Review of Fanny & Alexander
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/16/07
Why Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 final ‘filmic film’, Fanny & Alexander (Fanny Och Alexander), bears the appellation it does is a mystery- one of many in the film, since the first titular character, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) is a third or fourth level supporting character at best, and in the three hour theatrical version of the film she is not even mentioned by name for nearly an hour into the film. The film really should be called Alexander & Fanny, or simply Alexander, since it most closely follows two years in the life of young, handsome, brown-haired Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve)- the original ‘boy who sees dead people,’ from 1907 to 1909. Better yet, it should really be called The Ekdahls, for it is that whole family that is central to the film, especially Fanny and Alexander’s beautiful blond mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling- a more intellectual, sensuous, and earth motherish version of Denise Richards, who bears a remarkable facial resemblance to Guve; especially in the cheekbones and puffy lips). Her deep, gorgeous blue eyes hold a viewer’s attention, as do the eyes of Liv Ullman, who was originally offered the part, but turned it down. Yes, there are many things that do not make sense in this film- both in the internal narrative and the external aspects of the tale, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
The theatrical version did win four Academy Awards; for Best Foreign Film, Costume Design (Marik Vos), Art Direction-Set Decoration (Anna Asp), and for the cinematography of Sven Nykvist. This triumph is best illustrated in the scenes of the death of Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), where beautiful and ornate clocks and shiny accoutrements are contrasted with a bucket of vomit. But it is the 312 minute television series is unquestionably a great film, although it does not have the unadorned greatness of earlier Bergman classics, like Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, nor, most cogently, Scenes From A Marriage- Bergman’s earlier tv miniseries that was also released theatrically in a truncated form, but which is a better film, especially in the comparative shorter versions. The shorter version of this film feels chopped up, has too many plot holes, due to some questionable editing by Bergman, especially when compared to the longer television version of the film. Why, as example, does Bergman retain any of the stand alone scenes of Carl Ekdahl and his marital woes in the shorter version, since they go nowhere and contribute nothing to the denouement, and where the best scene that character has is of farting out a burning candlestick to entertain the children? here is an example where leaving a bit of a plot does no good and it should have been wholly excised. By contrast, there are a number of scenes from the longer version that should never have been removed- such as Alexander’s run-in with the ghosts of the daughters of the evil Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö- who was Peter, the feckless friend to Erland Josephson’s Johan, in Scenes From A Marriage)- who torment and puke on him, or the dramatic showdown between Carl and Gustav Adolf and the Bishop, after they have engineered the rescue of the children from the Bishop’s home, and revealed the Bishop as a philanderer who owes 110,000 kronor in debts.
Yet, Fanny & Alexander deserves its place in the Bergman and filmic canons, even if it does occasionally suffer from some of what can be labeled ‘old artist’s syndrome’- i.e.- the tendency to over-sentimentalize the past. Bergman was 64 by the film’s release. What makes it work, especially in the longer version, though, is that it leisurely sets up the characters of the tale, without telling us any extraneous matter that is not important later in the film. there is no ‘fat’, so to speak. This allows non-Bergmaniacs to be lulled into the tale’s more traditional narrative start- which is more emotional than intellectual, before Bergman wallops the viewer with the deep and angsty Bergman themes viewers either love or hate- key to this transition are the primal screams that Emilie Ekdahl hurls at the cosmos when she is alone in a room with Oscar’s corpse. A Hollywood film simply would never allow such a leisurely pace to a film. Then we get the Bergman mainstays: magic, hatred, sex, suffering, atheism, perversion, monstrousness, but it all works.
In some ways, this film takes all of the best of the prior Bergman canon, and reworks it beautifully. Two decades later, in the horrible Saraband, Bergman again shamelessly stole from himself- and this film, in the scenes of Grandmother Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren) poring over family photos on a desk, with disastrous results, in that all the worst things about him metastasized into self-indulgence and banality. In Fanny & Alexander Bergman takes only the best from his past: there is the period setting akin to Wild Strawberries; there is the stench of death as in The Seventh Seal; there is the agonized preacher as in Winter Light; there is the hint of the child sexual abuse of Alexander- first by family nursemaid Maj (Pernilla Wallgren)- who seemingly lusts for Alexander (he often sleeps in her bed) and later bears Gustav Adolf a daughter, with the blessing of his wife Alma (Mona Malm), and later by the freakishly androgynous Ismael (Stina Ekblad), reminiscent of The Silence; there is the supernatural- as in Hour Of The Wolf and Cries And Whispers, and on and on.
