Fanny and Alexander (1982) was Ingmar Bergman‘s final cinematic work, although he did make a handful of TV movies afterwards, ending with the poignant Saraband (2003). After decades of desolation within an agnostic cosmos, Bergman keeps Fanny and Alexander in check. Although his obsessions are present, it is sort of an autobiographical release, which results in an immensely enjoyable, epic ((The theatrical cut runs three hours. A 5-hour television version was simultaneously released, as Bergman was understandably reluctant to edit it down. The longer version, with stronger supernatural atmosphere, is preferable.)) coda to one of the most consummate cinema oeuvres, and could even be recommended as a starting point to the Bergman novice.
As with most of Bergman’s films, Fanny and Alexander was received with a degree of controversy. Some criticized Bergman’s previous work as overly pessimistic. He also was frequently accused of pretentiousness, and as is often the case, that is a lazy standby label that reveals far more about the critic than the filmmaker. With Fanny and Alexander, Bergman was criticized for catering to populism (John Simon in National Review) and for oversimplification (Dave Kehr and Pauline Kael ). Yet, even the most critical reviews conceded Fanny and Alexander was Bergman at his most accomplished.
There is a pronounced fantasy element to this period family drama, so much so it is one of the few Bergman film covered by Richard Scheib at his genre site, Moria film reviews.
Fanny and Alexander is set at the turn of the 20th century, and immediately establishes its theme of childhood imagination. I would be hard-pressed to name another Bergman film in which children are the primary protagonists. When Bergman takes the plunge, he does so without abandon. The ghostliness of childhood saturates the narrative, the assured pacing, and the artistic design. It opens with ten-year-old Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) preoccupied with miniature theatrical figurines and a caged rat. The scene is fittingly choreographed, in part, to Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in F Major (Schumann is possibly the apex of 19th century romantic innocence) and sets the leisurely pacing. Alexander calls out to his eight-year-old sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), who doesn’t answer—but like most children, Alexander is soon distracted.
Shortly before a dazzling, magically detailed Christmas feast with the Ekdhal clan, Alexander is caught up in a dreamlike state as he imagines an erotic statue suddenly motioning to him, followed by death dragging his scythe.
A Christmas play evokes Mozartian flutes, followed by the entry of uncles Gustav (an amorous Jarl Kulle with a flaming punchbowl) and Carl (Borje Ahlstedt, drunkenly farting on the stairs), and possibly the most beautiful pillow fight ever filmed.
Fanny and Alexander’s theatrical grandmother Helena (Gunn Walgren) is the matriarch of the Ekdhal clan, which is filled with irascible actors, rogues, illusionists, and a multitude of servants. The theater life creates a community much like one would find in religion. Both Fanny and Alexander are introverted, but dazzled by the enchanted world gifted them by their theater manager father Oscar (Allan Edwall) and actress mother Emilie (Ewa Froling); but the second half of the film takes a darker turn when Oscar dies unexpectedly. At his father’s funeral procession, led by the ultra-patristic and austere Calvinist Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), a bitter and frightened Alexander, out of character, spews obscenities, foretelling the struggles ahead.
Emilie marries Edvard, and soon Fanny and Alexander are subjected to dogmatic abuses ((Bergman’s father was a severe Calvinist)). Emilie belatedly realizes that she has married a clerical beast. Oscar’s ghost rises (apparently conjured forth by Alexander) to intervene. With the aid of the Jewish eccentric Isak (Erland Josephson) and his warlock nephew Ismael (Stina Ekblad), Fanny and Alexander are smuggled out of their home. Their escape is like a fairy tale, with the children finding a new sanctuary within Isak’s surreal theatrical abode. Alexander’s ghostly visions serve as a segue into a chimerical coming of age parable, and the demonic bishop’s fiery comeuppance may be Bergman’s finest moment on celluloid.
While Fanny and Alexander is indisputably imperfect, it is a sensuous epilogue that stands not only as essential Bergman, but essential cinema. A few weeks ago, I declared that once done with my latest round of dipping back into Bergman, I would be forced to shelve any further revisits. After my third summer with Fanny and Alexander, I can most assuredly say that I lied.