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Film Club: Fanny & Alexander


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#21 Andrew

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Posted 07 May 2005 - 04:44 PM

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.

#22 Andrew

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Posted 07 May 2005 - 05:02 PM

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.

#23 John

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Posted 07 May 2005 - 11:48 PM

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.

QUOTE(Diane @ May 6 2005, 09:54 AM)
Bergman fans, how does this film stack up to his other works? Did anyone find it disappointing?

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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.

QUOTE(Diane @ May 6 2005, 09:54 AM)
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?

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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.

#24 John

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Posted 08 May 2005 - 12:25 AM

QUOTE(Diane @ May 6 2005, 10:21 AM)
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.

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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.


#25 Russ

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 12:31 PM

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.




#26 Diane

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 01:34 PM

QUOTE(John @ May 7 2005, 11:48 PM)
It can't be that she didn't care for Oskar - her terrifying screams the night of his death seem proof of that.

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Isn't this a stunningly horrific moment? Those screams chill my blood. It's strange, too, coming from a woman who later says she never really cared for much, that nothing really ever hurt her.

Those are some terrific comments on Emilie, John. Looking back on my original questions, I'm surprised that I specifically asked about her instead of, say, Alexander, but, as you've noted, she really is a compelling character.

I, too, noticed the excitement she showed when Alma announced that Edvard would preach the Christmas message. The two women exchange a rather knowing look. The bishop has a reputation of being a very handsome man. Gustav Adolf even describes him as a "ladykiller," and it didn't seem to me like he was being facetious. I'm thinking Emilie has found him attractive for quite a while. Her marriage to Oskar, while comfortable and steady, has perhaps left her a little lonely. She tells Helena that she lived pretty much alone since Fanny was born. After he dies, she refers to Oskar as her best friend and notes that she was "very fond" of him. "Very fond"? Hmm. A rather passionless word choice to me. But then again, there's the aforementioned grieving scene where she paces before Oskar's body. Yes, she's a mystery, and I find her quite fascinating.

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#27 John

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 03:50 PM

QUOTE(Diane @ May 10 2005, 01:34 PM)
Isn't this a stunningly horrific moment? Those screams chill my blood. It's strange, too, coming from a woman who later says she never really cared for much, that nothing really ever hurt her.

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You know, Diane, your use of the word horrific just made me think about the many horrifying moments in the film. There are a number of these, moments where I literally find myself pushing back against my couch, kind of trying to escape the situation. Emilie screaming is one. Alexander being punished by Edvard is another (both before the marriage, and then the terrible one after). Alexander with the ghosts in the attic. Alexander losing his way in Uncle Isak's house, as we know the mysterious Ismael is lurking somewhere. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.

I wonder how this compares to other Bergman films. Are these moments of horror a regular thing for him? What about a kind of building suspense, where we aren't sure things are going to go awry, but we have the feeling it will. The best one I can think of is in The Virgin Spring, when the girl goes off for lunch with the men in the forest. Maybe also near the end of Through a Glass Darkly, when Minus follows Corin (is that right?) into the boat, or when Corin has her vision of 'God'. I don't know, just thinking about Bergman and horror together seemed odd. Maybe there is more there than I at first thought.

Oh, and great photos and comments on Emilie. I think you do well to bring out the ambiguity in some of her words and actions. I also think about her going to Helena in her summer house after the marriage, as it strikes me as an odd scene. She doesn't wail or beg for help or anything. But clearly something has driven her to her family. She sort of just expresses her worries about the children, and when Helena starts moving the conversation toward "what can we do", Emilie quickly cools her emotion. Maybe that is simply to express the seriousness of trying to cross Edvard, but it seemed odd nonetheless. Regardless, as you say, she remains a mystery to me.

#28 Diane

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 04:26 PM

QUOTE(John @ May 10 2005, 03:50 PM)
I wonder how this compares to other Bergman films. Are these moments of horror a regular thing for him? What about a kind of building suspense, where we aren't sure things are going to go awry, but we have the feeling it will.

