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Autumn Sonata
cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, and Marianne Aminoff

director: Ingmar Bergman

97 minutes (15) 1978
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
In a tightly established scenario, concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) frees herself from her important schedule to stay several days with her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), and her husband, Viktor (Halvar Bjork), in their remote abode in the beautiful Scandinavian woods - not that we will be seeing much of that scenery. Mother shivers when she is told that there is another guest, her second daughter, Helena (Lena Nyman) who has been cared for in her sister's home for 18 months. Helena suffers from a debilitating illness and all either sister ever wanted was mother's love. Mother, however, cannot cope with the ravaged condition of the daughter, nor much that's familial before the onset of illness, come to that. The motherly role is acted, face smiling warmly, proving able to turn to the task, though it is soon read that the daughter is an inconvenience; family always was, that bearing children was just added proof of her perfection, the motor-neurone poisoning is nature's mean slander on her enormous abilities. She is also used to an unfettered escape, too special is she for distraction. Opportunities for confrontation are fewer and, with mother staying at least the first of the planned nights under her roof, Eva means, this time, to have her mother or have her cutting say.
   This is essentially a two-hander by Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, the Hollywood legend burrowing deep into the character, a slow, tangibly unlikeable woman. There is no malice, she appals purely on her exceeding negligence and her selfishness. There is no balcony higher than the one she places herself upon. The erudite Charlotte gambles a night there, all she has to do is sleep through to morning then pencil in an emergency date, be on the way before she can be called upon to display precious affection for her daughters, but her insomnia can be counted on to deliver her into the path of Eva for a morning-side confrontation. Charlotte mistakes Eva for a soft touch (she always was before) turning in her own rosy interpretation on the past, but her daughter has been readying for this and delivers a slow train crash of unbearable truths; how the little girl was tortured by the need for her mother's presence and love, how she hung around behind doors for permitted intrusion on her piano practice, the superiority of the mother over anything her grown child might attempt, the inability of the mother to be around to comfort her in times of tragedy. "Is my grief your secret pleasure... but the pain, what did it taste like, I can't remember?" This level of mortal apocalypse and emotional literacy could only come from Ingmar Bergman, in a language of humour and intelligence. Bergman does not need any elaborate, adventurous storyline to deliver a series of twists; he packs a small story with distressing, sensory jolts, sometimes several within a single drawn out scene. He is a master dramatist, the dialogue is of rich stream, comfortably paced and, if uncomfortably found by the viewer, naturalistically conveyed by astounding actresses, Bergman in her penultimate feature film in extreme close up, transfixing, barely moving as she delivers conceits and dishonesties, equally immobile at the stings from her daughter, yet the threat and the hurt is readable and understood in her terrific face.
   Lena Nyman is not to be forgotten as the ravaged Helena, portraying the difficult illness believably. The film is not without tricks. When alone in bed, Charlotte talks to herself but this is not really aloud, she is thinking, can only convey her thoughts to herself and the director prefers them spoken on screen than in voiceover. It works.
   The conclusion is typically depressing, and again, the fullest effect comes in its verbalisation. It is not that Charlotte has learned anything from the encounter, it is that she immediately shows signs of convincing herself out of the unwelcome guilt; literally begins to talk herself out of feeling it. She is not blind to life's inevitabilities, aging and sickness and death, and she is answering that awareness in the most selfish and meaningful of ways of preserving her name and image, devoting herself to her fame. "If she slept normally her vitality would crush those around her. Her insomnia is a way of making her bearable," jokes Eva earlier in the film, but she never really jokes, the truth is laughable. Eva must have known she could not ultimately win this war; she could only give it her best shot. A confrontation was never going to stay the misery, fill the emptiness or replace the futility. Emotions are confusing and fascinating, sentimentality is the disease of drones, it is a guilty admission by the director; it is a belief he shares with his fictional concert pianist.
   DVD extras: star and director filmographies, text-only film notes by Philip Strick, and trailers for the Bergman collection.
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