Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is not meant to be a subtle, “restrained” portrait of a family crippled by pain, hatred and coldness. At one point, Eva performs Chopin’s Prelude for her mother, who then tells her that her interpretation twists the initial intention, transforming a work of incredible depth, into something simplistic, sentimental and overtly feminine. Bergman fights against this perspective, presenting a film that is not only straightforward, but sentimental, and often deceptively blunt. A large section of the film is comprised of back and forth conversations, occasionally matched with flashbacks, that leave little to the imagination. Every thought, emotion and memory is laid out on the table without a hint of embellishment or deception.

Though far from my favourite Ingmar Bergman film, in many ways, it is probably the one I relate to most. This might simply be because, though retreading similar emotional battlegrounds, in this film they are fully articulated. Many of the conversations about love and anxiety seem to hit very close to home. Though I can’t say my relationship with my mother is as fraught with insecurity and abuse as in this case, the issues and symptoms that this toxic relationship causes are universal. One of my few gripes with the film is the character’s apparent omnipotent understanding of themselves, especially Eva who seems to be able to carefully map and understand the reason and means of her emotional history. I’ve always understood anxiety as being something that is self-perpetuating, in part because the source is often so deceptive. Though there are hints that Eva was not always so clear-minded about her mother’s involvement in shaping (or mis-shaping) her identity, at this point of my life, I find it difficult that one day all the pieces will comfortably fit together.

In this sense, Charlotte, is a more “realistic” portrait. I relate more to the physical and emotional experiences of Eva. A lot of her anguish and frustration, even her self-destructive behaviours, match my own to an almost frightening precision… but I somehow understand Charlotte better, because Charlotte does not understand anything at all. The only thing that is truly cryptic about this film is Eva’s reasoning for inviting her mother to stay. It’s clear that there is a huge amount of animosity between the two; they haven’t seen each other in seven years, and Eva is purposefully evasive concerning certain circumstances that she knows would upset or discourage her mother’s visiting. Are her lies motivated solely by her desire to rekindle a relationship with her mother, or is it part of a larger scheme of revenge? A lot of Eva’s actions suggest that she is trying to bring her mother to a point of realization… to reveal to her mother all the pain she has caused over the years. Or perhaps it is finally her chance to demonstrate that she is not the weak child that she once was, and that she will no longer allow her mother to dominate her completely.

On the sidelines of this intense psychological face-off are Viktor (Eva’s husband) and Helena (Eva’s sister). Both characters are the only ones that are apparently capable of love, but are also unfortunately shut off from any kind of reciprocation. Viktor offers an incredible outsider’s point of view on the action that is taking place, and is a voice of great reason and passion. His affection for Eva is incredible, though it is clear that she does not feel the same way. She relies on him, she loves him, but she has never been in love with him. What seems to be the most heartbreaking for him though, is the fact that Eva will never truly understand that he loves her without any expectations or conditions… she has been so ruined, that there is no way he can say “I love you”, because she no longer trusts words. The only person Eva ever apparently loved is her son, and her pregnancy and his childhood transform her completely. His death did not revert her back to the person she was though, because in her mind and soul, he is still alive. It is his love that keeps her alive. I think it is this situation, and the fact that her mother’s long-term partner had just died, that motivated her to bring her mother back into her life. She was unfortunately wrong, and her mother though hurt by her partner’s death, is never apparently marked by it like the other characters are.

Charlotte’s circumstance is heartbreaking, because there is never any hint that she has felt love in the same way as Eva, or Viktor, or Helena do. It isn’t to say that she didn’t love Leonard, but he never reached her in the way that would truly transform her life. In essence, she lives a life without love… I can’t imagine a life that is more painful and empty, and it is one I fear every day. What is worse, it seems that it is Charlotte’s fear that keeps her at a constant distance with those who surround her. As terrible as the anxiety that Eva describes, the internal suffering that plagues Charlotte seems all the more worse.

She seems to suffer greatly and her only way of handling that pain is to spread it among those who surround her. Charlotte’s most human moment comes in her confession that she wishes that Eva would have understood as a child, that they were equally helpless. It is a moment of incredible conceit, as Charlotte seems completely detached from her responsibility and role as a mother, but it is difficult not to empathise with her weakness. I think we all want to believe if someone wraps their arms around you, all the problems of the world could potentially evaporate… that human love and understanding can overcome all and any anxieties, even for a short time. Simultaneously, we fear this release, and this makes that freedom an impossibility.

How could a person living under those circumstances succeed so completely at being so apparently passionate, suggesting an illusion of incredible vivacity and passion for life? The moment she is alone, there is this incredible restlessness and pain… but there is no apparent emotional comfort in company either. How could she be so apparently blind? How does she survive, when the people around her crumble physically and psychologically? Why can she persevere, while Helena fades away?

There are no answers to these questions, and they are ones that come up time and time again in Bergman’s work. It reminds me very much of Winter Light, and the different reactions of the disillusionment with God from Tomas and Jonas. Even their struggle with faith, very much mirrors Charlotte and Eva’s struggle with love. In some senses, it is the same struggle, simply fought on different grounds.

I find that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most difficult filmmakers to write about, especially since it is so easy to get caught up with words and ideas. His craft extends far beyond dialogue and performance, and as much, if not more is conveyed through the composition and quality of his images. Autumn Sonata is one of his colour films, and it is shot in autumn tones. The characters wear shades of red, orange and yellows, or else muted neutrals that are effective by the warm light that envelopes nearly every scene. In many ways, it seems ironic considering the romantic associations of the tone of light. Autumn invokes are lot of sentiments about life coming towards its end, which is very reflective of Charlotte’s current “state”. What effect is this meant to take in context of the film? Frankly, I’m not even sure. Her lifespan and the situation of the film seem at once closely tied and completely inconsequential to the action that unfolds. Though the fact that she is in her own autumn years seems to be touched upon, the fact remains that Charlotte remains stagnant, young or old, she has not changed and probably never will.

One response to “Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

  1. I’m glad you got to see this; I think you get at what probably has frustrated some viewers, this straightforward quality you speak of. Some Bergman fans seem to run in embarassment from this film, but that seems a garish overreaction to me.

    I’ve only seen it once, and that has been years so I cannot speak of the film with the intimacy I have for “Cries and Whispers”, but of course I thought it searingy powerful; and the ending, it seems, should have mollified some of those who think Bergman ruins his characters’ relationships as a fait accompli without ‘explaining’ why things fall apart between them (Robin Wood made this his central objection to Bergman: for him it was a dodge, blaming human misunderstanding, conflict, ambivalence on ‘the way things are’, which for him ony meant that Bergman had ideological blinders on– in other words, it is, for his Marxist way of thinking, something ideological in the world that is making people greedy, possessive, competitive or whatever, and Bergman is simply failing to look for a worldly explanation). — Of course, I think this is a fatal flaw with Wood’s worldview, bless him, but still– “Autumn Sonata” implies that Eva still wants to ‘work on’ things, but Wood thought Autumn Sonata his worst film. I would think instead to place it in the pantheon of his color masterpieces.

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