Criterion Files #60: Autumn Sonata

By  · Published on July 21st, 2010

Throughout his younger career Ingmar Bergman had developed a strong working relationship with actor Max Von Sydow that would eventually prove to be one of the most fruitful of all director/actor pairings; on par with some of the most substantial in world cinema history. Gradually, beginning in the mid 1960’s with the inspired psychodrama Persona, Bergman began to work in another powerful collaborator to mesmerize audiences – actress Liv Ullman. Over the course of the next decade Bergman and Ullman would team up for nine pictures culminating in this drama about the attempted reconciliation of a musically gifted, yet self-absorbed, mother and the daughter she would continuously abandon physically by leaving and emotionally when present.

Same name, same fame

Autumn Sonata would not only mark the penultimate Bergman/Ullman collaboration as director/actor – Bergman provided the scripts for two of Ullman’s later directorial projects before the two met for Saraband, Bergman’s final film before his death – it would also be the one and only time two of Sweden’s biggest contributors to cinema would work together.

Ingrid Bergman, long considered amongst Hollywood royalty, would return to her homeland to make her final big screen appearance in Sonata playing Charlotte, a mother too preoccupied with her own life and interests, and self-admittedly her own personal history of parental disconnect, to have developed a genuine affection for her children Eva (Liv Ullman) and the mentally ill Helena. It was a role far removed from what made her one of the most recognizable actresses during the Golden Age and it was a stark portrayal of a character not too dissimilar from what many may have perceived Bergman herself to be following the departure from her husband and child to start a relationship with director Roberto Rossellini in the 1950s. Depending on one’s view of Bergman as a person the role could be seen as a personal challenge to address likened insecurities, an opportunity to respond to critics of her life decisions, or, simply, a desire to work with one of the most accomplished filmmakers in all of cinema whilst taking on what may be the most emotionally demanding role of her career. All are plausible, but regardless of her reasons the final onscreen performance turned in is striking.

Bergman brought vitality to Charlotte in the earlier scenes before the explosion of repressed animosity from Eva after a few glasses of wine (which is how these things tend to happen) that you barely realize you’ve sat watching what would amount to a very monotone picture without that character and depiction for nearly fifty minutes. Charlotte can’t be silent, even in the presence of only herself, and what at first appears to be unnecessary monologues considering most people don’t speak aloud their personal thoughts when nobody is around to hear them it gradually becomes more apparent that the character simply struggles to relax; even in her sleep. Her only solace comes from the sounds of the piano as evidenced by watching her daughter play her own rendition of Chopin’s Prelude no. 2 in A minor. She sits, mesmerized and touched, and silent as Eva leans on the keys. Despite the criticisms of the rendition that follow we do the same.

Those criticisms though, water the seeds of Eva’s pent up frustrations and issues of abandonment. As the night progresses and alcohol consumed the inhibitions begin to evaporate, and the truths are released in what is one of the most impetuous and honest scenes of Bergman’s (both of them) career.

Male’s Intuition

Probably more so than any of the other recognized great filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman had a certain affinity for female characterizations, often times in the almost complete absence of a male figure in the story altogether – such as in this film, Persona and Cries and Whispers. The only other filmmaker that comes to mind who gravitates towards a female-centric focus and interest in their sensibilities is Woody Allen, who unsurprisingly admired and was strongly influenced by Bergman as a filmmaker.

Much of the unhindered portrayals of women in Bergman’s films can be attributed to the actresses themselves, none more so than Liv Ullman, and much of that might come from the supposed leniency of Bergman to allow actors to improvise could allow for an actor (especially female) to naturalize the perspective to the intent of the scene. Not saying it’s out of the question for one to think that Bergman completely understood women and could write one with all of their complexities as well as he could a male, but why try when you have an actress as capable as Liv Ullman to just give a framework and let her decide what a woman would do/say?

The relationship between a mother and daughter is decidedly different, generally speaking, than that of every any other type of parent/child relationship. Men, again, generally speaking, would have great difficulty exposing what Ullman’s character eventually does, even with wine, to her mother even if they knew they felt it. If Bergman was to alter the gender of either of the characters the entire landscape of events would reach different results even though it could certainly make it easier on him to feel out and relate more closely to a male character as either a father or a son.

Autumn Sonata is not only a showcase in acting prowess for two fine actresses, it also exhibits an almost singular talent of a filmmaker to write members of the opposite sex to dominate the story and know to step out of the way when the actors feel they got something wrong.

Collective Closure

For the three big names involved in Autumn Sonata it would begin the end of numerous eras and working relationships. For Ingrid Bergman it would be her swan song from the big screen as she worked only one more time for a television film before her death in 1982. For Ingmar and Liv Ullman it would be the nearly final team up as director and actress until 2003 for the reunion of the characters of Scenes from a Marriage thirty years later in Saraband, which coincidentally meant the end of one of (if not the) premiere director/actress partnerships of any time. For Ingmar Bergman alone it would be one of the final masterworks from one of cinema’s most influential voices.

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