The Emotional Mastery of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978)


I’ve found watching Ingmar Bergman films to be a uniquely masochistic experience. They’re not punishing in a conventional sense, never relying on any sort of realistic, special-effects bloodshed, but rather in the emotional carnage that provides the spine and nervous system of his films. This creates an entirely different form of realism, one where emotion is laid bare, interrogated by his claustrophobic settings and intimate, almost uncomfortable close-ups. Characters kick and scream and question their world and we, the audience, are placed in perilous proximity by Bergman and his frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist. In the end, Roger Ebert was exactly right when referred to Bergman’s dramas as “brooding, lonely, and violent excursions into the human soul.”

It takes a remarkable sort of alchemy to make films that are so emotionally pointed while never sinking into pure exploitation. You quickly get the sense that each is a deep psychological exercise for Bergman. He once said “the people in my films are exactly like myself — creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while talking. Mostly they’re body, with a little hollow for the soul.” It’s all the more impressive that these characters, often deep in their own spiritual crisis, manage to be so universal.

When formulating his 1966 film Persona, Bergman decided “it would be wonderful to write something about two people who lose their identities in each other.” This loss of identity accurately describes most of my experiences with his films as well. His portrayals of emotional isolation are so detailed and insightful that I’m forced analyze my own life in reference to what’s on screen.

Herbstsonate (1978) Hˆstsonaten (1978) Accnr 21800

More punitive than punishing, these exercises with Bergman often leave me winded, struggling to find an emotional and spiritual abutment. This is where the slight masochism comes into play; it requires a sense of pleasure from the viewer, and there’s plenty to be found in Bergman’s unique environment. Each film is a humanizing experience, rewarding in ways that are often bleak but never glib. I never get the sense of sadism on Bergman’s part either, only an honest questioning of the world that leads to our emotional stimulation. This is right as a man and, perhaps, his duty as an artist.

And in a weird way, it turns Bergman into a sort of quasi-horror director, if only because he so acutely tackles many of humanity’s widespread existential fears — fears that Bergman obviously bears himself.

Which makes Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978), the film that helped reestablish him as an international star, a quintessential Bergman film. It’s a small ensemble piece populated with familiar faces, set in the isolated home of Eva and Victor (Liv Ullmann and Halvar Bjork). For this outing Ingmar hired a different Bergman, Ingrid, in her last major role, to be the film’s catalyst. She plays Charlotte, Eva’s famous pianist mother, who comes to visit after seven years.

Dinner w trio

It doesn’t take long to realize the fragility of this family situation. It’s as though the film takes place on the edge of a cliff and we’re here to watch it fall, hoping to God for the best possible landing. In a piece written for Criterion, Farran Smith Nehme states that “For Autumn Sonata, Bergman built his screenplay around exposition. Each revelation about Charlotte comes like another page of the indictment.” We slowly begin to see the extent of Charlotte’s absence and just how deeply her professional commitments scarred Eva. In this way Autumn Sonata also plays out like a warped detective novel, but one where we’re not told outright there’s even a mystery. The mystery grows organically over the day and night of the film, forming a dead body made entirely from the closeted skeletons that have come out to play. We know who the killer is, but not the method or the motive.

Although the central relationship is between a mother and daughter one never questions Bergman’s qualifications in making such a film; after all, he’s playing with universality and intimacy once again. The film’s major theme of art versus family is something he wrestled with throughout his life (and in prior films), and he turned to past experiences when crafting the dueling characters of Autumn Sonata. In his own Criterion essay, Peter Cowie explores these personal connections:

“For inspiration, Ingmar Bergman delved frequently and effectively into his childhood memories. It’s no accident that Autumn Sonata takes place in a country parsonage, similar to the one Ingmar’s parent’s had in a small mining community north of Stockholm when Pastor Erik Bergman was starting his distinguished career in the church. Eva’s handicapped sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), serves as a symbol of the repressed and distorted personality Bergman believed himself to suffer from as a consequence of his forbidding childhood. His own mother embodied for Bergman the essential clash between motherhood and professional career. Amid the incessant wrangling of Autumn Sonata this becomes a question of art versus family, with Bergman’s feelings audible through the lines of both Eva and Charlotte.”

