This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Liv Ullmann.
One of the big selling points in Autumn Sonata is that it is the only time the two most famous Swedish Bergmans worked together on a film: actress Ingrid and director Ingmar. Autumn Sonata is very much in the Ingmar Bergman style: morose, despairing and filled with hushed screams. It's a well-crafted and well-acted film, but it is also probably a terrible date movie.
Eva (Liv Ullmann) is somewhat eagerly awaiting a visit from her mother Charlotte (Bergman), a famous pianist. Eva, married to pastor Viktor (Halvar Bjork) also cares for her disabled sister Helena (Lena Nyman) while still mourning her son Erik, who drowned at age four.
Already we can see how Ignmar Bergman spreads the jollies in his stories.
Charlotte is not thrilled to be there but does the best she can. However, in a long night of the dark soul, Eva reproaches Charlotte for being a terrible mother who made her insecure about herself and putting herself ahead of Eva, Helena and Papa. Charlotte then leaves to go on a concert tour but privately confesses to her manager how she hopes Helena dies.
Eva for her part continues her private mourning for Erik and writes to Charlotte, saying she was too harsh with her and hopes for a reconciliation.
This last part is what passes for hope in Bergman's utterly dystopian, despairing, utterly meaningless universe.
Autumn Sonata is a film I would call brilliant in terms of craftsmanship. It is extremely well-acted, particularly as it is almost a two-woman show between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann.
Take the scene where Charlotte sits listening to Eva play a Chopin prelude. You can see in Bergman's face the struggle she has between attempting to be a supportive mother and the artist who finds the weak playing almost intolerable. She struggles between loving her daughter and being appalled at the piano playing. Without saying a word, we see the complex and contradictory emotions swirling within Charlotte.
Shortly after, it's Eva's turn to listen as her mother plays and discusses how to play Chopin. This is Ullmann's moment to showcase she is more than able to hold her own against a titan like Ingrid Bergman. Her face registers its own conflict between longing for approval and knowing how short she falls.
As both of them dominate Autumn Sonata, their story of reproach and rapprochement is at the heart of the film, so much so that at times such things as Viktor addressing us directly in the opening voiceover and/or Helena's grunts take second place.
And here is where I struggle with Autumn Sonata. Ingmar Bergman was never known for flat-out comedies but rather for bleak journeys into the dour recesses of the heart, stories where despair physical,emotional and/or spiritual dominated this empty universe. At times Autumn Sonata almost plays like an Ingmar Bergman parody. As Eva continues to confront her mother about her abandonment, her sense of inferiority and her soft but seething resentment, both women speak almost in hushed tones.
They are almost arguing in 'cries and whispers'.
You have an aloof mother, an emotionally wrecked daughter, a disabled daughter, an ineffective almost spiritually dead pastor and a dead toddler (who incidentally died the day before his fourth birthday).
Part of me wanted to say, "Ingy, you're laying it on a bit thick here. MUST you be SO miserable?"
However, what Autumn Sonata does have, and have it in spades, is positive. You have a story that is true to life in how children are affected and shaped by their parents be it for good or ill. You have two absolutely brilliant performances from Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, playing off and balancing each other in their roles as mothers and daughters caught in their own cries of their wounded hearts.
We also get some beautiful images from Ingmar Bergman's longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Of particular note is a shot of Charlotte at the hospital with Leonardo, her last husband, bathed in rich orange.
Charlotte, for all her faults, comes across as a real woman: able to express so much through the piano but not through her actions. Eva, despite being a tormented and haunted woman, does not come across as a ninny forever blaming her mother for her own life's miseries.
"Feeling is far from sentimentality," Charlotte tells Eva when giving her tips on the proper way to play Chopin. That seems to be Ingmar Bergman's motto in his oeuvre. While perhaps Autumn Sonata may be a bit too symbolic at times (Helena's cries of "Mama, Come!" as she hears Charlotte and Eva killing each other softly with their words was a bit too overt), it is reflective of the damage those who should love can inflict.
I would look on Autumn Sonata as a great film, but it is also the lousiest date movie outside The Deer Hunter.