Although Autumn Sonata borders on self-parody because writer-director Ingmar Bergman indulges his pain-freak sensibilities to an excessive degree, the innate humanism and sophistication of his style—combined with two extraordinary performances—give the picture resonance. A tough drama about the ways parents and children hurt each other when they’re unable to connect, the film is particularly noteworthy as the only project on which cinema’s two most famous Bergmans collaborated: Swedish-born Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman returned to her native land (and her native tongue) to give one of the most affecting performances of her career.
Swedish-cinema icon Liv Ullmann plays Eva, a middle-aged woman living in a remote part of Sweden with her husband, meek pastor Viktor (Halvar Björk). Eva excitedly prepares for a rare visit by her mother, Charlotte (Bergman), a world-famous concert pianist. Immediately upon Charlotte’s arrival, however, myriad complications in the mother/daughter dynamic become evident. For instance, Charlotte is supremely chilly and withholding. Accordingly, while Eva was growing up, Charlotte was an absentee parent who expected her domestic existence life to be sunny and undemanding; by shunning family-oriented stress, Charlotte made real emotional connection with her daughter impossible. As a result, Eva became bitter, insecure, and needy. Thus, upon reuniting with her mother, Eva can’t stop herself from dumping loads of resentment onto Charlotte given the slightest opportunity. Furthermore, Eva surprises Charlotte by revealing that Charlotte’s other daughter, Eva’s sister Helena (Lena Nyman), is living in Eva’s house. Helena is severely disabled, and Charlotte finds time spent in Helena’s company excruciating—Helena radiates emotional thirst that Charlotte cannot quench.
Filmed in extremely close quarters (the story rarely leaves Viktor’s humble house), Autumn Sonata is suffocatingly bleak. Writer-director Bergman almost never leavens the intense psychodrama with brightness or humor, so viewers are smothered by the dysfunction and pain of two complex women caught in an abusive cycle. At one point, the picture gets so heavy that Eva muses, via voice-over, how much she wishes she could simplify her existence by committing suicide. It is a testament to both leading actors that neither Charlotte nor Eva comes across as caricatured or contrived; these people seem agonizingly real.
Adding to the grim quality of the experience is Ingmar Bergman’s choice to treat the piece more like a novel or play than pure cinema; actors speak in long, unbroken monologues and, on many occasions, speak directly to the camera or in theatrical soliloquies. Were it not for the amber-tinged beauty of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography and the consummate skill of the leading performances, the film’s arty flourishes would be fatal flaws. But with writer-director Bergman’s masterful hand pulling the strings, Autumn Sonata feels less like indulgence and more like an experiment—it’s as if the filmmaker deliberately discarded arbitrary storytelling conventions and used whatever tools he could in order to push as deeply into the anguished souls of his characters as possible.
Autumn Sonata: GROOVY