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Written and Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Ewa Froling, Allan Edwall, Borje Alstedt, Jarl Kulle, Gunn Wallgren, Jan Malmsjo, Pernilla August, Erland Josephson, Gunnar Bjornstrand

 

Fanny & Alexander begins perfectly. We see a small, carefully constructed cardboard stage and its elaborate backdrops are lifted away, one by one, by Alexander (Bertil Guve) who moves the tiny paper actors around the tiny stage. Alexander then wanders around the sprawling, lavishly decorated mansion that serves as the emotional and logistical centre for Alexander’s rich family, the Ekdahls. The house is empty and after pretending to be a king while sitting on the toilet, Alexander crawls under a table and dozes off. In his sleepy state he has a vision in which the nude statue in the corner motions towards Alexander, who then glipmses the spectre of death hiding behind a curtain before being jarred awake by a maid shaking coal into a furnace. Theatre, God-as-creator, iconoclasm, expressionistic surroundings, stage magic, sexual desire, moral guilt, doom, an oppressive religious construct, and a perceptive child with an outsider’s view: we have all we need, now, to begin to begin the 5 hour epic that was intended to be the final film of Ingmar Bergman. All of Bergman’s usual pre-occupations are prevalent throughout Fanny & Alexander but what is interesting is that while some of the people and situations are bleak, it seems here that life itself is not bleak.

Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander are the children of Emilie (Ewa Froling) and Oscar (Allan Edwall) Ekdahl. Oscar, along with his brothers Carl (Borje Alstedt) and Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) are the children of Helena (Gunn Wallgren), the widowed matriarch of the ernormous Ekdahl family. Fanny & Alexander starts at Christmas time as the Ekdahls gather in their great family home for one huge meal after another. There’s a brilliance in these long family gatherings, and it is in the way Bergman constructs two entirely separate truths at once. Firstly, there are the adults and the children interacting with each other, cheerful and brimming with the joy and warmth of Christmas. They joke, they sing, they discuss their gifts and they offer up the sort of rare and tender kindness that comes at Christmas time. Lurking behind this warmth, however, is the tragedy of each person. Every person in the Ekdahl house has a sadness, or a worry, and they are all turned inward. Only half conscious of the whirl of the family, each one is emotionally separate and dealing with their own pain. Carl  and his wife Lydia  are having vicious marital problems, Oscar is feeling secretly ill, Helena is feeling exceptionally melancholy, and so on. The children, especially Alexander, and in her own way Fanny, are more aware of the sadness in the adults than the adults know, and this paints the celebrations with a somber tone. Bergman’s brilliance is that neither the joy nor the sadness is false. While these people are each being silently tortured by their own emotional state, they are also truly and overwhelmingly happy to be with their beloved family. This, I think, accesses a perfect summation of the family dynamic; the pull of a loving, familial connection competing with the push of self-obsession, creating a strange sort of diasporic family structure.

 I remember once hearing that Bergman did a stage production of an Ibsen play, I think Hedda Gabler or The Doll’s House in which the set was one big room, full of luxuious red tapestries, red furnature, red carpets, all in an effort to create womb-like surroundings for the characters. With the Ekdahl house, Bergman has achieved a similar affect. Nearly every room is full of red or pink everything, and are so stuffed they are closing in. Not claustrophobic, not most of the time anyway, but comforting. This house of endless rooms seems to be almost magically providing for its inhabitants, offering up the perfect place to be alone, the perfect corner in which to go unseen, a table big enough for any number of guests, a bed for secret lovers, a couch to collapse on, a shoulder to cry on, a solution for every problem. This is a great set, and brilliantly used. Late one night Oscar tells the children a fantastic story of one of the old wooden chairs in their room. We know he is making it up, but still we sense that there is, indeed, something mystical about every stick of furnature in this house. What a shock, then, when, after the sudden death of their father, Fanny and Alexander are taken from the comforts of the Ekdahl mansion to the bare and unwelcoming home owned by their new stepfather Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo).

