“Autumn Sonata” - Ingmar Bergman (1978)

One of Ingmar Bergman’s last movies made expressly for the cinema, Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten, 1978), was something of a masterpiece in both style and content.  Consisting of mostly an extended, bitter colloquy between an elderly mother and her married daughter, one wouldn’t expect material of this nature would be suitable for a fascinating film.  But writer-director Ingmar Bergman, with the help of his two leading actresses, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman, fashioned a gripping psychological drama that keeps the viewer interested all the way, and Autumn Sonata has been highly regarded by a number of critics over the years [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8].  This was Ingrid Bergman’s last film appearance (and the only collaboration between the two famous Swedish Bergmans), but she gives here one of her most moving performances to cap off her career.

At the time when this film was made (1977), Ingmar Bergman was going through an anguishing period, because he had been charged and arrested by the Swedish authorities for tax-invasion in 1976.  Although the charges were soon dropped later that year, the now-depressed Bergman went into self-exile for the next four years and thereby cut off his ties with the Swedish filmmaking industry during that period.  Nevertheless, he continued to make films during this time, and Autumn Sonata was shot in Norway and produced in West Germany.  And with this film Bergman also continued with his relatively later-in-his-career focus on the complex moods and interactions of female psyches.  Many of these films featured Liv Ullmann (in addition to Autumn Sonata, these include Persona (1966), Shame (Skammen, 1968), The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett Aktenskap, 1973)), who was also a sometime romantic partner of Bergman’s.

The story of Autumn Sonata concerns the wife of a country parson, Eva (played by Liv Ullmann), who invites her semi-estranged mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) to come to her rural home for an extended visit.  Charlotte, who is a famous concert pianist, is grieving over the recent death of her romantic partner of eighteen years, and although the mother and daughter have not seen each other for seven years, Eva now wants to extend a loving hand of support to her long-unseen mother.  

The film actually begins with Eva’s husband, parson Viktor (Halvar Björk), directly looking into the camera and describing his wife, who can be seen in the background but is out of earshot.  But although the film starts with Viktor, he turns out to be a minor character – a kindly and basically passive observer to what will really be a story about Eva and Charlotte and their contrasting personalities.  Although Eva is successful and has written two books, we will soon see that she is a modest, self-effacing person who is bent on helping and nurturing the people around her.  Charlotte, in contrast, is a vivacious,  self-confident performer, and she is used to projecting what is on her mind to the people around her.  As we soon learn, the reason why Eva hasn’t seen her mother for seven years is that Charlotte has been just too occupied with her own affairs to attend to the affairs of others.

When Charlotte arrives at Eva’s country home, she is joyfully greeted by her gracious daughter, who is thrilled to hear that her mother intends to stay there indefinitely.  But when mother and daughter sit down and start talking, troubles arise.  The first issue is that Eva reveals that she has taken her severely-handicapped younger sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), out of a medical care home and brought her into her own home to look after her.  Helena is suffering from an incurable, degenerative neurological condition that has left her mostly paralyzed and unable to speak intelligibly.  Years earlier, when Charlotte had been confronted with her daughter Helena’s deteriorating condition, she had ultimately chosen to have the girl institutionalized and had thereafter never even bothered to go visit Helena there – evidently out of sight, out of mind!  So Charlotte is severely uncomfortable about seeing and facing up to Helena now.  But Charlotte now decides to buckle up, and she goes into Helena’s room, where she graciously greets her crippled daughter and puts on a show of motherly affection.  Although she cannot talk intelligibly, it is clear that Helena is ecstatic to see her long-absent mother.

A bit later while Charlotte and Eva are talking, Charlotte urges the reluctant Eva to play a piano piece that her daughter has been working on, Chopin’s “Prelude No. 2 in A Minor”.  Although Eva is competent at the piano, she is by no means a concert-level pianist like her mother.  As she listens to her daughter play, Charlotte can be seen wincing at some of the passages – she doesn’t agree with Eva’s interpretation of the piece.  Then Charlotte sits down at the keyboard and plays the same piece the way she thinks it should be played.  Although Eva doesn’t say much, we can see that she is traumatized by the way her proud mother has dismissed her efforts.  Clearly a caring mother should have shown some appreciation for her daughter’s humble attempt to play a piece for her.

