Somewhat recently I read an observation along the following lines–Ingmar Bergman created great roles for actresses by giving them absolutely awful emotions to essay. Whoever said it (I’ve tried, without success to properly credit her) said it a lot better. But at around the hour mark of Autumn Sonata, I couldn’t think of much else. The film just over ninety minutes. An hour into it, everything is forecast.
The film opens with village pastor Halvar Björk introducing his wife, Liv Ullmann. He loves her, a lot, but doesn’t really know how to express it in a way she can process it. She’s writing a letter to her mother, happily inviting her for a visit. The village is rural, their house is tranquil, the colors are soft, warm browns and reds (Autumn).
When mother–Ingrid Bergman–arrives, she and Ullmann have a nice reuniting. It’s been over seven years. Bergman hasn’t been good about staying in touch. She’s managed to miss Ullmann is taking care of her sister (Lena Nyman) now. Nyman is disabled; partially paralyzed and with limited speech. It’s an unidentified (by the dialogue) illness and, the film later reveals, a degenerative one.
Bergman isn’t happy to see Nyman, which is the first hint maybe Bergman isn’t such a great mother. Or person.
There are some more character revelations in the first third–Ullmann and Björk had a son who died, tragically, as a toddler. Bergman apparently never even met her grandson. She’s a famous concert pianist. She was busy.
She wakes that first night from a terrible dream–which is a fantastically done nightmare sequence (easily the best bit of editing in the film)–and goes downstairs to shake it off. Ullmann comes to check on her. That checking on her soon turns into daughter telling mother exactly what she thinks of her.
Their conversation, with occasional flashbacks, takes most of the rest of the film. It’s that night, the two women in the same room. Ullmann hating Bergman, Bergman either begging forgiveness or making excuses.
At that one hour mark I mentioned earlier, as Ullmann’s revealing the laundry list of Bergman’s bad parenting, that observation came to mind and I couldn’t shake it. But not only is Bergman–Ingmar–giving his two stars all this awful emotion to play, it’s not even particularly good awful emotion. It’s affecting and seeing Ullmann stare thin daggers at a collapsing Bergman–Ingrid–is powerful, but… dead toddler? Nyman’s illness? Ullmann being surprised she and mom aren’t having a good visit even though the only reason Ullmann invited her, deep down (but not even particularly deep down), is to rend her? It’s all pretty slight.
The filmmaking slows to a halt too. During the day, there are those beautiful colors from cinematographer Sven Nykvist in the perfectly designed house (Anna Asp’s production design). Night time? It’s nowhere near as effective. And, even though the colors are great and then there’s the interesting way Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist do flashbacks–long shots with muted color so Bergman (Ingrid) always gets to play mom, Ullmann usually gets to play herself, Nyman gets to play herself–for some reason lots of the (albeit occasional) camera movements are jerky and distracting. The camera moves for emphasis on Ullmann or Bergman and instead of informing their performance, it jerks and draws attention away from the performance. You’re wondering how they messed up a simple pan and tilt, when there’s clearly so much professional competence (and excellence) on display.
Like when Bergman has her scene listening to Ullmann play the piano. It’s beautiful. Truly magical acting from Bergman; it’s silent, she’s just watching, reacting to Ullmann playing, her thoughts across her face. A very complicated affection. The two argue for forty-five minutes at least and there’s never anything approaching that complication again in Sonata. Though once Ullmann starts in on Bergman, even when Bergman gets a monologue–the film’s a sequence of them–it’s nowhere near as good as anything she has earlier. Once Ullmann goes into simple hatred mode too… her character becomes a whole lot less interesting. Meanwhile Björk is occasionally around, usually silent. The way Bergman (Ingmar) used Björk as a fourth-wall breaking narrator was cool and all, but utterly pointless as the film progresses. It’s a misdirect to position Ullmann from a particularly angle.
The finale is particularly lackluster, both narratively and visually. Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist can’t do a simple composition shot. Ullmann gets a bunch of contrary penultimate character development, which would’ve been a lot better if it had come at the beginning, but then the finale resets it all back to the start anyway.
Somehow, Autumn Sonata–maybe due to the somewhat obvious production constraints–manages to be too misanthropic to be manipulative. It’s exceptionally disappointing, since–until it becomes obvious Bergman (Ingmar) doesn’t have the emotional fodder for Ullmann and Bergman (Ingrid)’s erstwhile showdown, it seems like Sonata is going to be fantastic. The acting is good, the filmmaking is exquisite (save the pans and tilts)… it’s got all the right pieces.
It just doesn’t have the story for it. It’s a shame, given how good Bergman (Ingrid) and Ullmann are when the material’s there.
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson; production designer, Anna Asp; released by Svensk Filmindustri.
Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva), Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte), Halvar Björk (Viktor), and Lena Nyman (Helena).