It’s hard to think about the films of Ingmar Bergman in the wake of something so tremendously humanistic and so irrepressibly joyful, despite horror both realistic and fantastic strewn among the emotional and physical landscape, as Fanny and Alexander. The ghosts that hide, shake, and scream out in Persona and Hour of the Wolf, the ink-black blood relations of The Silence and Through a Glass Darkly, even the cherubic perversions of Smiles of a Summer Night don’t so much burn or wash away, but rather seem like snapshots from what would become the film of Bergman’s life. For in this case, we are, to be perfectly frank, speaking of one of the towering visions of cinema, one of those masterpieces that plainly presents itself as a work that transcends even the long career of a great artist.
Perched somewhere between where children take on the attributes of adults and adults adopt the cruel and delirious practices of children, between where imagination becomes a weapon of the mind and a force capable of birthing physical creations of the most extravagant kind, is where we first enter Fanny and Alexander, the latter titular figure (Bertil Guve) calling out in empty rooms for the various members of his extended family. The surroundings are familiar yet dreamlike to Alexander, as they are to us; there’s a palpable feeling that we’re living inside Alexander’s imagination, at one of its most pivotal moments. Soon enough, however, we’re ensconced in the sounds and boisterous activities of the Ekdahl family as they prepare for their yearly Christmas feast. As the curtain goes up on the annual Christmas play, starring Alexander’s parents, Emilie and Oscar (Ewa Fröling and Allan Edwall), Bergman opens a grand drama involving, in its monumental first half, the trials and tribulations of the Ekdahl family’s senior members, whose money woes, philandering controversies, sicknesses, ego trips, and heartbreaks collect into a thick mist that nearly blocks out the aesthetic beauty around them.
Indeed, the film could have been easily retitled “The Observers” (or, to steal one from De Sica, The Children Are Watching Us), as the first quarter of the film carries the cheerful, morally ambivalent tone that one might ascribe to children as they watch adults get drunk, sad, and rambunctious. (This is especially noteworthy in the case of Borje Ahlstedt’s Uncle Carl, who’s seen dancing and farting up the stairs for the kids’ amusement in a drunken stupor.) As they so often are, however, these foolhearted good times are interrupted by the sudden death of Oscar, who tellingly collapses during dress rehearsals for a production of Hamlet. In her severe grief and loneliness, Emilie marries a bishop, Edvard (a steely, formidable Jan Malmsjö), who quickly wraps his tentacles around Emilie but suffers constant rebellion from Alexander. The bishop’s increasingly draconian requests and punishments, not to mention his refusal to grant divorce, lead Emilie and longtime family friend Isak (Erland Josephson) to stage a prison break, leaving Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander to hide out at the antique store and puppet theater of Isak’s nephew, Aron (Mats Bergman).
In the case of the theatrical version, there are less outright fantasies deployed than in the massive five-hour television version, which isn’t to say that this cut isn’t a hugely bewitching affair. Statues come to life, ghosts appear, and in one particularly beguiling scene, Alexander comes face to face with a telepath (Stina Ekblad) who also happens to be Aron’s troubled, androgynous brother. These facets come to bear in heavier doses as Alexander’s rebellions against his stepfather become more aggressive, climaxing with Alexander’s transfixing recounting of meeting with the ghosts of Edvard’s first wife and kids. For children, imagination is often an escape from the banality of being cared for and the frustration of physical and mental boundaries. Bergman accounts for this, but he also deftly pays attention to how imagination can mature into a psychological Swiss army knife used to mirror, deflect, express, and protect one’s self as well as elicit reactions, both loving and unsettled, from others.
As childhood films and memory films go, Fanny and Alexander is likely the best of either ever made, though more clearly so in the case of the television cut. It’s also, however, a devastatingly powerful visual treatise on the art of storytelling, and on influence for that matter. It’s not hard to see, in the film’s first half, Oscar’s unyielding passion for the theater, even though he claims to be horrid at it; the Ekdahl matriarch, Helena (Gunn Wållgren), even provides funds for the small theater. But for Bergman, the son of a horridly strict Lutheran minister, Oscar is the theater itself, the memory of Christmas plays staged at his father’s church, and the Ekdahl brood is a menagerie of what he imagined and wished family would be. And, at one point, he recreates a pivotal moment in his life as an artist with Alexander: a magic lantern show performed for Fanny, involving a gothic horror story.
In this way, Alexander’s fantasy worlds can clearly be seen to move from being projected externally (with his family) to internally (at his stepfather’s dungeon-like abode) and back to externally by the time he’s resting his head on his grandmother’s lap as she reads over Strindberg’s A Dream Play, a work essentially about forgiving the faults and furies of humankind. It’s an olive branch of sorts, coming from one of the few filmmakers who has genuinely struggled and investigated religious faith in his films, and it was meant to be the master’s swan song. We now, of course, know that he never really stopped working until 2005, two years after his very last film and two years before he passed away. In a way, the film is his swan song though, seeing as the television films and plays he directed afterward all seemed to play out like some lovely postscript. Indeed, Fanny and Alexander is the final word of Bergman’s career, a plea to indulge fantasy with direction and a heartbreakingly sincere farewell to life in all its real horrors and constant surprises—a chisel taken to his own blank tombstone and the last deep roar of expression from a great artist.
Early on in Fanny and Alexander, a Christmas feast is laid out in the Ekdahl home, with colorful candied desserts, pickled and stewed fishes, full baked chickens, and certain gelatins and salads made out of God knows what. It's at once a glorious sight and a perfect metaphor for what Criterion has done with its 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Bergman's surpassingly generous masterpiece. Colors, especially reds, yellows, and greens, pop beautifully; the interior of the Ekdahl home seems drenched is luscious ruby at every corner. Black levels are near perfect and the level of detailing, from the gorgeous clothing to the turn-of-the-century buildings to the puppets in the theaters, is astounding. Clarity is equally superb throughout. The monaural soundtrack is about as much as one could hope it to be considering the limitations in monaural. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the beautiful, simple mix of score and diagetic sound and music is perfectly balanced. This is a class act from beginning to end.
Peter Cowie's knowledge of the work and analysis of Fanny and Alexander's seemingly bottomless pool of themes make for a rich educational commentary track. Then there's the feature-length making-of documentary, with a plethora of photos and footage of Bergman, the cast, the crew, and the film's sets. After this, the two other featurettes, one a lengthy video interview with Bergman, the other made up of cast and crew interviews, don't land with the same weight, but they're similarly thorough in analyzing and offering anecdotes from the film. The booklet includes three solid essays, the best of which is by the late Paul Arthur. Stills, a trailer, sketches, and footage from the set are also included.
How the imagination at once mirrors, deflects, and rearranges reality, especially in childhood, constitutes one of the myriad strands that make up the core of Ingmar Bergman's monumental Fanny and Alexander, out in an expectedly extensive and beautiful package from Criterion.