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Film Essays
Autumn Sonata:
Mothers, Daughters, and Monsters

By Farran Smith Nehme

Autumn Sonata was Ingrid Bergman’s swan song in thea­trical movies; when she filmed it, she already had the cancer that would kill her.

Autumn Sonata was the only collaboration between cinema’s two great Bergmans: Ingmar, the iconic director of The Seventh Seal, and Ingrid, the monumental star of Casablanca. The grand dame, playing an icy concert pianist, is matched beat for beat in ferocity by the filmmaker’s recurring lead Liv Ullmann, as her eldest daughter.

Over the course of a day and a long, painful night that the two spend together after an extended separation, they finally confront the bitter discord of their relationship. This cathartic pas de deux, evocatively shot in burnished harvest colors by the great Sven Nykvist, ranks among Ingmar Bergman’s major dramatic works.

Autumn Sonata (1978) cuts deep into a woman, even if she recoils from it. We are all some mother’s daughter, whether we were cherished or abandoned, spoiled or abused. Both of the film’s stars, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman, had daughters as well as celebrated careers. But when Bergman left her husband for Roberto Rossellini, she went years without seeing her daughter from her first marriage.

As for Ullmann, just the year before she had written, “Success in one’s profession and trying to write a book do not compensate for domestic shortcomings as obvious as mine.” She was referring to her relationship with her daughter, Linn, whose father was Ingmar Bergman. The director later said that when he conceived Autumn Sonata, he considered no other actresses for the two main roles. He didn’t say why, nor did he need to.

Filmed by Sven Nykvist in the haunting palette sug­gested by its title, Autumn Sonata uses Bergman’s signature technique of tightly focused close-ups in an almost claus­trophobically small setting to tell the story of a daughter, Eva (Ullmann), who invites her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), for a visit. Charlotte is a famed pianist whose glamorous life hasn’t included a visit to her daughter in seven years. In that time, Eva has married a minister, Viktor (Halvar Björk); has had a son, Erik, who drowned before his fourth birthday; and has been caring for her sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), who is dying, slowly and horribly, from a degenerative disease. Charlotte arrives, vivacious as ever, and seems to think that her debts have already been paid. That isn’t the case.

Bergman’s closely observed account of how one daughter’s disabling rage builds to a devastating all-night confron­tation with her mother was created during his self-imposed exile from his native Sweden. In 1976, that country’s most famous filmmaker had been picked up by the police for tax evasion. He was released after five hours, and the courts eventually dismissed the case, but the lèse-majesté had been more than he could bear.

From his exile, he had already made The Serpent’s Egg (1977), which didn’t find much success. And after Autumn Sonata—filmed in Norway, Ullmann’s home country, in about fifteen days—he would also make From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) outside Sweden.

In retrospect, this part of his career seems as much like a long, slow transition from screen to stage as an exile. Autumn Sonata’s close quarters and big confron­tations seem to anticipate the director’s later focus on the theater. And it was also his last work made expressly for the cinema; From the Life of the Marionettes, Fanny and Alexander (1982), and Saraband (2003) were made for television.

But Autumn Sonata also connects back to Bergman’s earlier seventies films. Up until the tax contretemps, he had been spending the decade making some of the best films of his career. And Autumn Sonata represents another variation on the intimate family miseries of his other pinnacles from that period—preoccupied with physical and moral frailty, like Cries and Whispers (1972), full of recriminations for crimes the other person doesn’t recollect committing, like Scenes from a Marriage (1973).

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman built his screenplay around exposition. Each revelation about Charlotte comes like another page of the indictment. She wasn’t just absent on tour for much of Eva’s childhood, leaving the girl to keep vigil with her father (Erland Josephson); Charlotte had an affair that resulted in her leaving both husband and children for eight months (the child Eva, shown in flashback, is played by Linn Bergman). She didn’t just leave Eva and her son-in-law alone; Charlotte didn’t show up for Eva’s pregnancy or her one grandchild’s birth (“I was recording all the Mozart sonatas. I hadn’t one day free,” she reminds Viktor). Evidently, Charlotte never came even after Erik died, although no one bothers to throw that at her. There’s so much else to choose from, like putting Helena in a home and never visiting.