Bishop Vergerus is a terrible, hateful man who believes in self-punishment and severe consequences. He punishes Alexander with an especially violent wrath for even minor misdeeds, in the name of morality and faith. Here is Bergman as he is most often thought of, working in full force. The children are ripped from a family who experience all emotions in the extreme, and encourange pleasure and desire fulfillment, and are place in the care of Bishop Vergerus, who not only encourages but enforces the exact opposite lifestyle. Bergman demonstrated throughout his career a belief that religion as a process of denial, guilt and punishment is damaging and dangerous, and Bishop Vergerus is the embodiment of all that Bergman sees as hateful and problematic in Christian dogmata. I understand Fanny & Alexander to be Bergman’s most autobiographical film. Admittedly, I know this mostly because the copy on the back of the Criterion boxset calls the film ” the legendary director’s warmest and most autobiographical film” but also Wikipedia tells me that Bergman’s father was a strict Lutheran minister, and obviously the template for Bishop Vergerus, who would lock Bergman away in dark cupboards as punishment for wetting the bed and other small mistakes. Alexander, then, is Bergman’s stand-in in this film, which is clear to anyone who has ever seena photo of Ingmar Bergman; Alexander is skinny and tall, with a long face just like Bergman. Alexander even dresses in the same heavy sweaters and old shirts as Bergman. Bergman claimed to have lost his faith at the age of 8, close to the age of Alexander in this film, who, it is reasonable to assume, is stripped of whatever faith he may have had by the cruelty of Bishop Vergerus.

The pains of growing up can be many, and it’s not out of the ordinary for a child to learn life’s lessons the hard way at the hands of an adult desperately trying to keep themselves together. What happens to Fanny and Alexander is, admittedly, not ordinary.  That they have each other throughout this is so important. Fanny plays a surprisingly slight role in the film, but her presence is never lost and her role in Alexander’s life is enormous. Always she is watching and she is quiet but she’s not oblivious. Whether it’s adults sneaking a kiss backstage in the theatre, or Alexander getting out of bed to watch the images in his lightbox, Fanny sees it all. After their father’s death, Fanny wakes to hear Emilie screaming in heartbroken agony, so she climbs out of her bed and silently into Alexander’s. This gesture is everything. It’s an ackowledgement that they have each other, that just the silent presence of the other is enough to soothe a fear or a sadness. Fanny is so strong in her silence, but her all-seeing eyes betray so much of what she’s feeling.

There’s so much to discuss in Fanny & Alexander  that I haven’t even mentioned. There’s in incredible element of magic that runs through the story, from basic stage magic to an instance of real, proper magic. Mythology, in the form of story telling, expounds much of the film’s thematic core in the most hypnotizing way and as adults tell amazing stories to the children, Bergman makes his viewer experience the same wonder and desire in a child-like way. A motif of water exists throughout the story, functioning as a purifyer and a cleansing lifeforce, manifesting itself most beautifully as the backdrop for the title card for each episode (Fanny & Alexander was originally made as a miniseries for Swedish television). Much of the film takes place at the theatre owned by Oscar and Emilie, with a production Hamlet tellingly at the centre of all the film’s action. Carl and Lydia have the most fascinating and abusive conversations, while the relationship between Gustav Adolf and his wife regarding his mistress is equally puzzling. Amidst all this there is no shortage of the pointed and specific consideration of existence, faith, death and guilt that is so common in Bergman’s films. The film is full of iconoclastic imagery of broken crosses, last suppers, bleeding palms et al. The children are haunted by the ghosts of the past, a parade of guilt and regret that follows them everywhere. Alexander is also prone to vivid visions and heavily symbolic dreams that seem to help him work out the complicated emotional and spiritual stimulus of his life. There’s a lot to consider in this film, but I can’t cover it all here.

This is an incredible excercise in filmmaking from one of the greatest people to ever step behind the camera. Equal parts brooding and joyous, Fanny & Alexander feels like an all out celebration of all of Bergman’s most beloved passions and themes. As much as the film looks at pain and cruelty,  I do not believe that Bergman is suggesting an inherent cruelty in life or even in other people. The film ends with Helena reading a quote from Strindberg’s A Dream Play thatanything 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…” I think that in his way, Bergman is offering a certain amount of hope, however obscure, that Fanny and Alexander are not doomed.