Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
Swedish Title: Fanny Och Alexander

I just sat there trembling. Fanny and Alexander, the 188-minute edit Ingmar Bergman reluctantly made for theatrical screening, just ended. The credits were rolling but that final shot of young Alexander (wide-eyed Bertil Guve) finding refuge on the lap of his grandmother Helena (a magnificent Gunn Wållgren), along with other mesmerizing images that miraculously fleeted with their uncanny burdensome implications stuck with me, paralyzing my limbs temporarily.

Most cinephiles would call Fanny and Alexander as Bergman's most accessible work, the advisable first Bergman film to watch if you're planning to succumb to the Swedish director's mostly desolate filmography. My first Bergman film is Cries and Whispers (1972), a tantalizing and palpably painful work which shattered all trace of happiness in my body during the hour and a half I spent watching it. That film moved me, but not as much as how Fanny and Alexander did, which not only rattled my existential core but also delighted, frightened, and amused me in a way that was not shallow and ephemeral.

A flock of older women was not so quietly discussing the overt cruelty in the film. It was obvious that they related closely to the trials Alexander and her younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) had to go through, especially after the death of their father Oscar (Allan Edwall), seemingly the only sensible man in the Ekdahl household. Indeed, I find Bergman discomfortingly cruel to his younger protagonists (Alexander serves as Bergman's alter ego in this film and both him and the character share similar experiences) but not because of the extraneous experiences they have to undergo, but because of their (more specifically Alexander) sudden realization of the bleakness of life and the probable futility of the afterlife.

Alexander is often haunted by his father's ghost, who often just stands with forlorn gazes, inutile and useless in the afterlife. In his conversation with his dead father in the puppet room of Isak (Erland Josephson), a Jew and very close companion of the Ekdahl matriarch, Alexander questions his father's inactivity and the reason why he is not with God, before starting to angrily challenge God's existence and nobility. God replies by instilling fear, rattling a cabinet and threatening to show all his terrifying majesty and glory to the young boy. Of course, there is no God; it was just a well-crafted puppet made by Isak's playful nephew Aron (Mats Bergman). The bigger picture is laid down for us, that in life, we are governed by a religion that promotes self-denial, pain, punishment, sacrifice, and fear as a way of life only to be utterly dismayed and disappointed in death, where one's ghost is left roaming unnoticed and hopeless within the halls of his former life. It is that uncertainty that really scares us. There is covetable solemnity in the mummy's restful stance, eternally breathing and blissfully ignorant of the presumable emptiness of death.

Bergman weaves a colorful tapestry of life through the Ekdahl clan, a family entrenched in the local theater. Their mansion, we first see through abandoned in a hallucinatory daydream of imaginative Alexander (a memorable opening, tremendously horrifying in its opulent sparseness), becomes alive for Christmas Eve dinner. Underneath the routine yearly celebration are apprehensions, voiced out only in the privacy of their chambers --- a sexual affair between Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) and a pretty maid (Pernilla Wallgren) matures into a suffocating relationship that confuses financial freedom with actual freedom; Gustav's brother Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) is on the edge of frustration over his financial reverses and the servile predisposition of his foreigner wife; Helena recounts the exploits of her youth to Isak, while the latter doesn't regret the depletion of their youth as the world is getting worse, there's no better time to die.

Despite the normal intrigues of the household, there's much vitality within the mansion as compared to the abstinent life forcefully fed to Alexander and Fanny in the household of their stepfather (Jan Malmsjö), a bishop who woos their mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) into marriage. The walls are drab, the servants are colorless and treacherous, the residents are cruel. The ascetic and self-flagellating lifestyle led has tortured these people to utter disfigurement (an obese aunt in her deathbed, a tormented sister, a stern and domineering mother); there is blatant abomination in this example of misconstrued piety and purity. Alexander turns into his imagination for comfort and defense (he and his sister have been abandoned and helpless, their father is a mere watcher and a lonesome presence, their mother is trapped in her own passions, and God seems to be on the side of the righteous bishop), inconsequentially sinning to an indifferent deity who may or may not exist.

Fanny and Alexander is supposed to be Ingmar Bergman's final film (his final film turned out to be Saraband (2003), released four years prior to his death). It certainly feels like a grandiose summation of his life's work --- perfectly beautiful (lensed by legendary cinematographer and frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist), mysterious and magical, awing and hypnotizing, cruel, tragic, and fatal, but still a biblical celebration of life and of the living, their many facets and denominations.


chard bolisay said...

Mine, my first Bergman was The Seventh Seal, and as you know it is not a nice film to start with his oeuvre. Well hey, he died and now here we are, in awe to his "last great film." Grand, grand experience. I wonder I did not see you in the screening. (Haha as if I already saw you to know it's you hahaha)

Oggs Cruz said...

I was seated in the middle, the reserved area (I got a Swedish Embassy sticker from my brother). I was seated in front of a group of old women, probably nice outside a movie theater, but annoyed the wits out of me with their telenovela-appropriate reactions to the film. Beneath those beautiful signature dresses, I'm sure they feed on Marimar, Esperanza and the like.

Anonymous said...

that scene with ismael(?) and alexander was amazing!

i don't get why he had to show all the ekdahls after the party. what do you think?

- selluloid

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi selluloid,

Yeah... that scene with Ishmael is staggeringly frightening, especially coming after that ambiguous sequence with the brother.

The film is really about the Ekdahls. The film is about the whole spectrum of life (the youth, the living, and the elderly), it just so happened that we mostly get it through Alexander's point of view. I read that the five hour cut shows most of the Ekdahls. That party sequence is quite something, I think.

adamantcocoon said...

My first Ingmar Bergman film happened to be Persona, which, by many accounts, is said to be his most postmodern film and a spiritual predecessor to Robert Altman's 3 Women and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. I was too young to have truly appreciated it and so I'm planning to see it again (through "resourceful" means, if you catch my drift). I've only seen two more of his films ever since, and between them, I have mostly warmed up to Shame. I preferred the harrowing first half of the film to the second because the eventual moral disintegration depicted in the latter felt a little too glib for me. Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow, however, were perfectly cast.

My query now, Mr. Cruz, is: after hypothetically sating myself with a re-viewing of Persona, would Fanny and Alexander constitute an excellent follow-up? Or should I pine for a copy of Cries and Whispers?