The film even opens with a shot of Alexander looking out at the audience, as does the unnamed boy at the start of Persona. Bergman seems to be almost as reflexive in this film as he was in that one, although much more subtly and less bombastically. We then see, in both versions, how open and hedonistic the upper class Ekdahls of Uppsala are. The three sons of the widowed Helena are involved in local business- Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), in Academia- Carl (Börje Ahlstedt- who gained fame in the I Am Curious films of Vilgot Sjöman), and in the theater- Oscar, who is Fanny and Alexander’s father, and is much older than his beautiful blond wife. They have a large house, servants, and everyone is treated fairly, although both Gustav Adolf and Carl flirt ceaselessly with the female help, as their wives seem to accept such behavior. Then there is Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson)- the Jewish family friend and ex-lover of Helena Ekdahl. He runs the local puppet and magic shop in town, with his nephew Aron (Mats Bergman- the director’s son). Aron’s brother Ismael is locked away because he is either dangerous, preternaturally gifted, or both.
When Oscar suddenly dies during a rehearsal for Hamlet- whose narrative provides this tale’s spine, everything changes….for the worse. Bishop Vergerus sickly insinuates himself into the life and heart of Emilie Ekdahl, and a year after Oscar’s death, they marry, dooming the two children to life under the psychotic Bishop’s thumb. As the film goes on, especially in the shorter version, Emilie’s reasons for this manifestly ill match are never made clear, because the Bishop bizarrely asks her and her children to come to his joyless home with no worldly goods, and is clearly an insecure wretch of a man. Yet, she accepts. In the longer version, however, we early on learn that the young and beautiful Emilie has had lovers behind Oscar’s back, and perhaps she fees she needs to atone for betraying her dead husband by punishing or cleansing herself with a life of asceticism with the Bishop. She later tells her mother-in-law, when pregnant with the monstrous Bishop’s child, that she fell for his act of kindness, despite being an actress who should know better. But, earlier- in the tv version, we get a scene where Emilie says she realizes that they will hurt each other, and the viewer must wonder if this masochism is somehow borne of her guilt for her faithlessness to Oscar?
We do learn that the Bishop’s first wife and two daughters drowned fifteen years earlier. Alexander spins a yarn that they were locked away for five days and drowned while escaping. But, the maid Justina (Harriet Andersson), who hears this tale, is spying on Alexander, for the Bishop, and snitches on him. There is a great shot of Andersson’s face as it can barely contain its glee over hurting her hateful employer with Alexander’s lie. Clearly. The Bishop treats everyone like swine, and Alexander is merely a pawn in her game to ingratiate and/or get back at the Bishop for some unnamed earlier slight. Alexander is then brutalized by the sadistic and hollow holy man- ostensibly for the lying, but really for discovering the Bishop’s secret, as well as being smarter than the man. Discovering this, Emilie finally turns on him, but cannot leave him, lest the retrogressive Swedish family law of the day would give him custody of her children. This, even though the Bishop fully admits he has a built in torture chamber where Alexander can be sent to be sniffed at by rats, and locks Alexander in the cold and damp attic, as punishment, even though he has beaten the boy. Things like this void some apologist critics’ claims that the Bishop is merely misunderstood, and is being somehow manipulated by Alexander. No, he is one of the great portraits of pure evil in film history, and one need only witness the brief moment after Alexander has been caned, and Fanny is standing there, shocked by it all. The Bishop goes to gently stroke her cheek before sending her off to bed. he hopes to ally with her against her brother. But, she turns away from him, and all we see is the Bishop’s open palm reflexively tense up into a fist, ready to smite the girl. He refrains, but it is moments like this that separate Bergman from lesser filmmakers, and utterly void the wan claims of the apologists for the Bishop’s misunderstood character.
Yet, it is important to note that when the Bishop is first told of Alexander’s tale of his first wife’s and children’s deaths, we can see in his ashen face that he has been unmasked. The tale is probably true, despite the later appearance of the dead female ghosts of his daughters, when the Bishop locks Alexander in the attic, who tell Alexander that it is not true. This key scene, only seen in the tv version, suggests that Alexander merely regrets his telling of the tale, not its power, and is using his fear of ghosts as a way to rationalize things. It is not objectively real, because when Emilie rescues Alexander from the attic, we see none of the puke one of the girl ghosts hurls, only the bloodied ass of Alexander from the whipping.
