Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata opens with a husband routinely praising his wife to the camera. We don’t think too much of what Viktor (Halvar Björk) has to say, at first, because he’s recognizably and touchingly in the grip of love, and he sees his wife, Eva (Liv Ullman), in a light that should mark him as lucky to have found someone he responds to so. Viktor, though he never quite says this, clearly sees Eva as a better: She’s considerably younger, talented, ambitious, and intelligent, and he’s an old intellectual set in his ways. We’re invited to assume, then, that this film is the story of Viktor wrestling with some of his preconceptions, in the tradition of many tormented Bergman males.
But this isn’t Viktor’s story, and that’s the first of many casual surprises that Bergman springs. Eva is the film’s center, and we soon understand that Viktor’s idealization of his wife is of little comfort to her. It’s said a few times throughout the film, with jarring matter-of-factness, that Eva has never loved Viktor, and that their relationship is a marriage of convenience, a placeholder for two intellectuals too prone to over-rationalization to experience direct love, but that’s clearly a self-delusion. It’s clear that Viktor and Eva are mutually taken with one another, but love never cures self-hatred; if anything it exasperates it. Viktor is shunted immediately aside, by both Eva and Bergman, because he’s no competition for Eva’s monstrous feelings of inferiority, which she blames on her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), whom Eva invites to stay for a while following the death of Charlotte’s lover.
The skeletons that inevitably come tumbling out of Eva and Charlotte’s metaphorical closets, especially in the somewhat disappointing second half, won’t be surprising to viewers who’re familiar with Bergman’s other films, or with the work of directors, most prominently Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, who owe quite a bit of their sensibility to the great filmmaker. Superficially, Autumn Sonata offers a parade of miseries that would be absurd in a lesser filmmaker’s hands, but what Bergman’s imitators have never entirely grasped is his sensuality, his tenderness and even his sense of humor; they only respond to the unhappiness, which they regard as offering piercing truth rather than metaphor. In something like Margot at the Wedding, you sense Baumbach practically licking his chops as he strips his characters of every possible shred of dignity, but Bergman shines a light of hushed awe on his characters. At his best, and the first half of Autumn Sonata is as good as anything he ever made, the filmmaker achieves a transcendent empathy.
In Autumn Sonata, Bergman dispensed with the symbols that have the tendency to lard his dramas, whittling every encounter down to its sharpest, barest essential. The film is a feast of perceptional detail, as Bergman allows us to simultaneously see how everyone privately sees one another while also allowing us to see how these feelings, unavoidably warped by internal baggage, serve to wall everyone off from one another. We see how Charlotte regards Eva, which is basically as a pitiable disappointment, and at the same time, sometimes in the very same image, we can see Eva as the angel and savior that she is for Viktor. This film finds Bergman wrestling with his classic theme of the war intelligent, gifted people wage against self-consciousness, in their desperate hunger to experience feelings they incorrectly assume the rest of the world’s population can take for granted.
There are passages in this film of piercing, unrivaled directness, such as the moment when Charlotte, an esteemed concert pianist, plays a Chopin selection for Eva and Viktor. We’ve already heard Eva play the same passage, and even novices will be able to tell that her performance is mediocre, just as they will be able to sense that it’s mediocre for Charlotte’s presence in the audience. Charlotte’s performance, however, is rapturously beautiful, and why shouldn’t it be? She’s devoted her life to this beauty, which is her talent, and in a stunning unbroken shot we see Eva’s face as Charlotte performs, and we experience both the beauty of the work and the peripheral toll that yielded it. Our hearts break for Eva’s shame and loathing, but we still respect Charlotte’s perfectionism while also sympathizing with Charlotte as a prisoner of that perfectionism. You don’t have to share the rarified concerns of Bergman’s characters to find this scene profound. Whether you’re a concert pianist or a real estate agent or a waitress at a roadside diner, you’ve probably lived such a moment in which love, hatred, heartbreak and pride are so overwhelming and confusing that you feel you’re on the verge of internal combustion, and Bergman understands that this vulnerability, this reliable and unyielding humiliation, is the ultimate price we pay for love.
Sven Nykvist’s logically autumnal shades of red, brown, and burnished orange are given a real opportunity to shine on this Criterion Blu-ray, particularly in the crisp medium shots that open and occasionally punctuate the middle and end of the film. Faces are softer, almost certainly by Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman’s design, which is to say that Autumn Sonata doesn’t quite sport that pristine "perfect" look that characterizes the rereleases of other older films. But that scruffiness is part of the film’s vitality, and provides necessary contrast against the persnickety aesthetic perfectionism of everyone involved both on and off screen, both fictional and real. Both Dolby tracks are well-mixed, and serve to similarly subtly affirm the film’s mixing textures of the rough and the polished.
The audio commentary by Peter Cowie is a miscalculation. While obviously well-informed, Cowie’s work is dry and clearly written beforehand, and it would be nice to hear someone speak who’s capable of refuting the notion that Ingmar Bergman’s films can’t be enjoyed by anyone except devoted cinema snobs of the highest good taste and refinement, perhaps critic Farran Smith Nehme, who wrote the excellent essay that serves as the disc’s liner notes. Otherwise, though, this is a terrific package, particularly for the nearly four-hour "The Making of Autumn Sonata," which allows us to see the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day working life of several legends at once, including script read-throughs, shooting, and even the banalities of set management. It’s manna for Bergman fanatics, though others may be more hesitant to spend an afternoon this way. Bergman’s introduction, filmed in 2003 for another documentary, serves to succinctly complement the tensions that are documented in the new interview with Liv Ullman and the 1981 interview with Ingrid Bergman. The clash of the two titan Bergmans is covered in great detail, and without taking clear sides. Ingrid is shown to be egotistical and difficult, as is Ingmar, but many of her problems with the director’s sexist distrust of female ambition are right on the money and serve to undermine the second half of the film. We see how Ingrid reined in some of these impulses, just as we see how Ingmar freed Ingrid of actressy mannerism.
Autumn Sonata remains a fascinating sampler of the great Ingmar Bergman’s most brilliant and troubled tendencies.