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John, have you ever seen Hour of the Wolf? It's actually described as Bergman's one true horror film (it deals with vampires...or demons...or whatever they are). It's too over-the-top for me, but still, it's quite spooky. (Incidentally, there's a scene in that film where Max von Sydow tells Liv Ullmann about how he was abused as a child. IIRC, he describes *exactly* the same thing we see happen to Alexander in F&A, from the beating to being locked in a cubbyhole with rats. Hmm. Telling this story twice throughout the years? I wonder if Bergman was really subjected to stuff like that.)

But I guess I'm more horrified by the cruelty Bergman's characters show toward each other, and there's certainly plenty of that to go around in his works. I've never seen The Virgin Spring, but just reading what you wrote above and knowing what happens to the girl...well, it's awfully unsettling. And yes, I'd agree about the scenes you mention in Through a Glass Darkly. There are many other Bergman moments that fill me with anxiety or just give me the creeps: both a verbal and physical fight in Scenes from a Marriage, another physical attack and some animal abuse in The Passion of Anna, the dream sequence toward the beginning of Wild Strawberries. Shame is another one that fits the bill, as you watch characters make horrible decisions that you know will change their lives forever. Personally, I'd describe Persona as a horror film. And Cries & Whispers? To me, most of his works just don't get much more horrific than that. There's just something about the intensity of what's going on onscreen. You feel as if you're there, and you wish you could intervene...or, as you say, escape.

Edit: After rereading that, somebody please remind me why I love Bergman's films so much. wink.gif

Edited by Diane, 11 May 2005 - 08:36 AM.


#29 John

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 04:35 PM

Thanks for the comments, Diane. I've not seen any of those you mentioned, except Wild Strawberries, which I forgot about. I've definitely got more to watch. I think you hit the nail on the head with being horrified by the characters cruelty toward one another. That's what it is, and the thing that makes it so effective, I think, is not just the cruelty itself (there are lots of films with cruel people doing cruel things), but that Bergman sets things up in such a way that we care about or feel empathy for some of these characters.

Oh, and that's really interesting about the discussion of abuse in Hour of the Wolf. I'll have to check that out. It pains me to think that some of this stuff could in any way be based in actual events from his childhood.

#30 Diane

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 04:40 PM

QUOTE(John @ May 10 2005, 04:35 PM)
That's what it is, and the thing that makes it so effective, I think, is not just the cruelty itself (there are lots of films with cruel people doing cruel things), but that Bergman sets things up in such a way that we care about or feel empathy for some of these characters.

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That's what I was trying to say, only you said it better than I did.

#31 Diane

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 04:47 PM

By the way, Stef, it's high time to get around to those other Bergmans that are languishing in your Netflix queue (yes, I read that thread). If all of this talk about horror doesn't inspire you, then I don't know what will. wink.gif

Edited by Diane, 11 May 2005 - 08:36 AM.


#32 Darren H

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 09:10 PM

Definitely check out Hour of the Wolf, John. I've never been too drawn to horror films, and it's not one of my favorite Bergmans, but some of the images in that film are so disconcerting they're almost a joy to watch.

I think Bergman is particularly good at capturing the small cruelties of close relationships. There are moments in his films that make me ashamed because I can too clearly identify with a character's selfishness or pettiness or vindictiveness. He's so keenly self-aware -- to a fault, really. I wonder if he's been psychoanalyzed, or if he considers writing and directing therapy enough.

#33 John

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Posted 10 May 2005 - 10:55 PM

I most definitely will Darren. Having seen a number of his more well-known and discussed films, I think I'm ready to kind of start at the beginning and go through them chronologically, if I can. It should be an interesting progression. And yeah, those "small cruelties of relationships" - a good way to put it.

Edited by John, 10 May 2005 - 10:56 PM.


#34 John

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Posted 11 May 2005 - 10:05 PM

I posted this to my blog, but thought it might fit here as well, since I just finished going through the film a second time.

As I watched the long version again, I was struck by the utter ambiguity in the relationship between imagination, magic, and even divine intervention. The scene that got me thinking along these lines was one I had forgotten, from the final act. During the rescue of the children, after Isak has put them into the chest, Edvard makes his way to the nursery, in what we expect will be a scene where he discovers that the children are missing.

