Late in the first act of Autumn Sonata, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman discuss Chopin’s prelude of the same name: “Feeling is very far from sentimentality. You have to be calm, clear, and harsh,” Bergman tells Ullman, and so her namesake director tells the viewer. Bergman was boundlessly emotional and yet never sentimental. He was calm, clear and harsh, in his brilliant compositions (with the help of Sven Nykvist) and his stark dialogue. He was always determined, sometimes overdetermined. In a Bergman film, you are always sure about how you feel, especially if you don’t feel good.
With this film, two legends of the screen, both named Bergman, made their last appearance. Ingrid would never make another film, and Ingmar would only work in television for the years after. He would become a different Ingmar Bergman then, more insular and introspective, more ambitious and unafraid to tell long stories; his chamber dramas were no longer confined by both space and time. Autumn Sonata is not Bergman’s best film or his worst film, but it’s a terrific vertical slice of him. All his predilections come to fruition here, in this final coup.
Bergman was a special kind of auteur: his form was elegant enough to carry a story, and yet it was always always always subordinated to the text. In a Bergman film, the themes are hinted at through the impression of the camera and beaten into the ground with a monologue or three. Autumn Sonata is a case study in this sensation. Bergman stages the meeting of mother and daughter in a room full of mirrors, and he uses two elegant tricks: the old fake-out that although we thought we were looking at the real couple, we were actually looking at the mirror image; and another inspired visual of a whip-pan from the real image to the mirror image as the mother and daughter hug. “Who are the real mother and daughter?” the former shot asks, but the latter asks “who are the mother and daughter, really?” It asks us to consider self-image and self-reflection, and also reflection on a certain relationship, which is fitting especially since the film itself reflects both relationships onto the titular Chopin piece. This scene speaks volumes that the monologues that follow can’t muster.
Ingrid Bergman’s performance in this film is revelatory in its own way. She was no stranger to European drama, and no stranger to playing the wealthy foil, but she didn’t often speak Swedish onscreen, and she didn’t often confine herself to this level of theatrical blocking. She was also a stranger to playing the monster, preferring the victim. The mother-daughter relationship echoes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Gaslight, or even perhaps Stromboli, where Bergman played women at the mercy of the men, women who were victimized and kept indoors. In this film, that’s reversed. She’s wordy and charming in the opening, but very much knows how skilled and how lovely and how charming she is. She’s such a presence that the film feels much emptier when she’s gone, and yet it’s a bit exhausting to spend even ninety minutes with her, and so we’re put in the shoes of Liv Ullman’s character, forced to imagine what it must be like for her to spend years this way. In the piano scene, when Ullman plays her version of the Chopin, she’s not even a little bit congratulatory. She has no time for false praise. She immediately rushes in with a critique, a monologue, and a performance of her own, never leaving well enough alone. Bergman and Bergman were made for each other.
Liv Ullman gets the far less showy role, and she has far less to show for it. Pauline Kael described her performance thusly: “Ullmann enters into Ingmar Bergman’s disturbed emotions and puts them on the screen just as he desires; neither of them does the shaping job of an artist here. It’s a grueling, unconvincing movie.” She’s underselling the shaping of Ullmann interpreting for her daughter, who can’t speak well, or her glances at her mother, but all of the greatest moments of her performance come in the first half, when she must shape exhausted kindness from the dialogue and not draw venom from it.
It’s an exquisite film in theory. On paper it sounds like the moving melodramatic chamber piece that any film fan must swoon over. And yet, like almost all of Bergman’s classic style, this film doesn’t move me one bit. Perhaps that’s due to Bergman’s complete and total lack of comedy and catharsis. Bergman has a sense of wit but absolutely no sense of humour. Past a certain point, when the phony politeness and complimentary chatter dissolves, right after the Chopin scene, the knives come out, and Bergman is in his full dour form. His writing is as theatrical as it gets, and yet he doesn’t have a playwright’s sense of tonal variety. His Scenes From A Marriage plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but without the other couple and without the necessary dark comedy. That film is, at its most grueling, much more destructive than this one, because it allows the audience to take a breather.
This film shares with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf its conception of grief, that of a grieving mother, who says hello to her own mother in the room of her dead son Erik. Her daughter is disabled and unable to speak clearly, and Ullman’s grief over this, not her mother or even her son, is the angst at the film’s centre. Her daughter is treated as a burden, another dead child who didn’t have the grace not to be born. Disregarding the problematic way that Bergman deals with disability, this climactic confession from Ullman is the final nail in the coffin of the film’s emotions. Bergman wants to exhaust us, and exhaustion is not really conducive to emotional release.
Perhaps it rubs me the wrong way that Bergman’s conception of cinema is so incredibly tied to other works of art. Perhaps I’m hypocritical — perhaps it makes no sense that I find Bergman’s cinematic style too theatrical when I have no problem with other theatrical auteurs like Howard Hawks, Woody Allen, and Otto Preminger. But all those artists understand the need for a certain amount of humour to contrast their drama, and a certain amount of dynamism and energy in their camera. And it’s not just theatre in this film but music, which inflates emotions at first, but then the absence of music for the remainder of the film creates a sort of emptiness that can’t be filled by dialogue alone. The titular scene features Bergman and Ullmann interrogating the piano and each other. It’s a coup of performance and music, and one that’s only possible in film given the immediacy of a close-up shot. The colour grade, which incessantly mimics the colours of an autumn sky full of orange, red, and yellow, is Bergman’s other cinematic storytelling device, and it gets exhausting after a while. Mostly it’s monologues, some from characters to each other, and some from characters to themselves.
In a Bergman film nothing is unsaid and everything is unfelt. I feel much more comfortable writing about it than watching it. I’m always at a distance from his characters even as they pour their heart out to me. This film, so exquisite and perfect in its dialogue and its compositions, never lets any of them come alive. Bergman made chamber dramas because he treats his characters like the dolls in his dollhouse. And when they cry out to Bergman for some help, he answers with God’s silence.