Fanny and Alexander: Bergmans final triumph

At the risk of coming across all Woody Allen-ish on you, I have to declare there is something extra special about Bergman. I get this sense of ‘I-will-never-be-the-same-again after I see one of his films. This will be a shorter review because I was only able to get my hands on the 3 hour version of this spectacular film, and I intend to see the ‘proper’ version and make my judgements based on that. Bergman himself said it was very difficult to break the original made-for-television version into this film version. The viewer has a sense of that when you watch the film. There does seem to be aspects of the story missing. However, I was so swept away by the film experience I had, I will not hesitate to get my hands on the full copy. (In fact I have just ordered it. Criterion has both the films in one beautiful set.)

The film is made in 1962 and immediately you can see the time and energy that goes into the lavish sets. The film opens with Alexander alone in the enormous (lavishly decorated) house of his grandmothers. He starts playing with a small toy theatre, and we are introduced to him through the front of the stage. Bergman has us see him as if on a stage, and soon he pulls away from the theatre and turns to the house.  He is alone, but doesn’t seem to think he should be, as he runs through the house calling out for his family. This sets up the primary theme for the film. We are alone – even in a crowd of others, even with family, even with ghosts both real and imagined. We are alone.

Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin)  are the two children to Emilie (Ewa Fröling) and Oskar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall). Teh Ekdahl’s are a wealthy family presided over by the matriarch Helena (Gunn Wållgren). The house and the lifestyle are both beautiful, luxurious and rambunctious. The opening scenes are of a Christmas dinner and the servants are all invited to sit with the family over the feast. The house is breathtakingly beautiful, lush and filled with hidden fun and pleasures. The story is set in the years 1907-1909 with a brief epilogue in 1910. Through the course of this two-year period Oskar dies and his young wife remarried the local bishop (Jan Malmsjö) who is handsome and offers comfort as she mourns. I must had the scene where she mourns the death of her husband is chilling to say the least. even though Emilie only married into the Ekdahl’s, they all still think of her has family and feel very close to the children. However, with the new marriage comes a new home and Emilie packs Fanny and Alexander up for a life in their new home.

IN contrast to the Ekdhals house, the Bishops house, run by his mother and sister is a cold austere place with almost no possessions and a strange pervasive routine that dominate the house so that play and free thought and any sort of internal adventure is almost impossible. The children are immediately unhappy and Alexander begins a kind of relationship with the dead ghost of his father in order to give him some measure of comfort. It is clear from the outset that the Bishop doesn’t like Alexander particularly (though he is not keep on either of the children, but Alexander being male arouses his fear) and he begins to exact demands on him that make him appear to be naughty when he is not being so. This leads to Alexander seeing the ghosts of the Bishops previous wife and two girls, who inform him the Bishop  killed them with the lifestyle, rules and punishments he inflicted.

When the Bishop finds out Alexander is speaking the stories he heard from the ghosts, the Bishop goes into overdrive and severely punishes Alexander with beatings, starvation and locking him in a barren room. Emilie is out of the house at this time, visiting with Helena to whom she confesses having made a terrible marriage mistake. Helena and a family friend (who has also been Helena’s lover for years) use a trick of property purchase to get in the Bishops house and take the children.  This is successful, and the children are taken to Isak Jacobi’s (Erland Josephson)  house, which sets off a new series of adventures for them. In this house, Alexander meets the mysterious androgynous ward of Isak, Aron (Mats Bergman – Bergman’s son) who ‘helps’ Alexander to imagine the death of the Bishop. When Alexander fins out the Bishop did die in exactly the way he imagined, he is hopeful that life will return to normal. The children move with their mother back  into Helena’s house. the last moments of the film, Alexander who has been supported by his father’s ghost throughout the film, is tripped in the hall as he runs. He looks up to see the ghost of the Bishop promising to exact vengeance on him. We are left with the feeling Alexander will never escape this fate.

There is so much to this film. The primary theme of being alone is played out though every character in many different ways. Strong too are the themes of reality verses layers of what we do not know, wealth and rabid consumption, and the knots and complexities that lie underneath the veneer of happy family. The words on Alexanders small theatre in the opening shot, “Ei Blot Til Lyst” (“Not for pleasure alone”) give us the basis for Bergman’s critique on the lifestyle of each of the different houses and how existence is eked out in the inhabitants responses to their own internal nightmares. I know this is fleshed out further in the longer version, so I am going to leave my commentary till I see the entire thing. Till then, if you can grab a copy of this magnificent film, do so.  You will not be sorry.