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Fanny and Alexander (1982)


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Warning: This entire thread will contain spoilers1.gif.

Like last time, we'll take the next day or so to post initial reactions to Fanny & Alexander, without responding to others' posts. We'll jump into the actual discussion shortly.

OK, we're officially open for business. So, your thoughts?

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Thanks, Alan, for moving the thread where it belongs.

Just some rambling, long-winded thoughts:

This isn't one of my favorites Bergmans (read my initial reactions to the TV version here), but it's still a very interesting film. First of all, this one is hard to pin down. I've read film books describing how shocking it was for Bergman to direct such a loving, warm, and happy film. I'm not sure whoever wrote that saw the same film I did. Or maybe they didn't watch the whole thing. Another film book said it was "almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn't seen it," and I agree with that completely.

Some aspects of the film that I find most intriguing:

1. Fantasy verses reality: The supernatural runs throughout the work. Actually, my favorite part of the whole film just might be the prologue, where we are introduced to Alexander and shown that this will not be a standard family drama. Mysterious things are happening here. A sense of fanciful imagination is mixed with dark foreshadowing. We encounter a moving statue and the grim reaper. It's a beautiful, frightening, and almost hypnotic scene. And of course, the fantastic elements don

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Some thoughts I had after my first viewing:

Much of the film is seen through the eyes of two of her grandchildren, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), especially the latter. Alexander has a vivid imagination, but he is also fraught by fear. He is afraid of that which is unseen, those things he senses but is never sure are there.

These qualities are revealed in the opening scene of the film, as he hides under a table in broad daylight staring in fear and wonder at a statue moving in the corner. Alexander is in a sense rescued in this moment by his grandmother, who sees him and offers him a game of cards.

There is a remarkable similarity with this scene at the opening of the film and one of the final scenes, as Alexander is again gripped by fear

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I loved the film.

A couple of things struck me on a personal level. Despite the personal flaws of the characters, which have been noted by Diane, I loved the Ekdahl family and the joy they find in each others company. Despite whatever troubles they may have going on they still find time to get together and celebrate life and each other. I have a family very much like this so I could really relate. I wonder if Bergman is trying to make a statement with a comparison of this secular family and the love and color that is put forth versus the "religious" home of the minister and all its coldness and bleakness?

This leads me to my second reaction which was one of sadness. I feel sadness for Bergman if this is truly a biographical account of his experiences with those who follow Christ. Having lived in a home filled with joy, love, inclusion, AND Christ I wish he could have a experienced a little of this in his life.

Im really wanting to now go pick up the DVD box set and watch the longer version. I WANT MORE!

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Does anyone else plan on posting initial thoughts anytime soon? The original plan was to kick off discussion today or tomorrow, but since only three have posted, maybe we should wait?

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Diane, I apologize. I've been waylaid and haven't had an opportunity to finish the film yet. You have to note how deliciously hypocritical it was of me to tease people in the main thread for noting the length of the film as an impediment.

Looking realistically at the time available to me over the next few days, I could commit to posting my initial thoughts on Thursday night. If you want to start wide discussion before then, I'll just join in late.

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It's OK, Russ. I'm just glad you're still in this. We can wait a bit. The more, the merrier.

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I'm about halfway thru the TV version and hoping to finish later this week. Please don't wait for me, though; I'll catch up with y'all, when I'm able.

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As was also the case with our Slacker viewing, I'm a bit behind the crowd, the only difference being that I already know I love the film having seen it years ago. I do look forward to seeing it again and jotting down some notes as I watch, but it will still be several nights until I'm available, so don't wait for me either. I'll jump right into the discussion whenever I see fit, but I'll post my thoughts sometime, regardless of when the discussion gets going.

-s.

Edited by stef

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Unfortunately I'm also not going to be able to find the time to write up any coherent thoughts on the film, but I plan to participate in the discussion as much as possible.

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Is this for the theatrical version, the TV version, or both? I happened to see the theatrical version again on the big screen just a couple months ago, but I have never seen the TV version.

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I should have written notes when I watched it two weeks ago or whenever it was. Now about a zillion things have intervened.

I appreciate the thoughts posted so far as reminders of things that I, too appreciated about the film. At the same time, I shall perhaps reveal myself as a hopeless Philistine (or maybe I just want to encourage discussion?) by saying that when I watch a Bergman film I sometimes feel as if things have gigantic signs on them reading SYMBOL and/or ART, which makes me rather cranky.

All the same, couldn't help being caught up in the celebratory Christmas scenes, and the mystery of the theatrical scenes.

