English Title: Fanny and Alexander
Original Title: Fanny och Alexander
Country: Swedish, France, West Germany
Language: Swedish, German, Yiddish, English, French
Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Music: Daniel Bell
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Ingmar Bergman’s final theatrical feature, FANNY AND ALEXANDER was originally released as a truncated 188-minutes version, and of course, a preferred option is this 5-acts TV miniseries version which clocks in at 312 minutes, if one intends to wolf down the entirety of his semi-autobiographical chef-d’œuvre (it took this reviewer three days to accomplish that mission).
It begins on the day of Christmas Eve in 1907, in the surreal prologue, a 10-year-older Alexander Ekdahl (Guve), roving inside his family’s florid residence, but finds no one there, only to be startled to see an animated nude statue and the Grim Reaper himself, sex and death, the two leitmotifs betoken the content of this family saga.
The Ekdahls are from aristocratic extraction, currently the household is presided by Alexander’s paternal grandma Helena (Wålllgren), who has three sons, Gustav Adolf (Kulle), a licentious restauranteur, happily married to Alma (Malm) and they are three children, but also doesn’t refrain from his affection towards a corn-feed, lame maid Maj (August), and somehow manages to pull off the ménage-à-trois on peaceful terms (if Alma’s slapping-then-gifting whim can be overlooked); next is Oscar (Edwall), who runs a local theatre with his actress wife Emelie (Fröling), and is the father of Alexander and Fanny (Allwin); finally there is Carl (Ahlstedt), the youngest son, who is afflicted by financial fix, and a sadomasochistic relationship with his German wife Lydia (Schollin), Bergman doesn’t deaden the toxicity seeped within a compromised union, but the first act, about a lavish Christmas dinner and the following night, is overall swathed in merriment, decked with lusciousness, peculiarity and a dash of melancholia.
But the merriment reaches a caesura in the second act, a premature death renders Oscar literally a ghost to Alexander’s flights of fancy, and after one year in mourning, Emelie decides to quit the troupe and hopes to regain her life through theology, by tying the knot with the handsome widower Bishop Edvard Vergérus (modeled by Bergman’s own father and played by Malmsjö with hard-hitting menace, gravitas and verve), whose strength in God beckons. Little does she realize, Edvard’s spartan lifestyle and draconian modus operandi will become an incubus to her kids, especially Alexander, who is subjected to corporal punishment because of fabricating tall tales against the repressive environment (an unrecognizable Harriet takes a sinister turn as the snitching maid) where he and Fanny are immured.
When the Ekdahls get winds of their predicament, they come to the rescue, firstly, actualized by a magic-inflected stratagem, Isak Jacob (Josephson), Helena’s Jewish old flame, gets the children out of harm’s way, then Gustav Adolf and Carl pay Edvard a visit to elucidate the conflicts and conditions, but the latter has no quarter to emancipate a gravid Emilie when he has both the law and clout on his side, ultimately Bergman’s conspicuous anticlerical crusade wins its poetic justice through arguably the film’s most dazzling juxtaposition of Alexander inside Isak’s Byzantine antique shop, where he engages an oneiric encounter with Isak’s nephews, the puppeteer Aron (Mats Bergman) and the androgynous, telepathic Ismael (Ekblad), a male character played by a woman shedding lights on mysticism, with the ruination befalls on Edvard inflicted by one of his clan.
In the epilogue, it is a jubilation of the Ekdahls’ indivisible family bond, of Bergman’s wholesome majesty in illuminating the Holy Trinity: the secular, the spiritual and the fantasy. Kudos also must be doled out to the stellar ensemble, in particular (but in no particular order), for my money, the highlights are Gunn Wållgren’s prudent, affectionate grandma Helena, Ewa Fröling’s wistful but intrepid Emelie, Jan Malmsjö’s egoist Edvard, whose pernicious influence has permanently scarred Alexander’s psyche and will persist in its shapeless form to keep him company, Jarl Kulle’s Gustav Adolf for his comic facility and grandstanding elocution plus Allan Edwall’s Oscar for his exuberant-turns-lugubrious pallor. FANNY AND ALEXANDER is worth every minute of its duration and in retrospect, an almost immaculate recapitulation of Bergman’s sui generis body of work.
referential points: Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957, 8.9/10), THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957, 8.4/10), PERSONA (1966, 7.7/10), CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972, 8.6/10), FACE TO FACE (1976, 7.9/10), AUTUMN SONATA (1978, 8.4/10).