Anything can happen; all things are possible and plausible. Time and space do not exist: over a minute patch of reality imagination will weave its web and create fresh patterns…”
–August Strindberg, Preface to A Dream Play (1902)
This spring I arrogantly went through my own self taught film school where I explored critically for the first time some of the defining works of legendary directors like Carl Dreyer, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, and Francois Truffaut, among others, many of which I have discussed and reviewed on this blog. It seems foolish now to think I could sample all of the greats of cinema’s past in just a few short months. What I came to realize is that my film school will never end as long as I continue my love affair with movies. For all the careful planning that went into the selection of the films I explored and searched for, sometimes it is the film that finds me before I realize I had been looking for it all this time. Thus is the case with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.
However, it was Bergman’s 1982 epic family drama Fanny and Alexander that caught me completely off guard when I watched it by chance on the IFC Channel this July. Originally made as a five hour long miniseries for Swedish television (available now on DVD through the Criterion Collection), the film was edited into a three hour long theatrical cut for international release and went on to win four Oscars. Exquisite use of classical music (including the great opening piece by Robert Schumann), gorgeous lighting and cinematography, and fluid mise-en-scene create an ethereal atmosphere into which Bergman’s heavily autobiographical dream-like tale can take form. This is one of those rare films where I came into it with certain misconceptions and was captivated by how drastically different the film actually was from my grave prejudices.
The following quote from Bergman explains the amazing level of detail he was able to achieve across such a sprawling episodic canvas:
I’m deeply fixated on my childhood. Some impressions are extremely vivid, light, smell, and all. There are moments when I can wander through my childhood’s landscape, through rooms long ago, remember how they were furnished, where the pictures hung on the walls, the way the light fell. It’s like a film-little scraps of a film, which I set running and which I can reconstruct to the last detail-except their smell.” –Ingmar Bergman
Opening with a Christmas Eve party (circa 1907) held at the lavish home of the loving matriarch of a wealthy family of theater owners, actors, and businessmen, Fanny and Alexander begins like a Swedish version of James Joyce’s “The Dead” as seen through the eyes of children. Young Fanny and Alexander go on to lose their father shortly after the holiday and are later ripped from their happy lives and barred from seeing the rest of their family when their mother foolishly remarries an emotionally tortured bishop. The film wonderfully explores the bonds of family, joy, grief, loneliness, spiritual and religious torment, the powers of the imagination and the birth of art as it effortlessly (and eerily) shifts tones from bawdy humor to Dickensian melodrama to magic realism to European existentialism. Bergman brilliantly weaves in all of his defining obsessions into one blistering and bloated piece of pure cinematic art. It poignantly concludes with the grandmother reading the Strindberg quote that began this post.
It’s hard to imagine it’s been a year since Ingmar Bergman passed (having died on July 30th, 2007). While he continued to ply his trade in Swedish theater and television until the end, Fanny and Alexander was his final major film and the culmination of his life’s work. Like the ghosts and dreams that so frequently haunt his art, Bergman’s spirit will be forever with us through what he left behind on film–if only every artist could be so blessed.
Film can be as a dream. Film can be as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” –Ingmar Bergman
Written By David H. Schleicher