I apologize--this is really more of a reaction than a review, or even a response.

One more thing, though: having recently seen Millions, it occurs to me there's something of a parallel between

the younger brother's seamless interactions with the saints

and the element of magic realism in F&A that allows Alexander to see statues and other objects move, to see his father's ghost, etc. But that element is an essential and almost fully integral part of Millions; I can imagine F&A succeeding perfectly well without it.

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Is this for the theatrical version, the TV version, or both? 

Either one will work, Peter.

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Just FYI: I'll get a chance tonight to reread these posts and put together some questions. We'll start the discussion tomorrow.

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My wife and I just finished watching this tonight, having spread out the TV version over 4 nights. What an amazing, multilayered, complex tale - I'm in awe, truly.

Diane, your initial summation captures many of my initial thoughts as well. The images of God aspect is fascinating here - this is an overly simplistic interpretation on my part, no doubt, but this film's religious worldview would seem to be one of mystery without faith. In other words, God is a puppet of our own creation (per Aron); silent or indifferent (per Alexander's questioning of his father's ghost); a 'shit' (per Alexander); or a tool to justify loathsome conduct (the bishop). Nonetheless, there is much that cannot be explained in the world - the ghosts, the strange interaction between Ismael and Alexander (did they foresee events, did they control them, in the demise of the bishop?). There is much grasping for understanding, per Isak's tale, but we are ultimately only left solely with each other - as well as life's temporal pleasures (the theme of Gustav's final rambling toast).

And I'm rambling, too. There is so much more to this film than mere ideas, however. The storyline is gripping, as it left my wife and I guessing throughout, at what the next turn of events would be. Yet, despite the bizarre and supernatural, it seems so plausible - sadly, for instance, the interaction of Emelie and the bishop followed a very common psychological template for abusive family relationships.

The characterizations of many of the main figures reveal an impressive depth, too, as there are no plaster saints and no utter villains to be found herein. The bishop's final interaction with Emelie shows him to be almost as pathetic as he is loathsome. Emelie, too, despite being a tragic victim of the bishop's manipulation, is rather deficient in her interactions with her children, in some notable instances.

Then there is also the symbolism and foreshadowing, which I cannot claim to begin to grasp. Personally, I don't find this irritating, as I enjoy trying to understand it - the water images opening each act, the Hamlet parallels, etc.

I could go on, but I'm tired and a bit under the weather, so I'd better stop here. I'm looking forward to seeing how this conversation proceeds.

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Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful comments. I'd like to respond to a few things and pose a few questions. Then we can just take this thread, run with it, and see where it goes.

First of all, I guess I'm a bit surprised by my initial reaction to the film. I described it in my blog as a "lesser Bergman." I've seen it three times now, and my appreciation grows with each viewing. But I'm curious: Bergman fans, how does this film stack up to his other works? Did anyone find it disappointing?

Thank you, GrandPrixGator, for bringing up the joy in the Ekdahl family. I also realize how harsh my first post sounded. Truly, I am fond of them, even Gustav Adolf, in spite of their faults (and Andrew, you're absolutely right about the film having "no plaster saints and no utter villians," which is a big plus).

OK, some questions:

How do you feel about Emilie? What type of relationship did she really have with Oscar? With her children? What is it really that draws her to Edvard?

Great comments on Edvard, Andrew. I was going to ask if anyone found him to be a sympathetic character. What really keeps him from being a two-dimensional villain? Specifically, as a Christian, how do you feel about Edvard? What does he represent to you? What do you think he represents to a non-believer like Bergman?

What's up with the ghosts? Are they purely figments of Alexander's vivid imagination, or can he (and other characters) see and interact with them? And would the film be as effective without them? (Thanks, Beth!) In general, were the supernatural elements problematic to anyone? After all, that's a pretty dramatic move on Bergman's part when Isak rescues the children.

What is Justina's motivation in gaining Fanny and Alexander's confidence only to rat Alexander out to Edvard? Why does her palm bleed like it does? And why does she appear in Alexander's vision with both of her hands bloody?

Speaking of that vision, what do you think is the point of Isak's tale? (BTW, I don't believe this is in the theatrical version at all.) What does it say about the nature of man's struggle, his journey through life, and his search for something greater than himself? What do the various players in Alexander's vision symbolize (Justina, the dancer who touches Alexander's mouth, the self-flagellating pilgrims)?

Why is the fifth act called "Demons," and who does this title refer to? Who/what is Ismael? What type of powers does he have? (And by the way, it's hard to say "he" when Ismael is played by a woman.) Is he Alex's "guardian angel," as he describes himself, something more sinister, or some type of extension of Alexander's own thoughts and wishes?