Still later, Eva talks to Charlotte about her son Erik, who died just before his fourth birthday and for whom she still grieves.  At that time, Charlotte had been too busy to come and attend her grandson’s funeral.

That night Charlotte has a nightmare of Helena coming to her bed and choking her, and she cries out in the night.  Eva comes to Charlotte’s room to comfort her, and they begin a long, ultimately heated conversation that is the core narrative sequence in the film and takes up about 36 minutes of the film’s running time.  The theme of the ensuing colloquy becomes Eva’s complaints about Charlotte’s failure as a mother.  The viewer has already seen that Charlotte is cordial and self-confident, but she is also self-centered, and Eva feels that selfishness more or less defines her mother and accounts for all of her unforgivable failures.  

Gradually Eva’s commentary turns into a long diatribe against her mother.  She complains that her mother was always away from home on concert tours or attending to endless practice and rehearsals.  The few periods that Charlotte did spend at home, she was, according to Eva, domineering and insensitive to her daughter’s needs.  For example, there was the time when Eva was 18 and pregnant, and her mother forced her to have an abortion.  Eva says she was a sensitive, introverted person and that her always imperious, super-confident mother continually made her feel inferior, which suppressed her development growing up.

Throughout this invective, Liv Ullmann performs movingly and realistically, and Ingmar Bergman, along with his long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist, maintain the emotive tension with a back-and-forth sequence of adroit closeups showing Ullmann speaking and Ingrid Bergman in horrified reaction.  In this story, Charlotte, who is always used to projecting herself, has to shut up and listen.

Charlotte, sympathetically now, starts talking about her own anguished childhood, which she thinks contributed to her shortcomings as a mother.  But Eva won’t letup and now begins talking about Charlotte’s neglect of Helena when she was a child.  In fact Eva claims that Charlotte’s neglect of Helena when she was an infant was a cause of Helena’s neurological condition.  During this part of the conversation, there are intercut shots of Helena rolling out of her bed upstairs and struggling to crawl out on the landing.  She cries out – shockingly, because her words are for the first time intelligible – “Mama, come!”.  Clearly her mother’s presence in the house has a powerful effect on Helena.

At the end of the long indictment, Charlotte, now full of remorse, tearfully begs Eva for forgiveness.  But it remains unclear whether her resentful daughter is willing to do that.

The next day shows Charlotte on a train out of town with her agent Paul (Gunnar Björnstrand).  She has apparently made good on her vow to donate the expensive car in which she had arrived to her daughter, and she appears to be back to her old self.  She tells Paul about Helena and wonders out loud why couldn’t Helena just die?  So we have to wonder how much Charlotte’s encounter with Eva really changed her.

Meanwhile Eva is shown walking in the cemetery around her son Erik’s grave and brooding about suicide.  At the same time Helena is shown to be hysterically upset at the news that her mother has departed.

Later, in the closing shots, Eva composes a letter to Charlotte apologizing for what she had said the previous night and expressing her hope that the two of them can get together and have a renewed relationship.  It is by no means clear that this is likely to happen, though.

Ingmar Bergman shot Autumn Sonata in just 15 days, but still managed to produce an extremely polished work.  So it is surprising to read that there were clashes between Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman during the film concerning the interpretation of the Charlotte character [3,5].  It seems that Ingrid favored a softer, more sympathetic interpretation, while Ingmar wanted a more hard-boiled version.  I’m not sure how it played out on the set, but I would say that Ingrid Bergman’s sensitive portrayal of this character was a key to the film’s success, and anything she may have done to soften and deepen the role was a probably a valuable contribution.

In fact what is fascinating about Autumn Sonata is that we have an encounter between two complex characters, the types of which we all have some familiarity with.  Charlotte is absorbed with her own concerns, but she has confidence and is used to projecting her cordial self in social encounters.  She is upbeat, but she is selfish.  Eva, in contrast, is more contemplative and internalized – she wants to know herself.  While Charlotte is unlikely to examine herself, Eva is eternally mystified by herself.  

Compared to her mother, indeed compared to most everyone, Eva is very self-effacing and continually devoted to helping and nurturing others.  This is all part of her trying to be who she wants to be.  She doesn’t really love anybody, not even her husband Viktor.  But she wants to care for him and for so many others, like her crippled sister, Helena.  Thus Eva’s sympathetic efforts have made her the only one who can make sense of Helena’s unintelligible grunts and jabbers.

