This is the sum total of all of Ingmar Bergman's film knowledge he had accumulated over decades, starting in the 1940s. It's his longest and most sophisticated work both visually and narratively. It gets the adjective Dickensian used to describe it quite a bit, and it fits very well. To me, Fanny and Alexander feels like a combination of Oliver Twist, The Magnificent Ambersons, and ___.
According to Netflix, I've seen and rated the theatrical version of this, but I watched the television version this time. It's five hours and twenty glorious minutes long.
The story overall is about the dissolution and reconstitution of the Ekdahl family. They are a moderately wealthy family in early 20th century Sweden. A family tied to the theater, they are headed by the matriarch Helena, a former actress and widow. Her three sons have different levels of success. Oscar is the actor and manager of the family theater (who's also described by his mother as a terrible actor and undersexed) who's married to the beautiful Emilie. Gustav Adolf runs the theater's restaurant and has such a voracious sexual appetite that his wife (Alma) tolerates him taking and keeping a mistress (Maj). The third son is Carl, an abject failure professionally who is married to a German woman (Ewa), that he seems to despise. The next generation down has a few children, but the only ones that matter narratively are the children of Oscar and Emilie, the titular Fanny and Alexander.
The television version is broken up into five acts with a prologue and an epilogue spread across four episodes. The first episode is also the first act, and it deals with the family's Christmas celebration. It reminds me, structurally, of The Godfather's opening. A large family gathering to get most of the characters into a single place and let their personalities reveal themselves while setting up future conflicts. It's a wonderful and luxurious experience that very clearly delineates every family member in clear detail. All three brothers, for instance, not only look different enough but also behave in different ways (Oscar is taciturn, Gustav Adolf is big and lively, and Carl is subdued and angry) while demonstrating their concerns for their own lives. Helena's relationships to her family and the family friend, the old Jew Isak, are strong. It's a long opening, but the groundwork that the film does here is well used later.
Oscar dies in the beginning of act two, and Emilie, the actress who has spent her life wearing different masks to the point that she has little idea who she actually is anymore, feels adrift. The Ekdahl family does some to help, but (as Gustav Adolf says in the fifth act) they don't do enough. It gets to the point that Emilie runs to the local bishop who embraces her and they marry. The bishop, though, is a vicious man who treats his adopted children (particularly Alexander) harshly. The third and fourth acts are the dissolution of the Ekdahl family overall through this marriage but also the dynamic within the small wing of the Emilie and Oscar family. Father has obviously passed, but mother and children grow more and more estranged as the bishop inserts himself in between. His form of parenting is harsh, including canings for lying (though the lie Alexander tells is particularly pernicious and aimed directly at the bishop's character).
No one is happy though, and the kindly Isak organizes an escape for the two children, hiding them in his shop/residence as Emilie remains at the bishop's palace. Gustav Adolf and Carl show up and demand Emilie's release and a divorce to help preserve her happiness and bring her back to the Ekdahl family, but the bishop refuses, relying on Emilie's thin appeals towards her brothers-in-law to stay behind. She fears for her safety and that of her children, so she professes the bishop's goodness. However, he ends up drinking a brother she had made for herself to ease her aching joints and help her sleep due to her pregnancy. He falls into a deep sleep and she takes the opportunity to flee. At the same time, the bishop's invalid aunt is in the final moments of her life and accidentally sets her room on fire before also killing the bishop, giving Emilie the ability to leave completely free. The epilogue shows the reconstituted Ekdahl family at a new celebration, that of a double birth, Emilie's child and Maj's.
Running through the whole story is the idea, motif, and presence of ghosts. Bergman insisted that he saw ghosts as a child, and that is one element of his life (among many others) that he inserted into the film. Oscar becomes a ghost, consoling his mother Helena at one point, and being cast away by Alexander near the end of the film. Alexander is haunted by the ghosts of the bishop's first two daughters who died on the river, and, in a very creepy scene that actually gave me chills, chastise Alexander for the lie he told of the bishop. At the end of the film, even the bishop's ghost come to haunt Alexander in the moments of happiness.
Thematically, the movie really is the culmination of Bergman's career. He touches on and explores every major theme that had concerned him over the decades. We have the complex natures of relationships between men and women as evidenced by every pair. There is the questioning of God's silence as Alexander prays endlessly for God to smite the bishop. Even the bishop's eventual death has the implication of a swirl of ideas that combine God's silence, the supernatural and ghosts, and fate causing the series of events.
On top of all that, the acting is universally superb. I do kind of wish Max Von Sydow's agent hadn't screwed up and prevented him from appearing as the bishop, but Jan Malmsjö is great in the role nonetheless. He's self-righteous, seething, and also, in a twisted way, loving all at once. Everyone in the film is fantastic, even the children. Bergman didn't work with children often (The Silence being the most prominent example before this), and children are notoriously difficult to direct well. However, he managed to get, in particular, a great performance from Bertil Guve as Alexander.
It's also beautiful to look at. The sets are vibrant and lavish (save the bishop's palace, which is appropriately bare and bleak). The costumes are colorful. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is sumptuous and evocative. I think that my favorite element of the visual design is a specific choice around the Ekdahl living space. It's several rooms deep and we get several great shots that show different layers of action across multiple rooms. It's a visual feast.
Fanny and Alexander is really one of Bergman's best films. Emotional, complex, and insightful, it's the appropriate way to end a retrospective of the man's work. He may have made the coda of Saraband afterwards, but this is the apogee of his career.
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