Fanny and Alexander

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A More Personal but Less Masterful Bergman

Jun 9, 2004 (Updated Dec 23, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:The most accessible and personal Bergman film

Cons:The film’s resolution is a cop-out; character development is weak

The Bottom Line: Recommended to those who almost like Bergman’s earlier work, since it reflects a more personal Bergman (even if a less rational one)


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Fanny and Alexander (1982) was Ingmar Bergman’s last major feature film, although he continued to work in theater and for Swedish television for another decade-and-a-half at least. For some movie-goers and reviewers, Fanny and Alexander (F&A) is the summation of Bergman’s career (if not his life) and the apotheosis of his craft as a filmmaker. One reviewer, for example, calls F&A Bergman’s “magnum opus” while another effuses that F&A is “one of the most powerful, beautiful, fearful and perfect films of all times.” For others, it represents something of a retreat in Bergman’s progression and a sign that his philosophical courage and narrative skill were failing with age.

Historical Background: Many readers will already be familiar with Bergman and a sample of his film work. The Seventh Seal (1957) may be his most famous film. Other great ones include Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1959), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Scenes From a Marriage (1973). Bergman carved out a unique niche in film as his style gradually became increasing identifiable as “Bergman-esque.” The stylistic features that Bergman cultivated included psychological insights, religious symbolism, brooding contemplation, and spiritual angst while the cinematic characteristics included gorgeous settings and high contrast black-and-white photography with an emphasis on close-ups of the human face. Fanny and Alexander was Bergman’s first film in full colorization (although Cries and Whispers was filmed in a bizarre kind of red-and-white technology) and was thus already a departure in cinematographic approach. As it turned out, it was also a major departure from many of the other qualities that had become known as Bergman-esque.

The Story: Fanny and Alexander encompasses three distinct “acts” even if those acts are not expressly delineated from one another as such. The first is a warm family saga featuring spirited domesticity. The second act provides the dramatic conflict, shifting abruptly to an atmosphere of religious austerity and suffocating restriction. The third act features a phantasmagoric mystical resolution.

For Act 1, the film opens during the Christmas festivities of a large Swedish extended family – the Ekdahls. The family is headed by its matriarch, Helene (Gunn Wallgren), who is the grandmother of a pair of young siblings, Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve). Helene has three adults sons, all of whom are married. There is Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), who is married to Emilie (Ewa Fröling) and is father of Fanny and Alexander. Oscar is an actor and the manager of the family theater, which is struggling financially. Uncle Gustav Adolf Ekdahl (Jarl Kulle) is a fun-loving fellow and a relentless philanderer. His loving wife tolerates his open infidelities and seems to be actually relieved at not having to cater to his overactive libido entirely on her own. Uncle Carl (Boerje Ahlstedt), by contrast, is a gloomy, nihilistic sort of fellow who is constantly in financial embarrassment and somewhat abusive to his wife.

The Christmas celebration is spirited and uninhibited. The Ekdahls treat their servants as much like members of the family as possible considering the difference in social status. Christmas dinner is in the kitchen so that the domestics can be fully involved and the merry dancing that follows is in complete disregard of social distinctions. Uncle Carl, in fact, sleeps regularly with the maid and only rarely with his wife. The maid tucks Alexander in at bedtime, apologizing that she will not be able to sleep with him, having a prior engagement with his uncle!

In the second segment of the film, Fanny and Alexander’s charmed existence comes toppling down abruptly when their father, Oscar, suffers a heart attack while rehearsing for Hamlet. He dies soon thereafter and Alexander, in one scene, discovers his mother literally wailing inconsolably at his father’s coffin. Later, the widow Emilie is consoled and calmed by an apparently gentle and understanding bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjoe), and about a year after Oscar’s death, Emilie and the bishop are married. Emilie and the children alike quickly discover that they have unwittingly walked into something akin to hell. The bishops household is dominated by his mother and his sister. They are all hyper-religious, cruel, and rigidly aesthetic in their life style. They live in a colorless prison-like dwelling. The first indication of impending problems is when Edvard insists that Emilie and her children give up all of their possessions as they move into his home. Alexander, in particular, chaffs under the cruel restrictions imposed by his step-father and the women of his family, but every sign of rebellion is met with harsh punishment, including a vicious caning. Alexander learns to lie as one vehicle of survival in this household and even swears falsely on the Bible when that proves expeditious. The conflicts between Alexander and the bishop become increasingly frightening and fever-pitched. Even Emilie soon understands the gravity of her misjudgment in marrying Edvard, but she also discovers that should she abandon her new husband, the authorities will take her children away from her and leave them in the “care” of the bishop. Adding to the tension, the ghost of Oscar (Alexander’s deceased father) appears to him and informs him that the bishop’s previous wife had been locked up and starved to death by her fanatical husband, with the full concurrence of the bishop’s equally insane mother and sister. How Emilie and her children escape from the clutches of the Vergeruses is something that viewers will have to discover for themselves. It is an entertaining twist.

In the third segment of the film, Fanny and Alexander have taken up residence in the household of the local moneylender, Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) (a Jew, of course!! – don’t you just hate those stereotypes?). There, Alexander meets, first, Isak’s cousin, Aaron, a puppet maker, and, later, a young lad named Ishmael, who is a bizarre character indeed, kept closeted away. Ishmael is androgenous, mentally unstable, endowed with psychic powers, and has shaved eyebrows. (Anyone sense Bergman losing control of the script here?) Ishmael teaches Alexander how to unleash his own psychic powers, which then take the form of an excruciating violent vengeance exacted against the bishop and his entire family. Viewers are provided the “pleasure” of watching the bishop burned to death, including the final writhing of his already charred body. Unfortunately, his ghost pops up later. A good man is hard to keep down; so, too, unfortunately, is a bad one!