But Eva is not completely benign.  She is full of resentment for her mother, and she can’t resist spewing out her long pent-up anger towards the woman during her night-long vituperative condemnation of her mother’s parental sins.  You have to wonder what good can come now from bombarding a sixtyish woman with such angry accusations concerning the woman’s selfishness and motherly neglect.  It seems she wants to make her mother suffer the way she suffered.  

So no one is completely innocent here, and Ingmar managed to fashion an emotive psychodrama concerning these characters by showing their intense interactions, mostly in closeup.  (The only real longshots are those involving flashback sequences concerning Charlotte, Eva, and Helena in the past.)  These extended, somber-colored sequences of expressive closeups, both of the one explaining her feelings of resentment and of the reactions of the horrified listener trying to be sympathetic, are what make Autumn Sonata a special presentation of long-held-back human emotion.

  1. Norman N. Holland, “Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata, Höstsonaten, 1978.”, A Sharper Focus, (n.d.).   
  2. Peter Cowie, “Autumn Sonata”, The Criterion Collection, (31 December 1999).   
  3. David Sterritt, “Autumn Sonata”, Turner Classic Movies, (8 June 2010).   
  4. Chuck Bowen, “Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata on the Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, (12 September 2013).   
  5. Farran Smith Nehme, Autumn Sonata: Mothers, Daughters, and Monsters”, The Criterion Collection, (16 September 2013).   
  6. Julian Murphy, “Three Doors into the Chamber of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, Senses of Cinema, Issue 75, (June 2015).   
  7. Acquarello, “Autumn Sonata, 1978", Strictly Film School, (27 December 2017).    
  8. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Autumn Sonata”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).

“And Then There Were None” - René Clair (1945)

And Then There Were None (1939) is not only English mystery writer Agatha Christie’s most popular novel, it is the most widely read mystery novel ever written, with more than 100 million copies sold [1].  This novel (which was originally titled Ten Little Niggers but was soon changed to And Then There Were None) was refashioned by Christie in 1943 into a stage play with an altered, more upbeat, ending; and it is this play that has served as the basis for numerous film and TV adaptations around the world over the years.  However, the most famous of these adaptations was the first – the 1945 American film And Then There Were None, directed by René Clair.

What makes Christie’s story so irresistibly enticing?  It is undoubtedly the story’s foundational proposition – ten strangers stranded in a lone mansion on a small island are facing the prospect that an unknown member of their group is intent on killing all the others, one-by-one.  As the murders proceed, the surviving parties (and the viewers) must continually revise their suspicions as to who might be the fiendish perpetrator.  Since everyone is ultimately under suspicion, the atmosphere for paranoia is intense.  As such, this turns out to be one of the ultimate claustrophobic whodunits.     

René Clair, the film‘s director, was a famous French filmmaker and something of an auteur, but he spent the  war years of  World War II self-exiled in the U.S., where he had the opportunity to direct a number of Hollywood films (e.g. The Flame of New Orleans (1941), I Married a Witch (1942), It Happened Tomorrow (1944), and finally And Then There Were None (1945)).  So not surprisingly, this film’s production was very much a standard Hollywood product, with the script, cinematography, editing, and music all handled by Hollywood veterans Dudley Nichols, Lucien N. Andriot, Harvey Manger, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, respectively.  Even so, the uniqueness of Agatha Christie’s story has made the film largely stand out as something of an art-house favourite over the years [2,3,4,5,6].

The film begins with eight people, all mutually strangers to each other, being delivered in a small boat to an isolated island off the English coast.  We will soon learn their identities:
  • Judge Francis Quinncannon (played by Barry Fitzgerald), a legal authority
  • Dr. Edward Armstrong (Walter Huston), a medical physician
  • William Blore (Roland Young), a police detective 
  • General Sir John Mandrake (Aubrey Smith), a military officer
  • Prince Nikki Starloff (Mischa Auer), an upper-class wastrel
  • Emily Brent (Judith Anderson), an older upper-class woman
  • Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward)
  • Vera Claythorne (June Duprez)
They are all guests of a Mr. Owen whom they have never met.  When they arrive on the island, they are taken to a lone mansion tended to by two newly hired servants, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, who have also never met Mr. Owen.  When the guests sit down for dinner, they notice a flamboyant centerpiece on the table featuring ten figurines of (American) Indians.  This odd centerpiece, which can evoke the macabre children’s nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians”, will serve as a physical metaphor for the gruesome events to follow.  

