Fanny and Alexander (Sweden, 1982, Ingmar Bergman)
Wherein Ben and I gush over the crowning achievement in a peerless cinematic career.
I know this Zen aphorism. Before you study Zen, a bowl of rice is a bowl and rice. While you study Zen, a bowl of rice is not a bowl and not rice. After you study Zen, a bowl of rice is a bowl and rice. The search for knowledge the marks the departure from childhood truth is an unavoidable quest that comes to the mature recognition of childhood truth. Likes Matt's masthead says, a long, strange journey towards a retrospectively inevitable destination. F&A is not just the work of a great artist. It is the work of a mature human being. I recently validated the nature of Fellini's nostalgia in Amarcord but the depth of Bergman's autobiographical mythology in F&A takes us way past the limitations of even the most valid nostalgia. This is more than providing a balanced account between the good and the bad, the nice and the nasty. No, this has to do with whatever the hell makes for wisdom.
Bergman's got the full-circle dialectic going on in a big way. He does not give us the child's eye view as rethought by the remembering adult. His remembrance instead gives us the adult's eye view as prethought by the child. To say that Alexander is precocious is to completely miss the dialectical perspective at hand. He is not "wise beyond his years." His wisdom is prefectly adult. It has been retrospectively transplanted in the past. Even to grasp Alexander as the proto-adult he will become is to miss that he is already fully himself, as if the mature Bergman has stepped into a time machine to go back and inhabit that little boy's body. Certainly on the face of it, Alexander is "just a kid" with the emotional and intellectual complexion of a child. At the core, though, at the soul if you will, the bowl of rice is a bowl and rice, after as before. The childhood view of the world is recognized by the mature adult for the truth that it was - and is.
The most general confirmation of the dialectic I have just identified is that Bergman's autobiographical mythology is truly mythological. It is primal. F&A is as technically and stylistically sophisticated as a work of art can be, but the fundamentals of the story - the plot, the characters, the atmosphere - the whole thing is one big Grimm's Fairy Tale. I'm not suggesting that the characters lack complexity or that the morality is cut and dried. Far from it. Yet, I am suggesting that F&A is a film that a child could understand; and at this point in my discourse, I hope it is clear that I mean this to be profound. No doubt, there are symbols aplenty demanding interpretation, but even so, F&A registers for me without recourse to Jungian archetypes and the like. Similarly, the internally contradictory behavior of people is laid out with subtle detail, but what throbs througout these presentations is the direct understanding of - not good and evil - rather love and hate. Again, what children know.
For me, the wisdom of F&A is so genuine, I don't want to mess too much with it. I will attempt to offer just a few thematic appreciations without getting analytical. The promotion of a humanist vitality is front and centre. Considering that Bergman is not a cum-one-cum-all Italian like Fellini but a death-head Swede, F&A is remarkably charged with sexuality that is for the most part wholesome and life-affirming. Granted, the erotic dimensions of the step-father and his house are twisted in the extreme and some ambigiously disturbing vibes come down when Alexander is making the scene with the Jew's nephews. But in the bosom of his family, the bosom of his family is powerful stuff. This is literally the case, as it has become a matriarchy complete with a matrilineal power transfer, ripe for Freudian explication I care about not one whit. For more than the sexual aspect, in the human vitality I am addressing the principal feature is the power of human imagination in general and artistic creativity in particular. Of course, this boils down to the artifice of the theatre as at once a philosophic investigation, escapist recreation and practical way of life. Alexander/Bergman actively rejects both the authoritatian terror of religious asceticism and the complacency of bougeois hedonism. A better response to existential insecurity is the power of artistic expression, ad hoc hocus pocus, imagined images and the magic of make-believe; in short, the theatre, on the stage and the screen.
