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 that they finally worked together. Their Autumn Sonata is as much a film by Ingmar as it is a film by Ingrid.
Ingrid plays Charlotte Andergast, a world-famous concert pianist who visits her daughter Eva’s (Liv Ullmann) remote home for 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 film was in 1939’s Intermezzo, 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 that 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.