Then Mr. Rogers, following instructions he had received from Mr. Owen, plays a phonograph record having a recording addressed to the newly arrived guests.  The recorded voice asserts that, based on inside information, it knows and spells out how each of ten people in the house – the eight invited guests and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers – is individually responsible for the deaths of one or more innocent people.  Essentially, they are all unconvicted murderers.  And so, according to the voice on the recording, they all deserve to be executed.

Naturally, this announcement is disruptive to the equanimity of the group, who are in the initial stages of getting to know each other.  There are various angry denials, as well as confessions of some degrees of guilt.  But they all feel that they are now the targets of revenge for their alleged past deeds.

Then the sequence of mysterious deaths begins.  The first one happens quickly.  After Prince Starloff sits down at the piano in the drawing room and plays and sings the children’s nursery song “Ten Little Indians”, he takes a sip from a cocktail drink and then keels over, dead.  The cocktail drink was mysteriously poisoned.  In this and in the subsequent death cases, the identity of the  perpetrator of the vengeful murder is unknown.  But each occasion is accompanied by an equally mysterious disappearance of another Indian figurine from the dining room table.  And the circumstances of each death weirdly reflect the circumstances of the corresponding Indian disappearance mentioned in the nursery rhyme.  At first the life-threatened guests believe that there nemesis is somewhere on the island outside the mansion.  But after thoroughly investigating this possibility, they conclude that their existential antagonist is a disguised member of their own group.

Most of the guests are stereotypes of their professional backgrounds, and so they stereotypically apply their accustomed skills to finding who is the murderer.  Thus Judge Quinncannon sees things from a legal perspective;  Dr. Armstrong sees things from a medical perspective;  General Mandrake sees things from a military perspective; and Detective Blore just wants to collect all the evidence.  Although some viewers may like this heterogeneous problem-solving admixture, I found it a bit too artificial for my taste.

So the sequence of surreptitious murders continues to play itself out, with the identity of the cold-blooded killer being continually restricted to one of a set of candidates among the declining number of surviving guests.  Eventually the viewer does learn who it is, and I will leave it to you to see the film and find out for yourself.

Enticing as this challenging many-suspect whodunit might seem, though, the film And Then There Were None doesn’t live up to its potential for several reasons:
  • For one thing, there don’t seem to be potential motivations for the murders committed on the island, and this leads to an absence of suspicions.  I believe murder mysteries are best outfitted with threatening suspects whose suspected motivations can help drive the narrative. This problem here likely stems from the overly simplified and stereotyped characterizations of the guests in this story.
  • Two of the guests, Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard (whose real name later turns out to be Charles Morley), are much younger than the other guests and very glamorous compared to the others.  This makes it too obvious that they are innocent parties and that they are likely to be the protagonists in identifying the true culprit.
  • And finally, the film makes too light of the notion of death and basically adopts a mocking attitude toward the loss of life.  This may help lighten the dark tenor of the story, but the film dialogue goes too far in this direction.  In fact the incessant flow of superficial wisecracks in this area wears pretty thin before we come to the end of the story.
So And Then There Were None may offer you an interesting mind diversion sometime, but it is a story that could have been fashioned into a more compelling cinematic experience.

  1. “And Then There Were None”, Wikipedia, (30 September 2021).    
  2. Bosley Crowther, “SHE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'And Then There Were None,' With Barry Fitzgerald, at Roxy, Appears Opportunely as Goblins Pay Annual Visit Universal Offers a Refashioned Drama of Pirandello in Film 'This Love of Ours,' New Bill Showing at Loew's Criterion At Loew's Criterion”, The New York Times, (1 November 1945).   
  3. Variety Staff, “And Then There Were None”, Variety, (31 December 1944).   
  4. Leonard Maltin (ed.), “And Then There Were None”, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, PLUME, Penguin Press, (2005). 
  5. Jeremy Arnold, “And Then There Were None on Blu-ray”, Turner Classic Movies, (18 September 2013).   
  6. Jay Carr, “And Then There Were None - And Then There Were None”, Turner Classic Movies, (9 January 2014).   

