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PopGap #35: Autumn Sonata (1978)

PopGap #35: Autumn Sonata (1978)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Written by dorrk
17 December 2017

A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction.

My introduction to Ingmar Bergman came through the movies of Woody Allen, which I devoured as a teenager in the 1980s. At many points during Autumn Sonata, which I had never seen before, I experienced second-hand deja vu, as Allen's late-1980s chamber drama September seems more directly beholden to this one Bergman effort — down to hairstyle and costuming — than is typical of his frequent homages to the Swedish master. This familiarity between the two films, coupled with Bergman's unusually warm color palette, might have made Autumn Sonata a rare comforting experience, if it weren't for the dense layers of familial recriminations and vitriol that made it one of the tougher Bergman movies for me to assimilate.

Liv Ullman stars as Eva, a woman whose complicated feelings about her upbringing explode in a volcanic torrent when her inattentive mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) comes to visit. On a visceral level, Autumn Sonata presents itself as a kind of narrative I dislike quite a bit: characters directly confronting each other at length with eloquent emotional appeals that appear to explain their genuine inner feelings with unrealistic accuracy. In this regard, not only is Autumn Sonata exhausting but nearly monotonous. Only Bergman's constantly exacting framing and art direction, and the uncannily astounding performances by his actors, make this exercise in relentless venting tolerable on a superficial level. However, enough of what transpires between Eva and Charlotte during their marathon bitch sesh — some of which deserves little more than a weary "get over it" in response — is unassumingly contradicted by small visual cues, suggesting a barely detectable current of "unreliable narrator" at work, which I suspect may reveal, on an additional viewing, more going on in Autumn Sonata than was digestible in one sitting.

Regardless of my inability to initially comprehend Autumn Sonata's deceptively complicated meaning, Bergman is one of a handful of directors who has an ability to thrill me with seemingly effortless technical mastery. Like Kurosawa, Bergman's command of mise en scen and ability to elicit perfectly rich performances is unerring to a degree that I often find bewildering. Those qualities are apparent in Autumn Sonata from beginning to end; Although Ullman is her usual penetrating self, fans of Ingrid Bergman's classic Hollywood roles owe themselves a glimpse at her towering achievement here, especially compared to her negligible Oscar-winning performance from Murder on the Orient Express two years earlier. Also with Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson.

Autumn Sonata was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Wade McCormick. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #24 / 2837 (99%), making it his second favorite out of 21 Ingmar Bergman films. It ranked on my Flickchart at #975 (76%), putting it at number 7 on my chart of 11 Ingmar Bergman movies.

PopGap #35: Autumn Sonata (1978)

Trailer for Autumn Sonata (1978)