The hammer comes down on this in no uncertain terms when Alexander has escaped the hell of the bishop's house but has yet to return to the heaven of his grandmother's house. He is partly safe and comfortable in the Jew's home, but it is also exotic and threatening on many counts. He becomes literally lost and encounters a theatrical realm that segues into a realm of fantasy that verges on the occult. I have already noted the creepy sexuality that attends this and it is fair to say that F&A almost morphs into a horror movie at this point. But just as the business in the bishop's house never goes over to the Gothic as such, the sorta-voodoo at the Jew's place is just the natural extrapolation of a child's imagination. This is the same power that notices a statue moving or a ghost talking. It is also the same power that blocks actors in the mise en scene and writes lines for them to speak. It's of no help to demarcate a difference between the hallucinations of the character and surrealism of the film-maker. The autobiographical mythology of F&A makes this not only impossible but also - excuse me - stupid. We are long past any need to sort out the historical facts, so totally emersed are we in fiction that defines the contours of reality. Yes, yes, it's a massive meta-statement about the meaning of art.
Good thing it's so beautiful. Just to look at. Forget about how riviting the story is and how rewarding it is to grapple with the meaning of it all, the film is gorgeous. From beginning to end, all three hours, including the dark and drab passages, it simply jumps off the screen and into your mind like nothing else. The sets and the costumes and the lighting and the shots and the editing and the pacing and and and - a masterpiece, a full-stop masterpiece. Frankly, I cannot explain the way this film transcends the celluloid that holds it. It's not that it's "poetic" or anything like that. I don't know. It's not even right to say that it defies description. I just don't know. All I can say is that Bergman absolutely transports us into the world Alexander inhabits and this experience is magical.
The sets and the costumes and the lighting and the shots and the editing and the pacing and and and - the acting! There are some outstandingly excellent performances in F&A. Really really good. Perhaps the most remarkable performance is that of the kid playing Alexander. In the first place, he's a kid. In the second place, the film is called F&A but seriously, the F& is but the sidecar attached to the motorcycle that is A; the whole thing focuses on his own experience of his unique life. In short, there is a lot riding on the role of Alexander and then some. The performance is brilliant for it's understatement. There can be no doubt that this understatement is the result of Bergman's direction, his control of a performance that would probably have tended to gross over-acting if left to its own childish interpretation. I propose that this direction by Bergman is more than just some basic restraint on potential hamminess on behalf of some minimalist performance aesthetic in general. This would be disproved in short shrift simply by noting moments of broadly emotive acting in this and all the rest of Bergman's films. No, the restraint on the performance of Alexander is specifically conceptual to that role. And now I am returning to my main thesis about the film. Alexander is pretty goddamn calm, cool and collected - for a kid. Indeed, that sort of placid behavior, the taciturn demeanor, the flat vocal delivery, the expressionless face, all of this is more in keeping with a certain type of - grown man. Exactly! Yeah, yeah, there are lots of quiet kids who keep to themselves and their private introspective world. And Bergman may have been one of them. This is to miss the point. The point is that to a serious extent, the consciousness of Bergman the adult is inside the character of Alexander the kid. This dialectic is behind the restrained performance. If the actor had been allowed to chew up the scenery, the film would have been unable to explore its themes with wisdom because - to argue by way of tautology - the wisdom is achieved by way of this dialectic.
The child is father to the man.
While the bulk of my review to FA was written before reading your essay, I must confess that I was thrilled to see you mention Fellini in the opening paragraphs of your review. FA is Bergman's most Fellini-esque film, a wondrous celebration of life, a film populated by oddballs, eccentrics and geniuses that looks (at least initially) lovingly at the world from a child's perspective. It's interesting--and very Fellini of Amarcord era--that this, Bergman's last theatrical release, that he adopts a primarily children's point of view (though a case can be made for the boy in The Silence, his is a supporting role) for the first time. The pov is not an excuse to escape into the sorta coy faux innocence and sepia-toned nostalgia that you might find in a lesser film, but rather a way of challenging the myriad flaws, foibles and wonders of the adult world. The film throbs with vitality, intelligence, cruelty and despair. On a purely aesthetic level, it is beautiful to look at and listen to, and at a more philosophical level, it is rewarding to think about. As career-summative statements go, you won't find any better.