Instead, what he finds are the children laying together on the floor with their mother looking over them - yet we know they have been placed in the chest. How can they be two places at once? It seems to me there are several ways of looking at this scene, which I think Bergman purposefully leaves ambiguous, as he does many other scenes like it in the film.

The options: First, it could be that somehow either Isak or Emilie snuck puppets into the house, and during the intervening moments, snuck those puppets into the room. Of course, the puppets would have originated with Aron, and either come in with Isak, or through him to Emilie in secret. Second, it could be some kind of magic or other illusion, as we see Aron talk with Alexander about the breathing mummy. Third, it could be in Isak's imagination. As he falls to the ground, the camera focuses in on him, as if these are his thoughts at this moment. And when Edvard goes upstairs, Isak calls in the boys for outside to carry the chest. Finally, it seems this could even be an instance of divine intervention of some sort. Isak falls to his knees and looks up, as if he could be praying. And in this moment of all moments, God intervenes.

The thing about all these options, is I think there's no way to know for sure which is which. And this is part of the greatness of this film. You see, this is where we all are with reference to what we know about God in the world. We see all kinds of strange and unexplainable things, some of these miraculous, some not so much. Some of these yield good things in the immediate, some do not. Yet much as we might like to attribute this or that to the hand of God or some other force or even our own imagination, it seems that in the end, none of us can make such a call for sure. We might like to believe it's this way or that way, but believing is all we can do. And as finite human beings, living with this belief or faith is the tension we have to live with, it seems to me.

Bergman captures this ambiguity beautifully all through the film, with all the scenes of ghosts, imagined or otherwise, and other strange occurrences. His protagonist finds himself right in the middle of that ambiguity, and is ultimately unsure of what to do with it. Bergman as writer and director doesn't seem to want to account for it with imagination, or God, or magic. He just leaves these things in tension, without any steps of faith in any of these directions.

#35 Diane

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Posted 12 May 2005 - 09:19 AM

Wow, wonderful thoughts, John. Thanks for posting that.

QUOTE(Darren H @ May 10 2005, 09:10 PM)
I think Bergman is particularly good at capturing the small cruelties of close relationships.  There are moments in his films that make me ashamed because I can too clearly identify with a character's selfishness or pettiness or vindictiveness.

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*nodding* Oh yeah, his films make me feel quite convicted at times.

#36 Diane

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Posted 13 May 2005 - 01:32 PM

Has anyone here ever seen The Best Intentions, Sunday's Children, and/or Private Confessions? I ask because I've spotted these films' names frequently mentioned in reviews and film guides alongside F&A, some even saying that these films should all be seen as a group. Bergman wrote the screenplays from his books of the same names, but he left the directing to Bille August, his son Daniel Bergman, and Liv Ullmann, respectively. I'm not sure exactly how autobiographical they are (it seems to depend on the review you read), but most seem to agree that the films explore real events from his parents' relationships and his childhood. They sound quite interesting (the first one sounds the weakest, though), and after seeing F&A, the territory rings very familiar.

Reviews from the New York Times (free registration):
The Best Intentions
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Private Confessions


#37 Christian

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Posted 09 October 2007 - 12:27 PM

QUOTE(Darren H @ May 10 2005, 10:10 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Definitely check out Hour of the Wolf, John. I've never been too drawn to horror films, and it's not one of my favorite Bergmans, but some of the images in that film are so disconcerting they're almost a joy to watch.

I think Bergman is particularly good at capturing the small cruelties of close relationships. There are moments in his films that make me ashamed because I can too clearly identify with a character's selfishness or pettiness or vindictiveness. He's so keenly self-aware -- to a fault, really. I wonder if he's been psychoanalyzed, or if he considers writing and directing therapy enough.


I just watched this one. It's a letdown after Shame, which is clearly a masterpiece on multiple levels. I wish Wolf hadn't been funny. In fact, one of the DVD extras features a Bergman expert explaining why the film is supposed to make us laugh -- something that always gets my radar up, suggesting an after-the-fact reinterpretation of something that was intended to be serious, but which audiences chuckled at. Bergman is such a consummate filmmaker that I could be convinced he intended to be humorous with this film ... but I seriously doubt it.

Edited by Christian, 09 October 2007 - 12:27 PM.