Then comes the scene where Isak Jacobi whisks the children away in a trunk, right after being beaten by the anti-Semitic Bishop, but somehow wills their images back into the room he got them from, as the Bishop rushes up to stop them. This is where the film takes on a definite Dickensian air (albeit far deeper than Dickens ever probed); even more so than the later scene where Ismael undresses and fondles Alexander to make him ‘come’ with the power of telekinesis. It is the most inexplicable scene in the film, as well its weakest underbelly. All the other sightings of ghosts, statues that move- which hearken back to a recurrent image in Bergman’s experimental films of the 1960s, and magical things in the Jacobi shop- even the death of the Bishop and his grotesquely bloated aunt by fire, can be explained away as hallucinations or coincidence. But not this scene of the children being in two places at once, even though Emilie orders the Bishop not to touch the images of her children. However, that all said, the superb casting of a female actress, Stina Ekblad, in a male role, makes Ismael all the more creepy as ‘he’ fondles Alexander to murder from a distance, while whispering psychobabble to him like, ‘Perhaps we’re the same person, with no boundaries. Perhaps we flow through each other, stream through each other boundlessly and magnificently. You bear such terrible thoughts….it’s almost painful to be near you.’ This casting decision also makes ‘his’ abuse/use of Alexander for evil purposes all the more creepy (and homoerotic), for her dissonant appearance from the masculine, as well as a quasi-incestuous kiss from Aron, puts the viewer on edge for malevolence.
With the death of the Bishop, Emilie and her children return to the theater and the Ekdahls to resume life as before, even if Alexander, we realize, will be haunted by the ghost of the Bishop- who walks by and pushes the boy to the floor of his Grandmother’s home, or at least his guilty conscience for seemingly having willed the man dead. The last scene finds him with his grandmother Helena, as she reads words from August Strindberg’s A Dream Play: ‘Anything can happen, all is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns.…’ Yet, it is only in the tv version that the depths and joys of the Ekdahl life is plumbed fully: there are longer sequences at the opening Christmas Eve party; a deeper exploration of Carl Ekdahl and his put upon German wife Lydia (Christina Schollin)- their marriage, his rages, and his own business failings and debts, which mirror the flaws of the Bishop; a deeper look at Emilie’s rationales- and her later hatred of the Bishop; more of life at the theater- especially a great sequence onstage with Bergman’s first filmic star- Gunnar Björnstrand, as actor Filip Landahl; and more of Alexander's imagination- especially in two key scenes, deleted from the shorter version. The first is when Oscar spins a tale of intrigue from an old wooden chair, on that opening Christmas Eve, about how the chair is art, and art is connected to life, essentially, and how not to judge things by appearances. This sentiment is reprised and expounded upon, later, when Isak, after rescuing the children, spins a primal tale- ostensibly from a Hebrew book of legends, but clearly from his own pained psyche, that ends up with Alexander having his own ideas of great import, as well as a symbolic dream set in a desert. Yet, Isak’s tale also is about how much of life is elliptical and not magical, and encompasses the film’s major theme- that growth only comes from taking risks.
There are some interesting bits of symbolism in the film, and were it not for the sheer depth and power of the larger tale being woven, some of it might irk and be a bit too heavy-handed. For example, the barred windows of the Bishop’s home- explained away by the desire to not have a repeat of the earlier escape and drownings, is a bit much. Also, the barren mausoleum-like household of the Bishop vs. the red and lush interior of the Ekdahl residence. It is clear that the families approach life differently, but such sharp contrasts, in a film like this, are not really necessary, for the characters themselves convey such differences. Inanimata need not be employed to underline what the dialogue and script- by Bergman, so aptly do. The Ekdahl home, however, is a perfect setting for the opening Christmas scenes, which function much as the wedding which opens Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather- it lets us get an extended introduction to the key players and their relations to one another. Then there is the animal skeleton in the river outside the Bishop’s house, or the flashes of lightning at key moments, that slightly lessen the film from a perfectionist’s standpoint. Bergman masterfully handles other elements of the film, however, such as not ending the film where Hollywood hacks would have- with the seemingly ‘happy ending’ of the fiery death of the Bishop and his aunt, but with the more ambiguous ending.