The amount of harm that Charlotte has inflicted over one not-terribly-long lifetime could fill a miniseries. Indeed, this sort of story line recurs in classic Hollywood melodrama, where a selfish mother is the worst kind of villainess, like the parasitic Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager, nagging Bette Davis into a wreck who winds up physically resembling Ullmann in Autumn Sonata, right down to the wire-rim glasses. Watch Autumn Sonata and other movie mothers may start to drift through your mind: Mary Astor, the pianist in The Great Lie, leaving her baby behind with Davis, then embarking on a world tour because (no other reason is plausibly suggested) she’s a heartless bitch; Davis—now the bad mom—in Mr. Skeffington, abandoning her lovelorn husband and daughter so she can pursue flirtations, lunches, and shopping; Lana Turner lighting up more for her show business pals than she does for her daughter in Imitation of Life (which Charlotte’s phone call to her agent echoes).

It may seem quixotic to bring up these films when discussing the resolutely un-Hollywood Ingmar Bergman. But these old studio tropes reflected attitudes, they did not produce them, and those attitudes cross borders more readily than even cinema itself. In Autumn Sonata, there’s the essence of many a maternal melodrama, concentrated by telescoping events into a couple of days, and deepened by Bergman’s ability to find reasons within reasons for what people do.

Surely, too, the director knew what he was getting when he insisted on Ingrid Bergman for his Charlotte. Cast a Hollywood star and she brings to a role memories of her past films, as well as her public image. The actress didn’t play mothers during her peak years in Hollywood—scandal cut short her career before she got old enough to do so. But she understood that playing Charlotte meant tapping into her own choices and the reams of newsprint from the 1950s accusing her of being unfit for motherhood. And there’s another tidy irony here, one that would scarcely have escaped her director’s notice. Ingrid Bergman’s American stardom began with Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), a remake of her Swedish hit. She plays a pianist who falls deeply in love with a married violinist played by Leslie Howard . . . and gives him up for the sake of his child.

She’d made splendid movies with her husband Roberto Rossellini (they appear to be the roles that impressed Ingmar Bergman the most) and had had a triumphant return to Hollywood with her Oscar for Anastasia (1956). But from the 1960s on, despite another Oscar (for 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, a diverting movie but a role she could have nailed from inside a steamer trunk), Bergman focused on stage work because the movie roles were mostly fluff. Perhaps that’s why, in 1973, when she was presiding over the jury at Cannes, she found time to slip a note into Ingmar Bergman’s pocket, reminding him that when they’d last met, he’d said he would give her a part.

In Images: My Life in Film, Ingmar Bergman wrote that he’d come up with a near-complete outline for Autumn Sonata in one day, after a period in which his accumulating woes had left him temporarily bereft of ideas. The primary difference between it and the finished film is that after the fight, in his original conception, “the daughter gives birth to the mother.” How this might have looked on-screen is an intriguing mystery, but it’s one Bergman himself couldn’t solve, and he abandoned the idea.

Autumn Sonata contains no such mystic scenes, but it’s not without its odd touches. Bergman opens by breaking the fourth wall, to have Eva’s husband, Viktor, tell the audience about his wife, whom we see serenely writing at her desk. Eva is mousy and plain, Ullmann’s considerable beauty hidden by the clothes and hair of a woman twice her age. She seems gentle, but there is calculation beneath the facade. Eva knows that Charlotte will be confronted with precisely what she prefers to avoid: the past. If the film is a chamber piece, as is often said, it’s one played against the sound of a buzz saw coming from far offstage, the thrum of years of pent-up agony.

When Charlotte arrives, she sweeps in with matched luggage, wearing a chic pantsuit and letting her daughter carry her bags into the house. Much has happened to Eva in the seven years since she last saw her mother, but it’s Charlotte who can’t go for more than a few sentences of conversation without turning matters to herself. Eva tells of holding musical evenings for her parishioners, and Charlotte rushes to mention that she has given five school concerts and they were wildly successful.

Charlotte is a performer, but she’s on her best behavior until Eva reveals that Helena is there. Then Charlotte is openly aggrieved; she has just escaped the presence of death, when her lover, Leonardo, passed away after a long illness. In Autumn Sonata, like in Cries and Whispers, death is constantly in the house—in the photographs of little Erik, in Helena’s ravaged body. It’s no wonder a person as self-absorbed as Charlotte backs away; a child’s mor­tal­ity is the ultimate reminder of your own. Still, Charlotte is not a performer for nothing. She steels herself to see Helena, and when she does, her charm is once more in place.

Lena Nyman’s presence as Helena is interesting. She made her name starring in I Am Curious—Yellow, the late-sixties film that enshrined Sweden as a world capital of self-indulgence; as Helena, she is there to remind Charlotte of the cost of self-indulgence. Her expression on seeing her mother—pure joy so intense it seems to cause her physical pain—is the most heartbreaking moment in the movie.

