is what makes the film work. In October Autumn Sonata will have its fortieth birthday, but its age should not be an indicator of staying away, but savouring its flavors.

The film depicts Eva (Liv Ullmann), who lives simply with her pastor husband and paralysed sister who receives a visit from her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman in her last role). Charlotte is a world-renowned pianist and also a foil to Eva. Over the course of a long evening into morning, the two women confront each other about the past, their differences, and their similarities. The importance and heart of the film lies within the performances of Ullmann and Bergman, both who say so much in their faces and body language without saying much at all. Sven Nykvist’s camera frames both women from neck up frequently, their wrinkles and eyebrows heavy in thought and melancholy. Eva is physically tortured by a nightmare where her mother chokes her, her hand in focus in the frame, the other hand brought across her slowly awakening face. In a revealing scene, a two-shot of the women post-pivotal fight, Eva tiredly asks, “Is the daughter’s misfortune the mother’s triumph? Is my grief your secret pleasure?”. Earlier, Charlotte
wanders the room as Eva unloads the guilt of her childhood, feeling neglected by her fanciful mother. Charlotte defends herself, both arguing over the son Eva barely had and the grandson Charlotte never met. Both are raw, but hardly melodramatic, trying to place the blame and fault of what went wrong.

Possibly the most telling scene is when Eva shows Charlotte a Chopin piece she had been whittling at. Eva’s husband urges her to play. The camera is idle on Charlotte’s face, tears swelling in her eyes as Eva does her best but cannot keep tempo and makes minor mistakes. When Eva finishes, her face makes it clear – she has tried all she can to feel like she can impress her mother, but felt like a failure instead. Charlotte responds “I like you” when asked if she liked Eva’s piano playing. Charlotte tries her hand, explaining the correct way to play Chopin (“he wasn’t a mawkish old woman”) and proceeds without the sheet music. Eva dissociates and then stares. This is before the two women unload their past grievances on each other. Through Eva’s timidness and attempts to make herself smaller as well as Charlotte’s confidence and distance, it is understood what the past and current relationship is between mother and daughter.

Rumours haunt the film that it was a loose representation of Ingmar Bergman and his relationship with his nine children, many who had different mothers. The other Bergman reveals her truth within the film as well, a young woman who left her husband for Roberto Rossellini and had a limited relationship with her children, especially Isabella, due to her work. Seasons changed for both Bergmans and Ullmann, much like they do in the film. Liv Ullmann would continue her career, much like Eva continues on with caring for her home. Ingrid Bergman would die in 1982, not long after Autumn Sonata and wrapping a television miniseries. Ingmar Bergman would make Fanny and
Alexander the year the former Bergman passes and shift into television and theatre. Autumn Sonata not only was a feat of masterful acting, but an unintentional swan song to its two stars and director. As summer fades into the fall and further into the winter, each of their triumphs and streaks would quietly be tucked away.

For Ingmar Bergman, the film also indicates a time where he was far enough into his career that filmmakers and artists who looked up to him and emulate his style are now his contemporaries. Andrei Tarkovsky, who had recently made Solaris and The Mirror and was working on Stalker at the time of premiere, was deeply influenced by the
juxtaposition between Christianity and humanity, as well as the dramas of life that appear in Bergman’s films. David Lynch, who does not consider himself a cinephile, was inspired by Persona and Bergman’s short stint into the surreal that emerged in the late 1970s. Bergman, in essence, becomes a Charlotte in these filmmaker’s lives,
distant and well-known. As Eva says, “like the umbilical cord was never cut”. Though unlike the mother and daughter in the film, Ingmar Bergman and his influencers – as well as Autumn Sonata itself – has left on a positive note.


You can view Autumn Sonata on Criterion here.


By Marianna Aloisio-Seale

Marianna Aloisio-Seale is a freelance writer and Cinema and Media Studies graduate student at UCLA. Her favorite films are Mulholland DriveNashville, and The Young Girls of Rochefort. She also loves vintage fashion, human interest stories, and the color pink. You can follow her on twitter at @mlaloisio.

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