Film Club: Fanny & Alexander
Posted 02 May 2005 - 08:43 AM
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?
Posted 02 May 2005 - 01:18 PM
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’t end here, as ghosts appear throughout the film and act five brings us squarely into the realm of the supernatural.
2. Relationships: Is there a truly healthy marital relationship here? We have Helena, who dealt with her late husband's philandering, as he dealt with her relationship with Isak. We have Alma, who seemingly accepts Gustav Adolf's affairs with more than one servant (although we see her slap Maj, and we see her daughter's disdain after Gustav's night with Maj). We see Carl, who strikes me as a very typical Bergman character, being both physically and verbally abusive to his patient and loving wife, all while wallowing in self-pity. And then we have Emilie and Oscar, who seem to be happy but *might* just be going through the motions. And Emilie and Edvard's marriage couldn't have been much worse.
3. The idea of a persona, or of someone not understanding who they are: Emilie speaks of playing a role, of letting the theater dictate how she feels, of being out of touch with herself and her true feelings, as well as being out of touch with God. This thirst for truth, as she describes it, is what attracts her to Edvard. She tells him, "You say your God is the God of love. It sounds so beautiful...and I wish I could believe as you do. Perhaps one day I will. My God is so different, Edvard. He's like myself, amorphous and intangible. I'm an actress. I'm used to wearing masks. My God wears a thousand masks. He's never shown me his real face, just as I can't show you or him my real face. Through you, I'll come to know God's true nature." Likewise, Helena, who was also an actress, talks of every part of life being another role, and Edvard talks of having only one mask, but it's one that's "branded into [his] flesh" and cannot be removed.
4. Views of God and religion (related to #1 above): I feel a mixture of irritation and pity when I take in what seems to be Bergman's views of God as presented here. I understand that this film, while not strictly autobiographical, contains much of Bergman's own life, particularly in regards to his relationship with his father. Stef posted this in the Persona thread, and I'd like to repeat it here:
"It was a feeling of relief, because this... idea about a God was very unhealthy, because it was a feeling of something that is perfect, that is extremely perfect, that is the most extreme perfect that exists. And in comparison to that, I always must feel like a snake. For a human being to feel like a snake is not good."
Clearly, Alexander is presented with a religion involving punishment, guilt, and, as Edvard words it, a love that is "not blind and sloppy [but] strong and harsh." Although a traditional view of God is seemingly rejected, we are presented with alternate realities with angels and demons, where "everything is alive, and everything is God or God's thought. Not only good things, but the cruelest, too." Alex's encounter with Ismael stands as a mysterious, frightening, and troubling highlight in the film.
Posted 02 May 2005 - 03:44 PM
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 – this time of the ghost of his dead stepfather. Having been knocked to the ground by this apparition, Alexander eventually finds the courage to leave his place and seek out the comforting embrace of his grandmother. Alexander finds solace with this woman, solace from the fear that continues to plague him beyond the scope of the film.
In between these two opening scenes is a film that moves into and out of a number of relationships and emotions. With Alexander as a central character to all of this, he becomes in many ways, the most sympathetic character for us.
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 – lush and vibrant colors in the Ekdahl home, with dull grays and browns in the new residence. The look of that home is eerily similar to the inside of the church in Winter Light, a place where Pastor Tomas is finding it difficult to find or hear from God. In the same way, we feel that too, as does Alexander, who begins to talk more about his views on God during and after his time in this home. This, of course, while in the home of a pastor, which should be a place of great openness to God.
All the while, Alexander never loses his love of theater, as evidenced by the stories he makes up, and for which he is often punished. His stepfather never sees this as an active imagination or as a way to see into the mind of Alexander, but only as a threat to his own reputation. And as Alexander never loses this love of theater, neither does he lose the terrible fear that grips him. That vivid imagination of his kicks into high gear at the worst of times, it seems.
Thus it seems Bergman is telling us something about the imaginative mind, something quite important. The imagination can be both a beautiful and a terrible creation. It carries with it some baggage, namely that one is keenly aware of things going on that may be unseen to others. Alexander is attuned to this world of the unseen through his imagination. This causes him obvious bouts of fear at several points, but it also provides him insight – insight into who people are and what is driving them.
Alexander’s stories, while often untrue in regard to many of the basic facts, serve the purpose of communicating those hidden feelings and drives that exist in the people around him. In telling the lie about his mother selling him to the circus, we see in Alexander both a desire to be a performer, but also the perception that his mother is abandoning him for someone else. His story, in that sense, is true.
So the imagination is a double-edged sword, as we see with Alexander. At times it brings terrible fear, at times it brings profound insight. And that thought seems to me an appropriate way to talk about the films of Bergman – walking this fine line between profound fear of the unknown and great insight into things unseen with human eyes.
Posted 03 May 2005 - 07:02 AM
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!
Posted 03 May 2005 - 03:11 PM
Posted 03 May 2005 - 03:32 PM
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.
Posted 03 May 2005 - 04:03 PM
Posted 03 May 2005 - 04:33 PM
Posted 03 May 2005 - 07:23 PM
Edited by stef, 03 May 2005 - 07:27 PM.
Posted 03 May 2005 - 08:03 PM
Posted 03 May 2005 - 10:11 PM
Posted 03 May 2005 - 10:54 PM
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
Posted 04 May 2005 - 08:42 AM
Either one will work, Peter.
Posted 05 May 2005 - 11:21 AM
Posted 05 May 2005 - 10:13 PM
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.
Posted 06 May 2005 - 09:54 AM
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, 06 May 2005 - 12:08 PM.
Posted 06 May 2005 - 10:21 AM
Just wanted to say that I love your comments here, John. Bergman's use of color and non-color is brilliant, especially when he drains the screen of all color inside the bishop's home. Whenever we return to Helena's home, either the summer or winter one, it's such an amazing contrast that we really do feel the pain and bleakness when we shift back to the bishop's.
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.
I hadn't made that connection to Winter Light, but I'm glad you pointed that out!
This is only somewhat related to the look or mood of the film, but I have to confess that 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! Guess that wouldn't really have surprised me, though. Something about that constant light kind of got to me; I'm not sure I could deal with that.
Posted 06 May 2005 - 11:29 AM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted 06 May 2005 - 12:46 PM
I spent an entire summer in Sweden as a music teacher in 1991. The midnight sun is awesome. I went water skiing several times after midnight. Played volleyball until 5 in the morning once. Best summer of my life, but it wouldn't have been quite as great without the group of friends I was with.
PS I am a quarter of the way thru F&A.
Edited by stef, 06 May 2005 - 12:48 PM.
Posted 06 May 2005 - 01:01 PM
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.