And Ingmar Bergman is too great an artist to go the route of utter villainy with his character by suggesting that Charlotte is unaffected. Next she’s shown alone and pacing around her room, full of emotions she doesn’t want to have, planning an early end to her visit so she can avoid them. Neither is the so-far-saintly Eva above signaling some resentment. She sarcastically predicts to Victor that her mother will show up in the appropriate widow’s weeds. Instead, Charlotte sweeps in wearing a flowing red dress.

Dinner is dispensed with in one cut, the better to empha­size the aftermath. Eva shyly lets herself be persuaded to play Chopin’s Prelude no. 2 in A Minor. She renders it softly and hesitantly, seemingly with a missed note here and there. Bergman’s camera lingers on Charlotte, her face at first indulgent, then gradually more and more discontented. We expect a mother to be supportive, and Eva’s yearning for approval is so tangible it almost seems to be sitting on the bench between them. But it’s inconceivable to Charlotte that, presented with a medio­cre performance, she should do anything other than try to improve it. Chopin, she tells Eva, is about “feeling,” not “sentimentality.” Unqualified praise for your child’s best efforts falls firmly in the latter category.

Painful as this scene at the piano is, it is not entirely about maternal callousness. Ingmar Bergman, wrote journalist Simon Hattenstone, “used to say, almost boast, that he didn’t know the ages of his children, that he measured the years by his movies, not his offspring.” And throughout this film, Charlotte begins reminiscences by citing what she was playing—Mozart, Beethoven’s First, Bartók. It’s hard to say how much Bergman’s own paternal attitudes are being invoked here; a man who puts art above his children is considered normal in a way that a woman is not. Clearly, though, when Bergman shows repeatedly that Charlotte does not know what it is to be a mother, he is also showing that neither does Eva understand what it is to be an artist.

That gap becomes a chasm later in the evening, when the fight begins with the simplest of questions from Eva: “Do you like me?” Here Ullmann’s performance gains its fullest force; her face screws up uncannily like a child’s, but she’s so devastated it’s impossible to mock. “I was a doll you played with when you had time,” Eva continues. Charlotte protests; she felt guilty, her work was suffering and it made her life seem meaningless. Here, at last, one may feel some real sympathy with Charlotte’s bitter laugh. Eva’s fury is relentless now, and Charlotte never seems more human than when she confesses, “I’ve always been afraid of you . . . I was afraid of your demands.”

Eva answers that she had no demands, but that is clearly not true. She swerves to another time, before Helena’s illness got worse, when Charlotte and Leonardo visited, and Helena fell in love with her mother’s lover. (Imitation of Life, indeed.) Somehow, Eva has worked this out to be her mother’s fault, although how could anyone believe that maternal duty extends to sharing your man with your daughter? “I caused Helena’s illness?” asks Charlotte. “Yes, I think so” is the reply. It’s unfair, childish logic, but then the whole conversation has been a regression.

As the scene finally closes, Charlotte is asking Eva to hold her; we don’t know if Eva does, nor do we know if they are capable of reconciling. The movie cycles back around to Eva writing another letter to her mother, convinced she’s driven Charlotte away. Bergman, for his part, wrote that “their hate becomes cemented.”

Autumn Sonata was Ingrid Bergman’s swan song in thea­trical movies; when she filmed it, she already had the cancer that would kill her. Her Charlotte ended up as a triumph of emotional rawness, but director and star fought bitterly during rehearsals. He said she’d mapped out every facial expression in the mirror and was stuck “in the 1940s.” It seems clear she was grasping for any­thing that could soften Charlotte. The actress pleaded for a joke or two. No jokes, she was told. (Autumn Sonata, outside of some wan sallies from Charlotte, is indeed a joke-free zone; Scenes from a Marriage, arguably a depiction of even greater emotional damage, is a laugh riot in comparison.) They clashed over whether Charlotte had been absent from her children for seven years, as the director wrote, or five years, as his star insisted, which does sound less biblically harsh. “So to keep me quiet,” wrote the star in her memoirs, “he cut it to five—even though I noticed seven came back in the finished picture.” He won that battle, and by the time cameras rolled, he’d won the war. The finished film exposes not only a mother’s mistakes but also her searing terror of what those mistakes have wrought.

Actress told auteur, “Ingmar, the people you know must be monsters.” With Charlotte, Ingmar Bergman got the fully human and ultimately tragic monster that he wanted.

Farran Smith Nehme writes about classic film at her blog, Self-Styled Siren. Her writing has appeared in the New York Post, the New York Times, Barron’s, Cineaste, and the Baffler. She has two sons and a daughter.

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