‘Autumn Sonata’: An Exploration of Grief Between Mothers and Daughters

Constantin Film

“Do we ever stop being mother and daughter?”

“A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction.”

There is no other relationship in the world like the relationship between a mother and a daughter. A mother’s love for her daughter, or any of her children, is “supposed” to be the strongest force, an unbroken bond, a thread that can never be cut — yes, yes, and yes, but if all of these phrases are taken out of their romanticised context, does not the mother-daughter bond appear quite stifling, claustrophobic, and possessive?

Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is a repudiation of all romanticisation, and the film far from evokes its title’s sentimental overtones. The title is ironic but we must remember that autumn is the season after summer, and the season preceding winter; it is a season associated with harvest and death simultaneously. Bergman presents a brutal portrayal of daughter Eva’s (Liv Ullman) and mother Charlotte’s (Ingrid Bergman) loving yet monstrous connection.

 It opens with an introduction from Eva’s husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) who stands beside the open door which frames his wife’s distant posture. The audience will too feel as if they are observing, and perhaps infringing on, the privacy of an individual’s, apparently, quiet peace. It is not a feeling that will ever leave the watcher for the film’s duration.

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Viktor reads from one of two of Eva’s ‘small novels’ and reveals his wife’s defining struggle:

“My biggest obstacle is that I don’t know who I am…If anyone ever loves me as I am I may dare at last to look at myself.”

As the audience will soon discover, Eva’s strive towards the formation of her own identity and purpose was shaped by the traumatic and difficult childhood she lived with her self-centred mother. Most revealing is that Eva’s very first piece of dialogue does not relate to herself, but to her mother. The letter she is depicted writing is to Charlotte, inviting her to stay over:

Dearest Mama,

I was in town yesterday and ran into Agnes…She told me that Leonardo had died. I know what a terrible blow this must be to you. I was wondering if you’d like to come visit us for a few days or weeks…Please don’t say no right away.

In Eva’s invitation, provoked by the death of Charlotte’s beloved companion Leonardo (Georg Løkkeberg), there is a slight sense of the daughter carrying her mother’s losses, the child providing comfort for the mother’s grief. Still, Viktor, and likely the audience, does not want to disrupt Eva’s highest expectations for the visit. As Eva happily runs out to greet her mother with an ecstatic cry of “Mama!” it seems as if things will go as wished, but the tensions of past decades are not buried and forgotten so quickly. 

She has barely reached her room when Charlotte immediately shares an unfiltered outpouring of her own sorrows consisting of her ‘aching’ back, and her grief for Leonardo. Bergman expertly showcases all of Charlotte’s self-centred vanity juxtaposed against Eva’s quiet, dutiful humility. As Eva, slightly hunched with folded hands, stands blurred behind her mother, it almost appears as if Charlotte is having a conversation with herself, and her daughter just happens to be there. All of Eva’s, and the audience’s, fantastic notions fall, and shatter once Eva and Charlotte reach the topic of Helena (Lena Nyman) : Eva’s physically incapacitated younger sister.

Constantin Film

Charlotte, who put Helena in a “home” years ago, is shocked and fearful at the revelation that her youngest daughter is now living with Eva and Viktor, although Eva had written to tell her mother long ago. “I never got the letter”, Charlotte claims, “Or else you never bothered to read it”, Eva counters. Eva’s tone, however, is far from disappointed — rather, she sounds as if she expects nothing less from her own mother. 

The minute Charlotte enters Helena’s room, she is transformed into the same loving, warm, and affectionate mother that greeted her other daughter. To know how reluctant Charlotte was just before, about visiting Helena, makes it heartbreaking to watch the beaming joy spread across Helena’s face; unlike Eva, she appears to have full faith in her mother’s generosity and love. What follows is an interesting parallel between Charlotte’s monologue and Eva’s dialogue as each prepares for dinner.

“What was I longing for so desperately?” Charlotte puzzles, as Eva wonders “What did she expect would happen after seven years?” Eva’s clear self-awareness and her intimate understanding of her mother’s vanity — “Watch how carefully [Charlotte] dresses” Eva tells Viktor — induces one to wonder, why? Why do mother and daughter, aside from their blood connection, invest so much energy into appearances? Bergman’s film is never conclusive but perhaps the answer can be found in Eva’s cynical observation: “We never give up hope do we?” Beneath all superficial politeness perhaps there is a forceful desire to reconcile and connect for the future, that outshines any past hatred. 