As for the five disk DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection? It is marvelous- one of the best jobs that company has done. There is a single disk with the theatrical version, which- Hallelujah!, comes with an English language dubbed soundtrack option. That disk also features an excellent film commentary by Bergman film scholar Peter Cowie. Cowie is an often hit and miss commentator on such DVD tracks, but this time he’s well on, as he maintains an informed and leisurely pace for the three plus hours. Although manifestly scripted, he conveys an ease and breadth of knowledge of the film and actors that rarely gets didactic. We get helpful anecdotes, interesting insights, and even some rationales for specific scenes or artistic choices, as well as bits of trivia that delight film fanatics. However, he does make some unsupported statements, such as claiming the chronological order of the three Ekdahl brothers, or telling us that Helena Ekdahl was half-Jewish. These are ‘facts’ supposedly gleaned from Bergman’s notes for the film, but appear nowhere within the film’s body. Also, in the scene where Oscar’s ghost first reappears, Cowie claims Fanny likely does not see him, only Alexander does. Yet, clearly, Fanny has seen the ghost, for she alerts Alexander to it, and her eyes are as transfixed in his direction as Alexander’s are. These flaws are minor quibbles, however, in an otherwise top notch commentary.
The television version comes on two disks- each with two of the four episodes (although the series is in five ‘Acts,’ but only comes with English subtitles- no English dubbed soundtrack. The second of the disks also has a good forty minute documentary called A Bergman Tapestry, featuring interviews about the film with producer Jörn Donner, production manager Katinka Farago, art director Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Schildt, and actors Bertil Guve (who now looks like a balder, thinner Guy Pearce), Ewa Fröling, Pernilla August, and Erland Josephson. The final two disks have Bergman’s acclaimed, but rather tedious, straightforward, and uninsightful documentary, The Making Of Fanny And Alexander. It simply follows scenes of the filming, with no real discussion by Bergman nor any of the participants, nor any commentary. Yes, it’s like a backstage pass, but so what? Especially in this DVD age, the film seems sort of self-indulgent and pointless. On the same disk is a far more insightful hour long 1984 Swedish television interview with Bergman called Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell To Film. There is also the near requisite stills gallery, costume sketches, and video of Anna Asp’s models for the sets. The final disk is a superb little treasure. There are eleven several minute long insightful video introductions by Bergman for many of his greatest films, which were taped for the release of those films on European DVDs. Also, most of them come with trailers. Finally, there is a small booklet featuring the typically dense and banal essays that praise the DVDs within, this time by hack fictionist Rick Moody, documentarian and film historian Stig Bjorkman, and film scholar Paul Arthur. Theirs are the sorts of hortatory recapitulations that show not that the writer has actually viewed the film, merely absorbed the publicity rhetoric and criticism surrounding it.
Fanny & Alexander, while a great film- especially in its longer version, is not all that its greatest boosters claim. First, it’s not in any real way autobiographical, unlike Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, nor François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Bergman’s life was not Alexander Ekdahl’s, although Alexander’s despair, budding atheism, and pessimism are obviously parts of Bergman. The film is also not, as many bad critics claim, an ‘epic.’ Length is not what defines an epic, but sweep. Despite the two versions running just over three and five hours respectively, Fanny & Alexander is a small and highly intimate film set over a small time period. It is not filled with grand, sweeping vistas, but explores the inner terrain of the frail human psyche, especially that of a gifted child, coming to terms with religion, hatred, divorce, death, magic realism- such as the supposedly four thousand year old mummy that breathes and shines, ghosts, supernatural powers, angst, and the life of the artist.
Oddly, it is the shorter theatrical version of the film- with its many narrative gaps and unresolved issues, which feels a bit too long, not the significantly longer television version. Yet, despite the above named divergent themes, and the presence of ‘the other’ in the film, the inexplicable works, and works superbly- especially in the deeper, longer, and richer television version, where we get glimpses of the Bishop and his evil clan far earlier in the film, as well as more depth on important characters like Carl Ekdahl and Isak Jacobi. Perhaps it is because most of the film is told from a child’s eye point of view, which always warps reality to its own psychological needs, or maybe the whole film is just a child’s dream, for early on Alexander Ekdahl falls asleep. Does he ever really wake up?
Whatever interpretation one wants to apply to this film, it is essential to the canon of Ingmar Bergman, and captures an essential bit of humanity past, just as superb films like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver do. It will be relevant for as long as humanity exists, just as those other great works are, for despite its setting, we all know people like the Ekdahls and Vergeruses. That it lets us know a bit more about ourselves is merely icing on a damned tasty cake, one that remains tempting even as eaten, and gets better with each viewing. Having seen it thrice, both versions and the theatrical version with comments, this claim is no mystery. Swallow now.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
Return to Bylines