Themes: The main theme in F&A is an old Bergman favorite – the superiority of human love, companionship, and tolerance to inhumane religious austerity, no matter how lofty the claim to transcendence of the latter. This is Bergman once again striking out against his own rigid father and the excesses of his Lutheran childhood. In my opinion, however, F&A makes the point far less convincingly than some earlier Bergman efforts, such as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. The problem with F&A is that Bergman has to resort to irrational, mystical, quasi-religious elements in the third act to resolve the conflict between humanism and religious austerity set up in the first two segments. F&A has burned the barn to save the house.

F&A is a substantially autobiographical film although not in the straight-forward sense of any one character representing Bergman. Bergman himself has said that parts of him reside in every male character in the film. It is perhaps disappointing that he felt no such identification with any of the female characters. This is a wonderfully personal film, in the manner of some of the works of the other über-auteurs of Bergman’s era, such as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Fellini’s 8 ½. The personal nature of F&A and its relaxed quality make it feel almost like it must have been a film from its director’s youth rather than what it actually is – a career and life synopsis.

Production Values: The cinematography of F&A is very impressive and understandably won Sven Nykvist the Academy Award in the Best Cinematography category. The requirements for this film were in several ways a departure from what Nykvist had done for Bergman in the past. There was the introduction of color to be sure, but also far more action and hence a necessity for extended tracking shots. Nykvist made maximum use of the opportunity afforded by colorization. The contrast between the brilliant reds, greens, and gold in the opening segment in the Ekdahl’s household and the dull grays of the Vergerus household in the middle segment is both striking and effective.

There is some nice business in this film linking F&A to Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The allusion is introduced from the fact that Oscar is rehearsing Hamlet when his heart attack suddenly emerges. You might recall that in Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared to him to inform him that Claudius, who had married Hamlet’s widowed mother, had killed his previous wife. Here in F&A, Alexander’s father likewise appears to him to tell him that Vergerus, who is now married to Alexander’s mother, had killed his former wife.

The first time that I watched F&A, I was entirely wowed by the opening segment. I recall thinking to myself, at that point, that this might very well become my favorite Bergman film. It had a warmth, accessibility, and relaxed humanism that suggested a welcome softening of Bergman’s propensity for deep but often humorless philosophical ponderings. Although that warmth was shattered by the intensely frightening middle section, I was still on-board and accepted that this painful segment was effectively advancing the dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the third segment proved to be the near-destruction of the film’s worth from my point of view.

The third section of the film hinges of elements so internally inconsistent as to be fatal to the logic of the narrative. After parts one and two set up a credible and engrossing dramatic conflict – the idyllic supportive family environment suddenly plummeting into the horror of life under the cruelty of the bishop and his henchwomen – part three takes an easy way out. The great failure of this film is that Bergman was unable to bring this fantastic conflict to a successful resolution within the framework of the psychodrama and family drama that had been developed to that point. Instead, he resorted to the cheap trick of introducing fantastical supernatural elements that were totally inconsistent with the contours laid out by the film up to that point. While magical elements are certainly entirely appropriate to films like the Harry Potter series or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where such elements are built into the respective premises from the outset, suddenly resorting to such elements at the end of a film, without adequate narrative foundation, is the ultimate cop-out. It would be analogous to having a film like Castaway (starring Tom Hanks) resolved by the sudden appearance of Superman after the marooned man had spent years on the deserted island.

Another weakness of F&A is that the bishop is an overwrought caricature, an individual so fully malevolent in his motivations as to rival the evil emperor in Star Wars or any stereotyped cartoon villain. It is unlikely that a person could rise to the position of bishop and be so totally devoid of humanity. Bergman has created in the wicked bishop too easy a target for his attack on religious austerity.

There are also profound weaknesses of character development. One problem is that many characters make brief appearances in this film without ever being properly established. More telling, however, is the failure to illuminate adequately the psychology of the principals. Fanny is so little developed as a character as to make the title of the film something of a misnomer. It should really be just Alexander. Alexander is clearly the central protagonist while Fanny does little more than act as cheerleader for him. It would have been nice to see Fanny as a force to be reckoned with in her own right rather than Alexander confronting the bishop largely on his own.

Bottom-Line: F&A received many awards when it was released although one has to wonder how much of the honoring of this film was motivated by an understandable desire to honor Bergman for a stellar career. Bergman had already announced that this would be his final feature film. F&A won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction in 1983 but also received nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It was also received Golden Globe, Guldbagge, and BAFTA awards. In my personal judgment, it is a very good film that falls short of greatness mainly because of the internal inconsistencies in the script. It could have been Bergman’s best film except for that substantial flaw.

F&A exists in two distinct versions. The one that most viewers in America will encounter is the 188 minute theatrical release. There is also a longer version that was broadcast on Swedish television that runs 309 minutes. It is apparently available from the UK with English subtitles. Those who especially love F&A naturally prefer the longer version but Bergman himself is said to have favored the shorter theatrical release. F&A is in Swedish with English subtitles for the version available in America.


Recommend this product? Yes


Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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