Thursday, June 30, 2011

FANNY & ALEXANDER 1982

Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" tops many people's list as the perfect film, but for me, any such list would have to start where Ingmar Bergman ended: with "Fanny & Alexander," the legendary director's remarkably beautiful final film.
In spite of being the most expensive and large-scale film of Ingmar Bergman's career, "Fanny & Alexander" is nevertheless a profoundly intimate and introspective movie about a well-to-do family in turn-of-the-century Sweden that has about it the dreamy air of semi-autobiographical nostalgia and reverie. Almost impossible not to view as the summation of the director's impressive and influential career, its narrative highlights a great many of Bergman's lifelong preoccupations: fate, the existence of God, ghosts, the endurance of love, the pain of existence - as well as several actors and character names he has used over the years.
Just a small part of "Fanny & Alexander"s expansive cast. From top to bottom: Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl, Pernilla Allwin as Fanny Ekdahl, Gunn Wållgren as Helena Ekdahl, Erland Josephson as Isllan Edwall as Oscar Ekdahl, Ewa Fröling as Emelie Ekdahl, Jan Malmsjö as Bishop Edvard Vergerud  Jarl Kulle as Gustav Adolf Ekdahl.

You don't have to be an art-house aficionado or Bergman-ophile to appreciate "Fanny & Alexander" for it is also Bergman's most accessible, warm, and life-embracing film. Full of humor and finely-observed details of familial devotion and discord, it is mercifully free of the usual Disneyfied depiction of childhood as an idyllic wonderland. "Fanny & Alexander" throws a trenchant light on the too-often terrifying vulnerability and helplessness that is the lot of the young while commenting poignantly on childhood's greatest gift...children are blessed with an almost superhuman capacity to endure. 

Viewed partially through the eyes of 10 year-old Alexander and his 8 year-old sister, Fanny, the beauty of this film is how it is able to capture that mystical time in a young life when, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Everything was possible and nothing made sense." It celebrates, at its center, that extraordinary ability in children to unquestioningly accept the real and the magical with the same level of gravity, accommodating the tragic and joyous in life with an almost existential grace. In framing its magic realism within the structure of a broadly emotive theatrical family seen from the perspective of a watchful little boy with a vivid, almost psychic, imagination, "Fanny & Alexander" offers us a glimpse into the formative influences (both sensual and spiritual) on Bergman and his art.
"There comes my family"
Helena, matriarch of the Ekdahl family, lovingly observes the arrival of her offspring.
Though the theatrical version of the film is a masterpiece in itself (clocking in at a considerable 188 minutes), my movie-geek prayers were answered when the original, uncut  312-minute version was released in the Unites States several years back by The Criterion Collection (really, is this the only DVD release company that loves movies?). It is absolute HEAVEN! The opening Christmas sequence alone is worth the price.
As some people do with "The Wizard of Oz" or "Gone With the Wind," I watch "Fanny & Alexander" once a year, usually around Christmas or New Year's. It's my idea of the perfect adult fairy tale. There's a villain, a haunted castle, a damsel in distress, evil in-laws, a sorcerer, and a magic potion. The literate screenplay (by Bergman) has passages of genuine poetry that are as moving and eloquent as ever captured in a motion picture. No matter how often I see it, it never fails to leave me charmed and teary-eyed.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
One of the great gifts of getting older is that, with the gaining of wisdom (hopefully), comes a peace and ease with the unalterable vicissitudes of life. You no longer need armor yourself with an unearned belief in life's cruelty, nor do you need to sentimentalize your existence with fantasies of everything being rosy. You take the good with the bad and learn to cling to the joyful moments, large and small, grateful for friends and loved ones and those everyday miracles that you are content with never possibly understanding. "Fanny & Alexander" feels like a work of an artist matured. Gone is the predominantly dark palate of Bergman's earlier works; with this film he is willing to embrace the light along with the shadows.