What a fascinating world this is. At first, at least. The film's first half, so joyful, builds its pleasures out of family celebrations and theatrical productions. In fact, the two are hardly differentiated, as the family celebrations ARE productions. The seeming artifice of theatre as a pathway to real relationships is clearly something close to the theatre-loving Bergman's heart (tellingly, he refers to the theatre as his wife and cinema as his mistress.) Alexander, who must be seen as a Bergman surrogate, opens the film playing in a miniaturized theatre, and he remains on stage for the duration. His enthusiasm and disillusionment suffuses the film, and coats all other characters.
And yet, the film is awash in its recognition of all sorts of different people of every age group, of different religions (or none at all), with both genders granted equal heft, and the story rich in diversions and distractions. Despite the dominance of Alexander's perspective over the story's events and characters, Bergman's film is anything but single-minded or, for that matter, moralizing. The film is about as open-armed as they come, with, for example, Gustav's open infidelity being treated as an amusement (the lone moment in the film that one could accuse the famously randy Bergman of being a bit self-serving) rather than as a springboard into outrage. Everyone seems to be so forgiving, so tolerant and loving, that the film soon casts a spell on you, and you find yourself as accepting and open-hearted as the characters that surround you. And as you move through the magical kingdom of Alexander's house, you enter into a sort of waking dream state.
The film's detours into the metaphysical realm, the scenes with Alexander's father, don't lift that spell, that dream state, but deepen it. We, like Alexander, a potential Young Hamlet whose mother has married ill-advisedly, find some small solace in his conversations with dearly-departed papa. These moments could be passed of as a bit of fancy on Alexander's behalf, but that's not the only bit of magic in the film. What of that scene where Isak apparently kidnaps Fanny and Alexander out of the bishop's house, yet they are simultaneously shown to be asleep on the floor in their bedroom? It's a helluva moment. Not sure I can explain it, either. But it's a show stopper, that's for sure.
But whoever is behind the light show, you can be sure it aint God. The scene in the magic shop where Aron fools Alexander into thinking he's conversing with God, when all he's doing is chatting up a puppet pretty much sums up Bergman's attitude to the Big Guy. And if that isn't enough, the ascetic fanaticism of the bishop pretty much drives the point home. Religion is primarily a death-impulse, and if you want to live, you have to get away from it as quickly as possible, by any means necessary, whether smuggled out in a trunk or disappearing into fantasy. Once we are trapped in the bishop's world, the dream becomes a nightmare.
The film has a palpable darkness and creeping danger that move us well beyond the fantastical facades of Fellini and remind us that we are indeed still dealing with the same dour Scandinavian spirit behind Persona, The Shame and The Winter Light. Juxtaposed to all the life-affirming playfulness of the film's first half, the grimness of its second half is all the more devastating. Ironic juxtaposition is, indeed, a favourite tool of Bergman's, as the happiest moments in the film, when the world is teeming with life, tend to occur in the wintertime, while the spring and summer scenes are suffused with death. And it Fanny and Alexander's escape from death and return to life that is the aging Bergman's final gesture of hope to us.
Sight and Sound named Fanny and Alexander the third greatest film of the final quarter of the 20th century. Hard to argue with their choice, really.
Now, I'm off to read your review.
