When I was first getting into movies, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were certainly the heavyweights among foreign directors. Each had a string of critical and popular successes going back to the 50s (Bergman actually started in the 40s), each had won Oscars, had colourful personal histories in various ways, and they’d both been appropriated by Woody Allen, which stood for a lot at the time. Their reputations were mutually enforcing I think – Bergman’s famous austerity and advanced intellectualism seemed all the more glamorous for the counterpoint of Fellini’s flamboyance, and vice versa. Of course, I’m grossly simplifying an incredibly rich cinematic landscape, but that’s how it seemed at the time.
Fellini versus Bergman
Fellini is a director who’s never clicked for me. I’ve come to like La Dolce Vita progressively more over the years, but I’ve never found a meaningful way of engaging with 8 1/2, and frankly many of the films just seem rather trivial to me, however well orchestrated. I don’t get the impression there’s much in the zeitgeist that pushes people to discover his work now. Bergman is a more complex case for me: his work doesn’t feel remotely trivial, and yet in all honesty it often doesn’t feel that relevant either. When he died a few years ago, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a piece in The New York Times that attracted some attention for being less dutifully complimentary than one expects on such occasions.
“Mr. Bergman’s star has faded,” he said, “maybe because we’ve all grown up a little, as filmgoers and as socially aware adults.” He went on: “Bergman simply used film (and later, video) to translate shadow-plays staged in his mind — relatively private psychodramas about his own relationships with his cast members, and metaphysical speculations that at best condensed the thoughts of a few philosophers rather than expanded them. Riddled with wounds inflicted by Mr. Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing and diverse spiritual doubts, these films are at times too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world, limiting the relevance that his champions often claim for them.”
What this misses, perhaps, is that the self-absorption in itself speaks about the larger world, or at least about a certain privileged (and perhaps now dwindling) subset of it: it’s no accident that Bergman’s greatest fame coincided with the era of tuning in and dropping out. Still, it’s probably true that watching his films often feels like taking a trip to a remote and rather weird island.
Fanny and Alexander
There are clear exceptions though, and I got huge enjoyment the other week out of rewatching Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. He made this in 1982, and at the time called it his last film; this was technically true, but he subsequently made several other works for TV, released in theatres outside Sweden. I watched the three-hour version originally released, for which Bergman won his third foreign film Oscar, available here through Criterion (Criterion also releases a fuller five-hour version, which I haven’t seen).
It’s a glowing, tumbling, multi-faceted turn-of-the-century family drama, autobiographical in some respects, but going beyond that into magic realism, at first gentle, but ultimately almost brutal. The first hour or so is devoted almost entirely to a Christmas celebration – a classic set piece stuffed with sumptuous food and merriment, with loneliness, cruelty and adultery. Soon afterwards, ten-year-old Alexander and his younger sister Fanny lose their father, and before they know it their mother remarries to the cold, self-righteous bishop; their lives descend into misery. Even from that reductive a summary, it’s clear the narrative has its conventional aspects. But Bergman treats it with immense empathy and care, and virtually every scene yields some surprising interaction, whether between people or dimensions.
When you know the film’s last words, quoting Strindberg, are that “the imagination spins, weaving new patterns,” then it sounds almost more like Fellini’s orchestrated chaos. And indeed even in its final minutes, Bergman’s film is spinning out new subplots, directions, and even metaphysical challenges: hardly the approach of someone winding up his artistic affairs.
Bergman and Desplechin
On this viewing, the film made me think quite a lot of Arnaud Desplechin’s recent A Christmas Tale, another multi-faceted family drama that’s warm and wise without being sappy and preachy, and with elements that strain earthly interpretation. It’s not a connection that would ever have occurred to me from Bergman’s other films – Desplechin is much more the showman, more Felliniesque (if I force myself to keep going with this admittedly strained contrast) and to return to Rosenbaum, perpetually relevant (a more direct comparison might be with the recent Everlasting Moments, if only because it’s also Swedish and set around the same period, but this comparison only shows up the newer film’s conventionality).
A Christmas Tale deals in part with aging and mortality, allowing the grandparents to be frisky and spiky and mysterious as they seldom are in films. The older generation in Fanny and Alexander is hardly embalmed either; it harks back at times to Bergman’s classic Smiles Of The Summer Night in its evocation of past indiscretions. But it’s a different age, constrained by tradition and propriety (albeit sometimes a flexible application of it) and by the limitations of the milieu. For most people, life doesn’t allow too expansive a set of horizons – near the end, one of the family delivers an address on the importance of living a narrowly focused life (the focus in his own case being compulsively sexual). With just a small shift of perspective though, a small world becomes huge. In one scene, Alexander thinks he’s encountering God; it turns out to be a rather fearsome puppet, except that maybe it’s God after all. All earthly things become possible, and as I mentioned, when the film closes the narrative seems to be gearing up to assume a higher momentum, as if anticipating the more fraught demands of the era just ahead.
The film is best seen, naturally, in the context of some familiarity with Bergman’s career, but it’s still immensely rich and rewarding if viewed in isolation. I don’t think a novice viewer would be too surprised to be told the director also made a picture containing a chess match against the grim reaper, but he might be surprised not to sense greater merriment across his work as a whole. Looked at this way, Fanny and Alexander could be an apology of sorts – if we equate Alexander with Bergman, we see there might have been a lighter path available, but we also see the formative glimpses of the earthly pressures that drove him to follow a darker one.