Ingmar Bergman didn’t exactly believe in the healing potential of catharsis.
The mother-daughter confrontation that powers “Autumn Sonata” (1978) begins as a cordial, if strained, greeting. Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is a famous concert pianist who visits her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) for the first time in years. Eva is probably close to forty, but with her mousy spectacles and scrunched-up nose she passes easily as the meek child who shrieks “Mama!” as she races to help Charlotte with her luggage. Tensions build quickly from there, but barely provide a hint at the eruption to come.
Charlotte arrives in response to Eva’s written invitation, but it soon becomes apparent that the letter springs a carefully set trap. Charlotte maintains an aura of good humor until she’s blindsided by the revelation that her other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman) is also in the house. Helena suffers from a degenerative ailment that leaves her almost immobilized and barely able to speak, a gruesome condition Charlotte has absolutely no interest in dealing with because it doesn’t fit in with her personal or professional plans. A career on tour was more appealing than playing nursemaid to an irksomely ill child.
Eva relishes seeing her ever-so-poised mother put off guard and eventually uses the opening to stage her own withering attack. The night progresses into a shouting match with some of the most violent accusations ever hurled on screen. Charlotte may not be shocked to learn that her children see her as a neglectful parent, but Eva swiftly and brutally disabuses her of even the few illusions she has clung to in order to view herself as a mother who at least tried her best. This is a full-scale blitzkrieg, and the slightly tipsy Eva intends to leave no patch of domestic earth unscorched.
In the hands of many dramatists, this furious boil would prove to be a pivot point either for reconciliation or the opportunity to move on from the past. When Charlotte begs her daughter to help her become a better mother and person, Ingmar Bergman seems to have chosen the former. But one harsh edit later reveals that nothing has changed. Charlotte continues on her merrily self-absorbed path, Eva remains a twitching bundle of anguish, and Helene may be left even more brittle in the aftermath of mom’s aborted visit. If Mr. Bergman did not believe in the transformative power of catharsis, perhaps it’s because he didn’t believe that people have the capacity to change.
Distributors trumpeted the collaboration of Bergman and Bergman. The world-famous actress, then in her sixties and recently informed of the breast cancer that would take her life in 1982, had stuck mostly to the stage in recent years, but was cashing in on a promise the director had made years before to give her a good role. Though Ms. Bergman was surely familiar with the psychology of world-renowned directors, her creative partnership with the Swedish maestro was not a marriage made in heaven. She found many aspects of her character and the scenario implausible, and sought explanations from a director unaccustomed to giving them.
In a storybook ending that would never appear in an Ingmar Bergman film, the considerable friction between the two would have produced a performance for the ages. Ms. Bergman is certainly still a striking presence, but she seems somewhat detached from the fireworks. Perhaps it’s an appropriate creative choice given Charlotte’s evident narcissism, but Ms. Bergman winds up being upstaged repeatedly by Liv Ullmann, Mr. Bergman’s partner both on and (for a while) off-screen. Ullmann pulls off a delicate balancing act, retaining the aura of a wounded adolescent even while launching one carefully calibrated emotional salvo after another. Charlotte’s feeble protests are never particularly convincing, but maybe she doesn’t even care enough to put on a good show. If so, Ms. Bergman’s exasperation with the role is understandable: the Hollywood star and Rossellini muse was accustomed to at least some sliver of redemption in her characters. Her namesake director held back even that.
In other words, “Autumn Sonata” is a feel-good experience for the whole family. Enjoy.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Thanks to the film’s title, it is obligatory to describe Sven Nykvist’s cinematography as “autumnal” in color. There’s certainly a lot of red and brown throughout. Most of it is shot in cramped quarters with plenty of close-ups and the image detail is fairly strong, though not razor sharp, throughout. I don’t own the original SD release as a comparison point, but considering it was put out in 2000 (this disc retains Spine Number 60) I think it’s a safe bet that this 1080p transfer is a major improvement over the previous version.
The linear PCM Mono track is crisp and distortion-free as we’ve come to expect from Criterion. The disc also includes the English-dubbed version of the film as an audio option, which might be worth checking out just for the sake of curiosity. Optional English subtitles support the Swedish audio.
The original 2000 SD release by Criterion was almost bare-bones, but this one is pretty loaded.
The film is accompanied by a commentary by Criterion’s go-to Bergman scholar Peter Cowie. The commentary was recorded in 1995, presumably for the Laserdisc release. It’s pretty dry but informative; perhaps it would be a bit more lively if it was recorded today.
Sucking up most of the storage space on this Blu-ray is the ginormous “Making Of” feature. Directed on set by Arne Carlsson, this 206-minute behind-the-scenes documentary runs more than twice as long as the feature and provides unusually intimate access to the creative process. Bergman fans and students of acting will flip over this feature, and I can easily imagine it being a bigger draw than the film itself. I admit to just skimming it so far.
Criterion also provides a new interview with actress-director Liv Ullmann (2013, 19 min.) who shares quite a few details about the film’s production. She is both critical of Ingrid Bergman’s constant questioning of Ingmar Bergman, and also understanding of it. For a short interview, it’s pretty revealing and a cut above most similar features.
“Ingrid Bergman at the NFT” is a video of an on-stage conversation between Ms. Bergman and critic John Taylor Russell. It runs 39 minutes and took place in 1981 at the National Film Theater in London.
Finally, we get a Theatrical Trailer (2 ½ minutes).
The 20-page insert booklet includes an excellent essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, of Self-Styled Siren fame.
I’m not a big fan of theatrical two-handers and I remain as cool on (most) Bergman as ever, but “Autumn Sonata” is a showcase for its formidable leading ladies. Criterion has provided a strong transfer and one of the most substantial extras of all-time in the 206 minute “Making Of” feature. Bergman fans who own the old 2000 SD release have every reason to double-dip.