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When they are in a scene together, mother and daughter eventually stand or sit beside each other, while the camera zooms so close into their large faces it is almost claustrophobic for the watcher. Eva and Charlotte sit so close yet there is a wide breadth of distance between them as they very rarely look directly into each other’s eyes. This can be taken in a twofold meaning — is Bergman suggesting that Eva and Charlotte are “stuck” with each other forever, and with each other’s detested flaws and behaviours? Or is Bergman hoping for a reconciliation of sorts, achieved through honesty and direct conversation instead of deflection and avoidance? Either way, it is clear that the mother and daughter pair cannot escape each other. Nor can they seem to escape the past, no matter how much they bury it with pleasantries and tokens of affection.  

The conflict reaches its climax during the night: Eva and Charlotte are honest towards each other, for the first, and maybe the last, time in their lives. “We may as well have it out for once. Then we won’t refer to it again.” the mother insists with exhaustion creased deep into her face.

What ensues is a flurry of conflict and confusion, in confrontation with the incisive hurt of vivid and unforgotten memories. When Eva, clutching at her necklace, straining as if she is struggling to breathe, tearfully exclaims “I’m so confused! I thought I was an adult and could look clearly at you and me and Helena’s illness and our childhood” she repudiates Viktor’s conviction that unlike his wife and her mother, he is “confused and uncertain.” Bergman acutely perceives the distortion of feelings which exists between mother and daughter: is it love they feel for each other? Is it hate? Is it both? How can we answer when they do not know themselves? It can even be applied to relationships in general — we often underestimate the complexity and nuances of love, and how closely it can resemble hate.

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Eva’s remarkable recollections of her childhood is attributed to the extreme sorrow and heartbreak of her life with and without her mother; crediting her career, Charlotte was an absentee in her family’s home. In a particularly poignant dialogue, Eva recalls:

“I used to pray that something would stop you from leaving. But you always went. I used to think, “Now I’ll die. It hurts so much. How can I bear this pain for two months?” 

The progressing night, and conversation, is almost akin to a sonata; there is a crescendo towards the breaking point of tension, and moments of relative quiet, with Eva and Charlotte speaking softly to each other, transition towards explosive shouts of anger. This is best demonstrated when Eva reveals the traumatic two months of her mother’s company at home, where Eva “didn’t dare be myself even when I was alone.” Charlotte had absolute rule over her daughter’s life — she had Eva’s hair cut, dresses made, and body critiqued. Though never unkind or angry, Charlotte’s words, Eva discerned, were empty: 

“You have a beautiful voice…But I knew instinctively you didn’t mean what you said. I couldn’t understand your words.”

The automatic flattery and lies that flew from her mother’s lips, has moulded Eva’s seemingly incurable insecurities: “Words don’t mean anything real. I was brought up with beautiful words.”

With every memory and past emotion unburied, Charlotte becomes ever monstrous, until she is finally brought down low, kneeling at her own daughter’s feet. It was Charlotte’s lack of any form of affection or love from her parents that leaves her emotionally stunted: “‘I never grew up…I haven’t even been born”. She turns to Eva, “I think I wanted you to take care of me”, and pleads her case “I wanted you to know that I was just as helpless as you were.” 

It is not enough to acquit her.

Eva remains cold and merciless:

“You’ve set up a discount system with life…You’ll discover guilt just like everyone else.”

And all the while, Helena is just outside the door, having dragged herself from her bed, desperately shouting “Mama! Come!”

Bergman possesses no resolution, only cutting to the next morning where we see Charlotte leaving on a train, while Eva visits her son’s grave, and mother and daughter are torn apart again. The only shine of light Bergman offers to us is a letter from Eva to Charlotte, begging for a reconciliation.

The film is a culmination of the painful yet regenerative cycle of hope, resentment, and love between mothers and daughters — even more amazingly is the fact that the director of Autumn Sonata is a man. There is possibly no other film that will ever succeed at such a sensitive investigation into the mother-daughter dynamic. 

by Victoria Winata

Victoria Winata is a high school student (soon to be graduate!). She’s looking to study Anthropology in uni, as she’s fascinated by cross-cultural studies. As a proud Chinese-Indonesian she’s determined to delve farther to the roots of her two cultures.

1 reply »

  1. As a huge admirer of Mr. Bergman’s work, I applaud your lucid presentation of thoughts regarding this pensive and brutally realistic look at filial bonds. You are spot on with your observations. Personally, the scene with mother and daughter at the piano is a masterclass in the quiet illustration of one’s eyes and stance conveying multitudes.


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