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Fanny and Alexander (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on December 9, 2011

I had feared that I wouldn’t have much left to say for this, my fourth review of the film.  Instead, I’m almost overflowing with thoughts about it.  First, to address my two tiny nitpicks from the previous review.  The fart scene… I don’t really mind it anymore.  I even kind of look forward to it.  It gives Carl a mischievous sense of humor, something to take a little bit of the edge off his darker side.  I also suggested that Ewa Fröling (Emilie, the mother) isn’t quite as good as the rest of the cast.  I will revise that: she isn’t quite as distinctive as the rest of the cast.  With so many grand personalities running around, it’s hard for Emilie to leave a strong impression.  But this time I realized how good Fröling is, nailing many of the subtle shifts the role demands.

Speaking of grand personalities, among an amazingly strong cast, Gunn Wållgren (Helena, the matriarch) towers above them all.  It was her final screen performance, and what a fantastic swan song.  I want this woman to be my grandmother.  She exudes endless warmth and compassion and patience.  I must seek out more of her work, having only seen her in this and one of her earliest films, Ordet (and I can’t recall her role in that at all).

This is a film that celebrates the creature comforts of life, finding pleasure in “the little world.”  For as much as Bergman gets saddled with labels like “austere”, here we see him practically spitting in the face of austerity.  The Ekdahl home is joyously lavish, stuffed with artwork and food and precious items.  And of course there’s also the packed-to-the-rafters shop owned by Jacobi, filled with exotic and supernatural mysteries.  Where Fanny and Alexander suffer is in the stifling environment of the barren Vergerus household, forbidden from bringing any of their belongings (the bishop reluctantly allows Alexander to hold on to his battered teddy bear).  It’s a wholehearted endorsement of material, physical decadence.  “Let us be happy while we are happy.”

Bergman is careful not to completely idealize the world of the Ekdahls, however.  We see Carl’s unbearable cruelty to his wife, Gustav’s endless philandering which is amusingly tolerated by his spouse (two more wonderful casting choices in Jarl Kulle and Mona Malm) and even hints that Oscar is sexually distant towards Emilie.  As much as they revel in the joys of life, they haven’t quite got the male-female relationships right… after all, it’s still Bergman we’re dealing with.

The director is exceptionally generous with his faith in the audience.  In some of the finest examples of magic realism, we are shown impossibilities without explanation, and are trusted to make of them what we will.  It is a story that is much concerned with the power of imagination, and of course Bergman’s love of the theater and its ability to fire the imagination.  As Oscar spins an improvised fairy tale about a common chair to the children, for a moment we believe every word he’s saying.  With that same magical power of storytelling, Bergman makes us believe in ghosts and mummies and evil forces.

This film has battled with Scenes from a Marriage as my favorite Bergman.  Earlier this year, I put together my top 100 films.  Scenes was #1, Fanny at #17.  17th out of all the movies I’ve seen is a pretty damn good showing, but I realize now it needs to be even higher, perhaps even taking the top spot.  It’s such a phenomenally beautiful piece of work (thanks especially to Nykvist and the set design) that always offers me something new, and keeps me enthralled throughout the entirety of its 5+ hour running time (okay, the “Hamlet” rehearsal drags a bit, but it has such thematic resonance).  I think I feel a stronger personal connection to Scenes, but Fanny is an astonishing film on every level.  It may or may not be my “favorite” Bergman, but I think it’s his most stunning achievement.  Rating: Masterpiece


One Response to “Fanny and Alexander (rewatch)”

  1. […] 71. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman) […]

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