If I have communicated my thesis at all intelligibly, you will know that I find a Woodsworthian take - not wrong but - superficial. "The child is father to the man" is correct, of course it's correct, but in F&A the WAY this is autobiographically correct is through the mature artist fathering his mature self in the character of a child. I'm not saying that Bergman intellectually pursued this dialectic. I do not doubt that he found his way through all sorts of intuitive channels. Yet, I do not think that this is just a case of me reading my own agenda onto the film. Alexander is simply not a simple kid. The guy is sort of an Odysseus in the terra incognita of the life of the mind - as grasped by the end of his odyssey. The 20/20 hindsight Bergman packs into Alexander is not some apologetic revisionism or one-sided nostalgia. It is the wisdom at the end that understands what you understood at the beginning. Bergman does not rethink his childhood. He makes Alexander prethink his whole life; well, his artistic life at least. I can't emphasize enough that I am concentrating on the active aspect of Alexander; as in, active imagination. The passive aspect that takes it all in, receives the sensuous signals, is certainly on display. But even this is actually active, a search party of perception out to collect raw material for creative fantasy. Alexander is an artist. Not, in the making. Fully formed. Not, prematurely. Maturely, now. He is Bergman now. If you feel that my thesis is incapsulated in your comment that Alexander must be seen as Bergman's "surrogate," so be it, but I personally feel that this term involves an otherness that confuses the autobiographical essense that I can only apprehend dialectically. Be this as it may, I flat-out think it is incorrect to assert that through Alexander Bergman "adopts a primarily children's point of view." It is Bergman's point of view now - forgive my poverty of language - born again as a child.
You mention the crucial simultaneity of the kids trunk escape/kids upstairs on the floor edit. You are right that this is the show stopper. It was exactly this scene that I had in mind when I wrote: "It's of no help to demarcate a difference between the hallucinations of the character and surrealism of the film-maker." Alexander/Bergman illogically imagines a transcendence of physics that allows the kids to be at two places at once temporarily, just long enough to ensure their subsequent freedom. It's a conjuror's trick. Make-believe magic. Theatre. You got a problem with that? Well shucks, if the bishop and his church can recite doctrine about Jesus Christ being both God and Man at the same time... And once they are safe at the Jew's place, if the nephew can make Alexander believe and fear God temporarily with a marionette... And if the other nephew (played by a female - what!) can at least led us to believe that Alexander can tap into some sort of synchronicity to his advantage... Forget about the possible metaphysics behind it. It's theatre, all theatre. Just as much as the Christmas pagent or the production of Hamlet or the parade of servants carrying the holiday feast with the uncle holding the flaming bowl.
I agree with you that F&A is a message of hope. The happy ending is our first tip, of course, but more profoundly, the film has what I called before "humanist vitality." Is it too corny and are we too jaded to realize with Bergman that the truth understood by children (and maybe also dogs and dolphins) is the truth we rediscover as wise old folks? The love and hate we feel. The beauty and ugliness of things. The primary experience of the world and of being alive in it. So estranged are we from ourselves, we need art, we need theatre. Theatre is a necessary mediation like studying Zen. We have to do it in order to forget it and remember the rice bowl we ate out of as kids.
I find your thesis quite convincing, as a matter of fact. I think it is interesting to note that Bergman has up to this point mostly avoided casting children in important roles in his films, at least partially because he was concerned that he would not get the performance out of them that he wanted/needed, and when he finally commits to it in what he was assuring us would be his last film, he is able to shape a performance out of the kid (Bertil Guve) that is pretty damned seamless, and in its Bergmanesque qualities stands up there with the best work of adults like Liv Ullman, Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson. I find it equally fascinating that in the theatre performances we catch glimpses of in the film, none of the performers are worth a damn, proving that Bergman knows how to coax poor performances when he needs them as well.
While the extreme contrast between the convivial humanism found in the theatricality of the secular world and the austere, sould-crushing asceticism of the religious world is the primary dialectic at work in the film, every critic and his grandmother comments on that, so I find it quite refreshing to see that you've found a different route into the film. Thanks for that.
And alas, I have just read that Bergman has died at the age of 89. I've seen at least two dozen of his film, perhaps more than any other filmmaker (Kurosawa is a close second) and I believe that Woody Allen really was onto something when he pegged the old man as our greatest living filmmaker. I see no reason to back off of that designation just because he is dead. Bergman was The Best