The edifice of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre is of such vast scope and is riddled with such ramifying thematic veins that it is almost impossible to treat any individual work in isolation. If forced to choose, Autumn Sonata (1978)would be an appropriate place to begin. A late-career chamber piece, with just a few characters and the contained setting of a country parsonage, it marks a return to the almost claustrophobic intensity of earlier films like Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963) and Persona (1966), all of them clearly indebted to his work in theatre. Employing cinematography of a lighter hue, and benefiting from the masterful acting of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman playing Charlotte and Eva respectively, Autumn Sonata is one of Bergman’s more accessible films, and thus provides a gentle entry into his imposing corpus. How, then, to gain entry into Autumn Sonata, the inviting anteroom of Ingmar Bergman’s labyrinthine cinematic castle?

Biography presents perhaps the most logical starting point. Bergman wrote Autumn Sonata in a few weeks, the fulfilment of an earlier promise to his Swedish contemporary Ingrid Bergman that he would include her in a film. Yet this was a collaboration that very nearly did not happen. By the time of Autumn Sonata,Ingrid was suffering terminal breast cancer and the film was to be her last. Despite the timing, it is easy to see more than charity and a desire for artistic collaboration in Ingmar Bergman’s belated turn of the camera towards his compatriot.Exiled from Sweden after allegations of tax evasion, he had just released Face to Face (1976) to lukewarm commercial reception and was not overly confident of the prospects of his next offering, The Serpent’s Egg (1977). It may be that the director saw the financial advantages of profiting on Ingrid’s still solvent brand, which led one critic to remark: ‘Ingrid Bergman is merchandise, offered on the open market. She charges and is paid according to current prices, just like herring and crude iron.’(1)

If he did it for the money, she made him earn every krona. On set the relationship was combative, the director claiming the only instructions the actress would respond to were those delivered with aggression. Ingrid, for her part, would reportedly subvert directorial cues and criticise the script in front of cast and crew. Knowing this when watching the film allows one to follow the extra-fictional narrative played out in the film; a veiled power struggle between two towering figures of Post War cinema. In every scene, one feels the director push the actress to what he thinks is the edge, only to see her step off it and – without breaking stride – reach new heights of emotional mastery. As soon as Charlotte strides up the stairs into the parsonage by the lake, with her cold smile and glittering eyes of quartz Ingrid Bergman becomes the film’s central presence. In some of the countless tightly framed close-ups of Charlotte’s face, her eyes seem to stare beyond the screen, through the camera itself, right through to the man calling the shots on the other side.

Biographical interpretations are, however, always a Procrustean bed of sorts; there is so much more to Autumn Sonata. The majority of the critical literature generated by the film has focussed on its psychological exposition of the most complex of human relations, the ties that bind mother and daughter (in Eva’s words: ‘as if the umbilical cord had never been cut’). It is unnecessary to contribute to that glut of commentary on this topic, however another worthwhile perspective on the film comes from examining the presence of its score, the title itself inviting such an exercise. (2) Like a ‘sonata,’ the film can be roughly hewn into three segments – introduction, progression and recapitulation – and three pieces of classical music punctuate the film: Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in A Minor, a Bach cello suite and an excerpt of a Händel flute sonata. These serve as indicators of the film’s emotional tenor at any given time. In the most engrossing scene in the film (not to mention surely one of the most memorable piano scenes in modern cinema), the audience hears Chopin’s Prelude played through twice in its entirety. First, Eva recites the piece to her mother, clumsily but with feeling, as the camera unflinchingly tracks the emotions registering on the latter’s face: ambivalence, arrogance, pity, sadness, love. Then it is the audience’s turn to sit with Eva as she watches her mother, a ‘calm, clear and austere’ concert pianist, cruelly show up her daughter’s earlier effort. The wall-to-wall repeat recital is a testament to the director’s belief in music’s capacity to express emotion in a direct and unmediated way. Ingmar Bergman once said:

“I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.”(3)

Aside from its musical allusion, the film’s title holds the clue to another central trope: the idea of seasons and cycles. Set and shot in autumn and, more poetically, created in the autumnal years of the director’s creative output Autumn Sonata feels at first blush to be a film concerned with our approach to endings. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography contributes to this, his wan and washed out palette and reliance on artificial light, lamps and candles, draw attention to the oncoming chill of winter. Yet in what at first seems a contradiction, many of Nykvist’s scenes are garlanded with flowers. They appear in scores of shots – from the long shot of Charlotte arriving in the Mercedes in which the tracking camera comes to a halt on a bed of flowers, allowing the car to slip out of focus and then off screen, to Charlotte’s bed-side vigil for Leonardo and the conspicuous single long-stemmed rose, to the supper scene with the great silver bowl of flowers and the more disguised bunches veiled behind the curtain in the background. Typically associated with spring, the presence of the flowers feels like a pointed reminder of the cyclic nature of life and our relations with others. The chill will eventually thaw, the flowers suggest, if we can all just bear it through the winter.

Endnotes

1. Stig Ahlgren quoted in Peter Cowie, “Autumn Sonata,” The Criterion Collection http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/67-autumn-sonata.

2. A more extend consideration of the role of music in Autumn Sonata can be found at: Elsie Walker, “An ‘Incorrigible Music’: Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata,” Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media, 2008 http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=194&feature

3. Ingmar Bergman, “Introduction,” in Ingmar Bergman, Four Screenplays, Lars Malmstrom and David Kushner (trans.) (Simon and Schuster: New York,1960) pp. 17–18.

 

Autumn Sonata (1978 Sweden 93 min)

Prod Co: Personafilm GmbH; ITC Film Distributors Prod: Ingmar Bergman Dir: Ingmar Bergman Scr: Ingmar Berman Phot: Sven Nykvist Ed: Sylvia Ingemarsson Mus: (Frédéric Chopin; Johann Sebastian Bach; Georg Friedrich Händel)

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Georg Løkkeberg, Linn Ullmann, Knut Wigert, Eva von Hanno, Marianne Aminoff, Mimi Pollak

About The Author

Julian Murphy is a lawyer who sometimes writes about books, art and film. You can find his writing in The Millions, The Berlin Review of Books, Art & Australia, Higher Arc and Das Platforms.