PERFORMANCES:
I first fell in love with the faces (such a delight to see wrinkles, sagging skin, imperfections: character!), then the brilliant words, then the affecting performances...all are so rich and in such full flower that I can't isolate any single individual as my favorite. Like Robert Altman's Nashville, "Fanny & Alexander" is built on the ensemble players, perfectly cast and completely in concert.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Magic realism has long intrigued me when used in film. The matter-of-fact melding of the real and the supernatural seems a perfect stylistic choice for motion pictures, but few films handle it effectively. In "Fanny & Alexander" the intrusion of magic and the supernatural into the corporeal world fits well the film's child's-eye-view perspective; its Grimm's fairy-tale-like narrative; and its philosophical meditations.  None of this is new territory for Ingmar Bergman, but I think this film showcases his most natural, least surreal, employment of this stylistic device.
In one of the film's many poetically moving sequences, Alexander's "guardian angel" grants an unspoken wish.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The first 90-minutes of "Fanny & Alexander" is devoted to a family Christmas get-together that is a cinematic marvel and could stand on its own as a separate film. Ostensibly an expositional introduction to all the main characters; everything from Sven Nykvist's breathtaking cinematography to the touchingly realized human interactions (there's an exchange between a sweet-faced little girl and one of the servants regarding the bearing of grief while others are happy that just tears my heart out), it is a sequence of familial warmth unlike anything I've seen. Virtuoso filmmaking.
  Helena: "Are you sad because you've grown old?"
Isak: "I'm certainly not. Everything's getting worse. Worse people, worse machines, worse wars...and worse weather."
I've never understood how Woody Allen, when trying to channel his idol, Ingmar Bergman, always managed to come up with such shallow, constipated, and dull copies. Bergman's work, if nothing else, brim over with life and humanity. I understand how he's not everybody's cup of tea, but my experience of his films (especially "Wild Strawberries"...another favorite) has been that they are more passionate and emotional than cerebral, and a great deal more entertaining than they are given credit for.

Why exactly "Fanny & Alexander" speaks to me on such a sentimental level can be summed up by quotes from two other films that convey (more eloquently than I could) philosophical ideologies that get me in the gut every time:

From the film Sling Blade- "I don't think anything bad ought to happen to children. I think the bad stuff should be saved up for the people whose grown up. That's the way I see it."
and
From the film Little Children- "We're all miracles. Know why? Because as humans, every day we go about our business, and all that time we know... we all know... that the things we love... the people we love, at any time now can all be taken away. We live knowing that and we keep going anyway. Animals don't do that."

These simple sentiments touch my emotional core very keenly. They are the facts of life and compassionate human existence. In "Fanny & Alexander" Ingmar Bergman expounds upon them in such artfully dramatic and poetic ways that, in my eyes, he has created nothing short of an unqualified masterpiece.

5 comments:

  1. i haven't seen this one yet! in fact, i've never seen bergman's color films. that's what i love so much about the movies - there are no shortages of the magical art. when one is viewed, twenty more are revealed.

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  2. PS - 'wild strawberries' is one of my favorites. that and 'sawdust and tinsel'

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  3. Hi Kathrynnova
    Hmmm...I've never seen "Stardust & Tinsel". I've put it on my Netflix list. Thanks for the inadvertent recommendation.
    I hope you check out "Fanny & Alexander", even if you don't go as ga-ga for it in toto as I have, there are just so many isolated passages and scenes that shouldn't be missed by anyone who loves movies.

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  4. Hi Ken, Thanks for a great post. This is my favourite film as well; we show "Fanny och Alexander" every year around Christmas, with a feast at intermission (this year we did a roast goose), though its spell cannot help but spill over into the rest of the year (often I can't help but insert Gustav Adolf's proud & angry "Jajajajaja..." when I encounter a messy situation).

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  5. Hi Andrew, Thank you very much for your comment. I really love that you have integrated this film into your holiday like that! Each year I always think I'm just going to watch the film's Christmas sequence, but I invariably get caught up with the characters and settle down for a long evening's entertainment. Can't resist it. LOL at your Gustav reference...I can so identify.

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