Andrew touched on this, but what does the film finally seem to say about religion and God? Does God exist? What is his nature? If he does happen to exist, can man really ever know him?

Edited by Diane

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As he makes the move from the home of his childhood to the home of his new stepfather, we ache with him at the stark difference between that old world and the coming new one. There is something terrifying and foreboding about this move that is communicated so well through the use of color alone

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I'm curious: Bergman fans, how does this film stack up to his other works? Did anyone find it disappointing?

I was also disappointed, and I'm not sure why, exactly. Part of it, I think, is that I have a bit of a bias against what I think of (probably unfairly) as Victorian plotting. The film, for me, lost its steam in the middle half -- really from the point that Oscar died until Alexander was whisked away to Isak's shop. But, again, that's definitely a symptom of my bias. I just don't like "woman enters a bad marriage and suffers the consequences" plots.

I think I read there are something like 60 speaking parts in Fanny and Alexander. I think another reason I was disappointed was simply that I prefer Bergman's chamber dramas. Give me three or four characters and a plot in which almost nothing happens, and I'm happy as a clam. wink.gif

How do you feel about Emilie? What type of relationship did she really have with Oscar? With her children? What is it really that draws her to Edvard?

I'm tempted to say that one reason I never got a real handle on Emilie was because the film is filtered through Alexander's imagination, and a son -- especially a young son -- can never really understand his mother's desires or motivations. But that might be giving Bergman too much credit, because if that were the case, I think we would get a rosier portrait of Emilie. As it is, she's a charming woman who garnered my symapthy, but I never really understood why she was drawn to Edvard. Her lines about being attracted to his confidence and sureness never rang true to me.

Specifically, as a Christian, how do you feel about Edvard? What does he represent to you? What do you think he represents to a non-believer like Bergman?

Edvard definitely fits a certain Bergman "type" -- the cold, pious priest. But I really liked his last few scenes. That moment when he and Emilie are sitting on the bed is quite touching. Isn't that when he makes the comment about how it had never occurred to him that someone might hate him? After building him up as this two-dimensional villain, Bergman goes to some lengths to invest him with regret and suffering before he finally dies. Death never comes easy in a Bergman film, and Edvard's is a brutal as Agnes's in Cries and Whispers.

As a Christian, I would say that Edvard is as mysterious to me as is any Christian who appears to have no doubts. His piety and hipocrisy make him an easy villain, of course, but I'm more interested in his faith, which until the last moments of his life, is absolutely sure. My experience of the Christian life, at least in recent years, has been a process of questioning and searching, and I've always gotten the feeling that Bergman may have had a much different and more charitable view of religion had he encountered more people who were questioning rather than dogmatic.

What's up with the ghosts?

All of my favorite parts of the film revolved around the ghosts and magic. In fact, another reason I may have been disappointed by the film was that it rarely surprised and pleased me as much as in that opening sequence. The sculpture coming to life made me laugh out loud, not because it was funny but because I just enjoyed the image so much.

That's why I loved Isak's shop so much, too. The puppets, the breathing mummy, and Ismael, most of all. It's a place where anything can happen -- a nice closing metaphor for Bergman's career in film and the theatre. The scene with Ismael can't, as far as I know, be rationally explained, but it is so charged with mystery and magic and eroticism. I loved it.

Andrew touched on this, but what does the film finally seem to say about religion and God? Does God exist? What is his nature? If he does happen to exist, can man really ever know him?

On these questions, I think Fanny and Alexander is a fairly consistent expression of Bergman's views. If God exists, then He is certainly not to be approached through religion. Rather, He exists in human love and affection (those wonderful Christmas party scenes, for example), and that love and affection is best expressed and most often encountered via the creative imagination.

Thanks for the good questions, Diane. They helped me focus my thoughts.

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I forgot about the Scandinavian midnight sun until a character pointed it out! Man, I was beginning to think that the children were having to stay in bed all day long!
Edited by stef

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Edvard definitely fits a certain Bergman "type" -- the cold, pious priest.  But I really liked his last few scenes.  That moment when he and Emilie are sitting on the bed is quite touching.  Isn't that when he makes the comment about how it had never occurred to him that someone might hate him? 