Ullman at piano

There’s clearly no shortage of thematic depth in Autumn Sonata’s 99 minute runtime, but Bergman’s exceptionally deft touch keeps it afloat and securely anchored. The film begins with a tentative bandage of time placed over this mother-daughter relationship, but Bergman is hellbent on removing this temporary patch so he can scratch and tear at the wounds underneath until emotion is bleeding dry.

When Bergman’s intent is to probe (and it usually is) I’m always amazed by his dedication to emotional clarity. For him, emotion reigns king, especially over narrative and formal cohesion. If there’s a stylistic choice that best communicates an emotion or idea he’ll go for that, knowing that the audience can keep up. This is true in Autumn Sonata but also in his earlier films: the flashbacks and dream sequences in Wild Strawberries, the corporeal presence of death in The Seventh Seal, the six-minute shot of Marta (Ingrid Thulin) reading a letter directly into the camera in Winter Light (even this shot is punctuated by expressive flashbacks).

Continuing the trend, Autumn Sonata begins with Viktor speaking directly into the camera, setting the stage as though this were a theatrical production — it’s no coincidence that Bergman spent much of his life alternating between stage and screen. Why waste time with expositional nuances when a character can tell us what we need to know while simultaneously expressing the love he has for his wife? This monologue is intercut with shots of Eva staring into the camera in close-up, pensive, letting us study this beautiful, broken woman we’ll be following.

viktor 4th

The film’s centerpiece begins as day turns to night and comfort is slowly stripped away by the shadow of past sins. Charlotte is awoken by a disembodied hand clutching at her throat, a surreal reflection of the smothering pressure she feels in this house. She goes into the landing where Eva soon enters to check on her. In an extended sequence that fluctuates between heartbreaking lows and volcanic highs, Charlotte and Eva have the conversation their entire lives have been building towards. Their airing of grievances.

The exchange is filmed in Bergman’s signature style: oppressive close-ups that create abstract beauty from pained faces and remove any escape route for the audience. Characters turn away to hide their emotions, only to find a new, equally revealing camera setup. If not for the intimacy created by the camera (and some supremely effective push-ins) this scene would look right at home on a stage.

mother and daughter profile

But Bergman never forgets that it’s a film and capitalizes on the freedom this allows. In another formalistic shift, he peppers the conversation with flashbacks of the women’s past. Charlotte’s dialogue beckons us to the hospital room where she visited her late husband on his deathbed and Eva’s accusations are paired with traumatic illustrations of her past.

Eva’s aren’t ordinary flashbacks, however, but staged recreations presented to a parent from a child, an action that echoes a scene from Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961). In Glass, the teenage son of a successful author writes and performs a play for his father after he returns from a long stint of isolated writing. The son’s play is filled with subtextual accusations about abandonment and the father is forced to hide the pain he feels from his family…but we know the truth, thanks to Bergman’s ever-probing camera.

In Autumn Sonata, Eva’s plays are less literal, shown only to the audience for their emotional relevance. Instead of any close-ups or camera movement we’re placed far away from the action, all of which occurs in rooms of deep, moody colors and shadows. Our physical distance and the absorbing colors of the mise-en-scene communicates the mood of these past scenes more than our immediate presence would. When these flashbacks are paired with Eva’s wounded voiceover and close-ups of her tears we have a complete, heartbreaking artifact. And besides, Charlotte can feel the pain and emptiness of these scenes without literally visualizing them. She lived them or at least caused them through her neglect.

flashback 1

Each scene Bergman stages has some hidden, emotional meaning, even when they’re not expressly shown in flashbacks. His complete mastery of the close-up shot and his manipulation of film as a medium ensures that our emotions are boiling at a rate that matches the characters on screen. Autumn Sonata shows a filmmaker in complete control of his film’s emotional weight, which is all the more impressive when it’s clear how personal the film was to him. He’s able to penetrate specific emotions without slipping into broad melodrama or self-indulgence. He’s here to throw volatile characters into the crucible of domesticity, where cramped quarters force emotional reactions of a universal level. The fact that Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman are willing to rise to this challenge is yet another miracle of the film. Ingmar Bergman demands that the audience, too, rise to the level of his emotional experiment. It’s a trying experience, but one that helps unlock the complicated serenity of the human condition.



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