“Ingmar can’t fully follow his own gloomy party line as he stares at this simple, oblivious, wondrous creature.”
Ingmar Bergman’s late chamber piece Autumn Sonata was released in 1978, the same year that Christina Crawford put out her wounded (and exaggerated?) memoir of her tortured childhood with her movie star mother, Joan Crawford. Autumn Sonata raises a lot of the same unanswerable questions of guilt and retribution that exist in Christina’s book Mommie Dearest, but with a trickier visual context. Bergman cast Ingrid Bergman as Charlotte, a world-famous concert pianist visiting her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) for the first time in seven years. Charlotte is vain, chatty, vital, but vague (“I haven’t had a cold in twenty years!” she claims.) She uses liveliness and charm to cover her nearly unbelievable selfishness. It’s suggested that she is past her prime as a pianist. At the same time, Ingrid Bergman’s skill as a performer has not diminished, though Ingmar Bergman’s enthusiasm for his art seems to have waned a bit. What follows is less a confrontation between daughter and mother, between nonentity and star, between Christina and Joan, as it is a buried sexual stand off between Ingmar and Ingrid.
On one level of Autumn Sonata, Ingmar is trying to trash an aging Swedish beauty, just as he trashed the most famous Swedish beauty in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern. He met with Greta Garbo to offer her a small role in his film The Silence. At first, he thought her beauty “imperishable,” and he responded to her coquetry. Then he recorded an ungallant, characteristic revelation: “She leaned over the desk so that the lower half of her face was lit by the desk lamp. Then I saw what I had not seen! Her mouth was ugly, a pale slit surrounded by transverse wrinkles. It was strange and disturbing. All that beauty, and in the middle of the beauty a shrill discord.” Many times in Autumn Sonata, Ingmar tries to find that same shrill discord in Ingrid’s healthy, aged face, but he fails, and he seems to know he is failing. You can feel his frustration, but perhaps this failure gave him a bit of unaccustomed joy, too? Ingmar can’t fully follow his own gloomy party line as he stares at this simple, oblivious, wondrous creature.
As a character study of two women, Autumn Sonata is often unconvincing, and Eva’s husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork) is just a genial cipher watching on the sidelines. But this collision of Bergman and Bergman carries an exciting tension between his intentions and her star valor. They fought constantly during the shoot, and Ingrid quite rightly questioned much of Ingmar’s script; according to Ingmar, they even briefly came to physical blows at one point. Ingmar doesn’t love Ingrid as Hitchcock, Leo McCarey, and Roberto Rossellini did. But his righteous, carnal hatred cannot vanquish her. Ingrid’s Charlotte is always acting, always “on,” and Eva refers derisively to her “performance” of gracious affection when Charlotte is faced with her other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers some unspecified, degenerative disease (this other daughter is put to tiresomely symbolic use as a sign of the central, deformed relationship). Late Ingmar Bergman films are all about searching for truth in acting, and here he sees Ingrid Bergman as an example of old-fashioned, phony movie star playing. He wants to show her up a relic, but Ingrid’s acting is only slightly old-fashioned, an overly ornate frame around a masterful canvas. Her performing style still carries its glamorous, old Hollywood charge, and Ingmar cannot work through the small, largely irrelevant chink of fussy outdatedness in her armor, even when she’s at her most presentational and abrupt.
Ullmann’s Eva has her valid points of grievance against her mother, just as Christina Crawford did against her own nemesis Mommie. When Eva sits down to play Chopin’s Second Prelude, Ingmar focuses his camera on Charlotte and her unguarded responses to her daughter’s rushed, clumsy piano playing: she looks at Eva with a hair-raising expression of complete contempt, then mixes in some willed affection for her untalented offspring, which makes her forthrightly unkind reaction even more disturbing. Charlotte finally closes her eyes in disgust, and seems to commune with a Platonic ideal of the Chopin piece itself, abandoning her daughter. Then she looks at Eva with a flicker of real love, followed closely by a slight tearing up that clearly communicates, “How did I give birth to such a mediocre girl?” Eva stares at her mother beseechingly as Charlotte plays the Chopin piece her way; Charlotte trounces her daughter time and again, but Ingrid’s star presence versus Ullmann’s actorly self-abasement leads not to thoughts of mother devouring daughter but to a kind of cinematic, Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” or, at least, “survival of the most attractive and confident.”1
For about fifty minutes, Ingrid’s Charlotte judges and dominates Eva and the movie. When Eva takes over for the midnight confrontation scenes, which last a little over a half hour, we patiently listen to her accusations, just as many gave their sympathy to Christina Crawford and her best-selling tale of woe. However, Eva’s last recrimination, where she blames Charlotte entirely for Helena’s illness, is so absurd that we can only wonder why Charlotte meekly accepts it (lately, Christina has been suggesting that Joan, above in StraitJacket, probably killed her fourth husband, Alfred Steele, by pushing him down some stairs!). Charlotte’s egoism is revolting, just as Joan Crawford’s alcoholic sadism was unforgivable, but our sympathy inevitably goes to the talented mother over the wimpy, complaining, delusional daughter. Ingmar Bergman tries to present both sides equally because he too is torn between the outrage of an abused child versus the protective pride of a bad parent, and it all comes down to, “I should never have been born,” Bergman’s modernist credo, shared with Samuel Beckett and many other important artists. But isn’t it worth being born just to look at Ingrid Bergman and her self-absorbed, crisply erotic play-acting?
Ingmar wants Ingrid, hates her for getting older, identifies with her abandonment of a child for Roberto Rossellini, feels that the basis of her performing style is false, and wants to strip her naked of all artifice, but he winds up giving her a last hurrah that led to a final Best Actress Oscar nomination. Autumn Sonata is not a major movie, for either Ingmar or Ingrid, but their encounter with each other is poignant. She was dying of cancer as she acted, and he was at the end of his creative invention, yet they eke out one last stand here for each other. “There can be no forgiveness,” says Eva, towards the end of the film. This is Ingmar’s stubborn, career-long claim. But Ingrid won’t have such pessimism. Her image carries with it the exemplary martyrdom implicit in Rossellini’s Europa 51, and the miraculous saving of the marriage in Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, and this positive conclusion courses through her very presence in a film. Ingmar says, “No.” Ingrid says, “Yes.” They’re both right and both wrong, but it is Ingrid, in her last feature film performance, whose “Yes” carries more conviction and authority.
- I first saw Autumn Sonata in an English-dubbed version with commercials at 3 o’clock in the morning when I was in high school. Later, I got to finally see it in Swedish on a Criterion DVD. The dialogue in each version is slightly different, which adds to the layers of ambiguity and plays with our shifting allegiances. In the Swedish version, during a monologue to herself, Ingrid’s Charlotte calls Eva a “little cry-baby.” In the English version, she refers to her daughter as “the little sour-puss,” which sounds much harsher and more inhuman. And when Eva tells her that Helena is living in the house, Charlotte’s rebuke to her daughter’s feigned cluelessness in the Swedish version is mild: “Some people are so naïve.” In the English version, Charlotte is viciously sharp: “I can’t get along with people who don’t seem to be aware of their motives.” It is much easier to side with Eva in the English version, even though Ullmann’s vocal performance in the last scenes of the English dubbing is abrasive and shrill, almost incomprehensible. [↩]