Yes. I wrote down that speech because the whole thing really struck me. Talking to Emilie, Edvard says:

I've heard the universe is expanding. Heavenly bodies are hurtling away from each other at a bewildering rate. The universe is exploding, and we find ourselves at the very moment of explosion. You once said you were always changing masks...until finally, you didn't know who you were. I have only one mask, but it's branded into my flesh. If I tried to tear it off.... (laughs bitterly). I always thought people liked me. I saw myself as wise, broad-minded, and fair. I had no idea that anyone could hate me.

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Yes, those are terrific questions, Diane. Thanks!

:::I've heard the universe is expanding. Heavenly bodies are hurtling away from each other at a bewildering rate. The universe is exploding, and we find ourselves at the very moment of explosion. You once said you were always changing masks...until finally, you didn't know who you were. I have only one mask, but it's branded into my flesh. If I tried to tear it off.... (laughs bitterly). I always thought people liked me. I saw myself as wise, broad-minded, and fair. I had no idea that anyone could hate me.

I'm with Darren, that this is the moment where Edvard becomes less than a total villain. The world is changing, or expanding/exploding, before his eyes, and he's bewildered and frightened by it.

I've known people like this (manipulative and dogmatic in faith, minus the overt abusiveness of Edvard), who are baffled by people's dislike and utterly unable to see anyone else's point of view. Though I don't necessarily understand how they arrived psychologically at that point in their lives, in my better moments, I find them pitiable. The mask truly is branded in place. It brings to mind how difficult it must be for many pastors, who feel they must appear strong and wise in their faith at all times.

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Busy weekend at the family homestead here, so I'm just adding comments when I have a chance:

::What's up with the ghosts? Are they purely figments of Alexander's vivid imagination, or can he (and other characters) see and interact with them? And would the film be as effective without them? (Thanks, Beth!) In general, were the supernatural elements problematic to anyone?

While this wasn't necessarily my favorite aspect of the film, I certainly found it to be a very effective and intriguing element of 'F&A.' I definitely didn't see it as problematic; to answer why, I'll share a bit of personal experience, if y'all don't mind.

When my mother died when I was a teen, I had some rather vivid and odd dreams in the aftermath. I can only imagine that a child losing a parent at a much younger age, when the capacity for reason and abstraction is nowhere near as well developed as it is in an adolescent, could very well find the grief and loss playing havoc with their emotions and reality-testing - in a way that I only tasted faintly in my dream life.

Are the ghosts real or imaginatry figments? I don't know - I think it's a wonderful ambiguity on Bergman's part, and for the sake of the story and characters, I'm not sure that it ultimately matters.

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First off, thanks to Diane for getting this going, and to all who've posted thus far. Lots of interesting comments, probably too much to respond to at once, but I'll make a few comments now.

Bergman fans, how does this film stack up to his other works? Did anyone find it disappointing?

I don't find it disappointing, generally speaking. That is not to say that there aren't elements of it that I find distressing, particularly the portrayal of Edvard, and, inasmuch as he can be considered a representative of it, what appears to be a pretty dark portrayal of organized religion. Having said that, there are elements of truth in that bleak view of organized religion, though I am not nearly as down on it as Bergman.

However, I find the film so rich with ideas, that I find it hard not to love it, even with problematic elements. It strikes me as a beautiful and perfect capstone to Bergman's career. I have not seen many of his films, but I have seen several, and so many of the themes and elements of those films (doubt, fear, mystery, dreams, etc) seem folded into this one. It just has a kind of comprehensive feel to it. It also has a solid dose of laughter and joy, something missing from many of the films I have seen. That laughter brings such a vitality to a film like this, laden with ideas.

How do you feel about Emilie? What type of relationship did she really have with Oscar? With her children? What is it really that draws her to Edvard?

As I've gone through the film a second time, I am finding her to be one of the more compelling characters. I noted her comment near the end of the first act, as the family breakfasts before going to church on Christmas morning. When someone mentions that the bishop (Edvard) will be preaching, she looks up and says something indicating her positive view of this. It seems that even while Oscar is still alive, there is something about Edvard that is striking to her.

Having said that, her motivations still largely remain a mystery to me. One of her more important exchanges with Edvard is before their marriage at his house, when she talks about her God being amorphus and mysterious, while his is a God of love. She wants to know that God, and believes that Edvard will show her the true nature of God. She has this deep desire to know God, and believes that Edvard is the one to make him known to her, but why is she so ready to go to such extremes? Is she guilty for her past indiscretions? Is she just a weak person, blown by the wind? Is she just sad and lonely, and he uses the companionship to get himself a good looking woman? A combination of all these? Something else?

