'Autumn Sonata' Is as Bruising as It Is Life Affirming

Ingrid Berdman's Charlotte is like Anita in Intermezzo, a woman who becomes so destroyed by love gone wrong that she loses the ability to show love to others, including her children.

Autumn Sonata

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: PG
Release date: 2013-09-17

Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman might be Sweden’s most popular film icons of all time; the former became one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading ladies -- and one of the greatest screen performers -- the latter changed the way in which emotions were dealt with on film, going on to inspire the careers of renowned auteurs like Woody Allen and Michael Haneke. Even though they were both pretty active during the same time, it wasn’t until 1978 when they finally worked together. Their Autumn Sonata is as much a movie by Ingmar as it is a movie by Ingrid.

Ingrid plays Charlotte Andergast, a world famous concert pianist who visits her daughter Eva’s (Liv Ullmann) remote home during a few days. Eva lives there with her husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) and her disabled sister Helena (Lena Nyman), who was put in a medical institution by her mother but was rescued by Eva. This, among many other things, leads to a showdown between mother and daughter who harbor decades of resentment, regret and bitterness. In other words, they’re in one of Ingmar’s favorite universes.

Autumn Sonata is like an intimate chamber piece that makes us feel like we’re intruders, for no one should ever be present when such truths are revealed. We learn that Charlotte has always been a neglectful mother, perhaps unprepared to bring children into the world.

Bergman, who was always known for her touching, intensely emotional performances (and for playing lovable characters at the brink of unraveling) brings a steely determination to Charlotte. She moves across the screen like an animal on the verge of attack, but always keeps a ladylike composure that makes her words even more damaging.

When confronted by her daughter in one of the film’s harshest scenes, she expresses how her daughter’s failure isn’t completely her fault, “The mother's injuries are to be handed down to the daughter. The mother's failures are to be paid for by the daughter” she explains, before adding “The mother's unhappiness is to be the daughter's unhappiness. It's as if the umbilical cord had never been cut.”

Watching Bergman in the role of such a damaging character turns out to be one of her most surprising performances, not only because it’s rare to see her act in her native language, but because in a twisted way this makes her seem even more at ease with her cruelty. We come to understand that Charlotte is a woman who is just as bruised by life as her daughter, since she details how she feels like she never really grew up, “I'm seized by fear and see a horrible picture of myself. I have never grown up. My face and my body have aged. I acquire memories and experiences but inside all that I haven't even been born,” she says.

Since this is a Bergman film, sometimes you have to pause after such comments, take a deep breath -- and a drink, if available -- before going into more about these women’s insecurities. Bergman received her last Best Actress Oscar nomination for this role, but it’s safe to say that this is a film with two leads, since Bergman wouldn’t work without Ullmann. As Eva, Ullman spits out all her hatred and sorrows. Watching these two actors work together takes us back to the director’s Persona, in which he had two actresses become one woman, each a different, but equally dark, side of the same coin.

Eva and Charlotte stand at complete opposites most of the time, and the film doesn’t lead to a happy resolution, other than the realization that sometimes we have to move on in order to survive, even if our very nature insists that we seek closure. Autumn Sonata is also fascinating because it presents us with a distinctive symmetry; Bergman’s first leading role in a Hollywood movie was in Intermezzo, a 1939 movie where she played opposite Leslie Howard as a heartbroken accompanist in a destructive relationship with Howard’s famous violinist.

Watch Autumn Sonata closely and you will see that Charlotte is perhaps the same character played by Bergman in Intermezzo, a woman who becomes so destroyed by love gone wrong that she loses the ability to show love to others, including her children. Intermezzo featured Bergman’s first iconic character, Autumn Sonata featured her last. She would then go on to semi-retirement before passing away in 1982. Ingmar went on to “lighter” fare after Autumn Sonata, making films in which characters actually have a shot at happiness and existential contentment.

The Criterion Collection delivers yet another treasure chest of film goodies in a splendid DVD set that may be considered as one of the year’s very best. The set includes a new restoration which highlights the film’s ironic beauty, and also includes an introduction by the director himself. Other bonus features include a three hour long behind the scenes documentary, The Making of Autumn Sonata, which turns out to be just as fascinating as the film. There’s also a conversation between ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor, as well as a conversation with Ullmann who helps illuminate the film’s darker themes.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.