I also find it interesting, in terms of her relationship with Oskar, that she essentially denies his deathbed requests - for a simple funeral and that everything remain as usual. The funeral is almost immediate, and the other is broken when she closes the theater and takes the children into a far different environment. Was she confused? Dazzled by Edvard's charms? It can't be that she didn't care for Oskar - her terrifying screams the night of his death seem proof of that.

I don't think there are easy answers to describing her - she's a complicated character with complex motivations.

Ah well, this is enough for now, more later.

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And what takes us into that initial transition? A very pointed use of symbolism where we see the "closed" sign on the theater and the camera pans up to reveal the towering chuch steeple right behind it. A perfect scene to lead us into Alexander's new world.

Wow, how could I have missed that? So obvious, when I go back and look at it. That's such a perfect shot, but also so despairing and bleak. As the camera pans up toward the steeple, one gets the sense of panning up the huge walls of a prison. It's funny how perspectives can change from film to film based on the atmosphere - there are times when shooting a church from below brings comfort and security, and then there are times like this, when there's nothing but fear and anxiety. I'm sure there are better examples, but the only example contrasting to this that I can think of right now is You Can Count on Me, which has at least two or three shots of a church from below. In that case, it always strikes me as more positive.

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Embarrassingly late, here are some initial thoughts

I'm a sucker for well-told (in order) ghost stories, sprawling family dramas and coming-of-age stories, so there were three reasons going in for me to be predisposed to like F&A. I've seen a half-dozen or so Bergman films-- the most famous ones-- and knowing in advance of F&A's somewhat more conventional subject matter, I was curious to see how he would marry his unmistakable emotional intensity (there are no moments of respite in a Bergman film) with the stuff of relative narrative leisure. I think it's effective. Yes, it's clearly the work of an artist who is looking at the end of his career and life, and it bears some popular touches, but it still has Bergman's sensibilities and echoes of themes that run through his other work.

His portrayal of the Ekdahl family-- warm, caring, eccentric, wealthy and artistic-- is a composite of well-drawn characters, the adults moreso than the children (other than Alexander). The matriarch never sleeps. Her three sons are distinctly individual. Gustav Adolph is business-minded but warm-hearted enough that his wife and mother don't object to his using the maidstaff as his personal harem. Carl is an academic of mixed success who loathes himself and his German wife and has borrowed and spent himself near destitution. Oscar is the manager of the local theater, which he has run profitably with the help of his mother's patronage and his actor wife's performances. The characters (with the exception of Alexander and, perhaps, Emilie) don't change significantly over the course of the film. Rather, the dramatic emphasis is directed toward how the diverse members of the family complement each other in dealing with common tragedy.

As always, God and His vicars are not a source of comfort. Elsewhere in Bergman, God is cruelly silent, or a spider in a deluded vision, or an unpersuasive source of temporary comfort. Here, He's a "shit" and merely a prank with a puppet to scare a child. The search for God is never irrelevant, though, and by introducing ghosts and Ishmael's act of firestarting, there's a supernatural element undergirding the lives and events of the characters. We cannot know if God exists in this world, but the spirits of the characters loom larger than life and beyond the grave. As always, whether that brings consolation or terror depends on the spirit.

I've yet to see a clergyman in a Scandinavian film who made the faith look better, and I don't suppose, say, von Trier will be giving me one anytime soon. Edvard the Bishop is in many ways the culmination of Bergman's other pastors, beginning with his own father, but despite the fact that his first appearance telegraphs that he'll be the film's antagonist, there were a few moments when I thought his character displayed a complexity or sensitivity or self-awareness that went far beyond the stock Stern Clergyman character.

The film's extended reference to Hamlet is done effectively and poignantly. Emilie, of course, protests too much when she tells Alexander explicitly that she's not the Queen, nor the Bishop the false King. No, she's not inconstant like Gertrude, but her misjudgment regarding the Bishop's character imperils her and her family.

Still, despite his real pain and cruel mistreatment at the Bishop's hands, there's something about Alexander's predisposition to regard God as indifferent to him that's a bit untoward. There weren't many children in Alexander's day who were living as opulently as he. It's all he knows, though, and I appreciate his warm heart, his loyalty to his mother and sister and his quirky sense of humor, including that streak of Tourette's that brings the scatalogical to his mouth so readily and unexpectedly.

Of course, while the family has been restored in the end, there are still the rumblings of future conflicts, and I appreciate the way in which Bergman resists a singularly happy ending (which we might have got if the film had ended at the christening banquet). Gustav Adolph, while a benevolent and loving father, has some of the same tendencies to control those in his household that Edvard did. And the ghosts will always rattle around, for good and ill.

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