René Clair

Films of René Clair:

“Nomadland” - Chloé Zhao (2020)

Nomadland (2020) is an award-winning drama whose approach to the realism of its subject matter is both original and also something that underlies the film’s themes.  This film is a story about “vandwellers” in America – people who live in campervans, RVs, mobile homes, or modified buses and have no fixed abode.  Although the film is a work of dramatic fiction, it is closely based on a nonfiction book that documents the lives of these wandering vandwellers, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder (in fact Jessica Bruder is credited as a “consulting producer” for the film).  Moreover, almost all of the people who appear in this film are real-life nomadic vandwellers with no prior acting experience.  They are just playing themselves.  

However, Nomadland is not an example of fly-on-the-wall cinema verite.  It is a carefully crafted drama, with masterful cinematography by Joshua James Richards and haunting sound-track music by Ludovico Einaudi.  Neither is it quite appropriate to categorize this film as another example of Italian neo-realism, because there are certain distinguishing aspects of this film that make it rather unique.  

For one thing the film was written, directed, edited and co-produced by Chinese-born American Chloé Zhao, and although Ms. Zhao received a film education at NYU film school, she brings her own original, externally-based eye to the aspects of American life that she writes and films about.  In the context of this film, she seems fascinated by a phenomenon of growing general alienation that is starting to emerge among many ordinary people in America.  And as this film shows, many people have no choice but to accept it.  

So alienation is clearly one important aspect of Nomadland, but there are also other thematic elements present, as well, and these all collectively contribute to reasons for why Zhao’s film has been so remarkably well-received.  On the awards front, Nomadland had almost a clean sweep.  The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (and nominations in three other categories) at the 93rd U.S. Academy Awards.  It won the Golden Lion (best film) at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.  It was chosen as Best Film at the 74th British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs).  And at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, it won an award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and an award for Best Director.  And among top film critics, Nomadland has been widely praised [1,2,3,4,5,6,7].

The meandering story of Nomadland is concerned with a sixtyish woman, Fern (played by award-winning actress Frances McDormand), who has just embarked on a new life as a nomadic vandweller.  She and her husband had worked for years at a gypsum plant in small company-town Empire, Nevada.  But now the gypsum company has shut down, and her husband has just died, leaving the childless Fern alone and with no means of support.  So she purchases a van and converts it into something she can live in while she travels about looking for work.  When asked if she is homeless, she responds with no, she is “houseless”.  

The entire film then focalizes exclusively on Fern as she travels about the western United States in search of odd jobs that she can use for support.  However, Fern is so laid-back and laconic that much of what we learn in the film about vandwellers comes not from Fern, but from the fellow vandwellers that she meets and interacts with.  And as I mentioned, virtually everyone Fern meets is a real-life vandwelling nomad.  Nevertheless, Frances McDormand’s pensive performance as Fern is crucial to the success of the film.  As the film proceeds, we want to know more about what Fern is thinking and feeling.

After Fern heads out on the road from the shutting down town of Empire, she secures a seasonal job at a massive Amazon fulfilment center (warehouse for third-party shipping).  Although the workers don’t appear to be mistreated, the sheer size of the operation makes everyone on the floor like a tiny cog in a gigantic machine.  This is a telling visual metaphor for the impending gig economy and streamlined supply chain that so many ordinary people are now facing.

One of Fern’s coworkers at the warehouse, Linda, convinces her to come to a meet-up for vandwellers in the Arizona desert.  The event is hosted by Bob Wells, a charismatic real-life nomad who seeks to organize cooperative support for his fellow vandwellers.  Although some  vandwellers are middle-class retirees who have embraced this way of life in order to fulfill their love for freedom and the open road, most of these people are like Fern – forced by poverty to live in a van.  At Wells’s meet-ups these people can share tricks and info about how to get by on the road.

Later Fern meets and becomes friends with a congenial elderly woman nomad, Swankie, from whom she learns more about survival under impecunious circumstances on the road.  Swankie also tells her that she, herself, has terminal cancer, but she wants to close out her life on the open road rather than in a hospital.

After the extended encounter with Swankie, Fern is shown working in the Black Hills, South Dakota, where she runs into Dave (David Strathairn, the only other actor in the film with significant professional acting experience), a mild-mannered elderly nomad she had seen earlier in Arizona.  They go on to meet on several further occasions, and Dave politely indicates to Fern that he is interested in having her stay with him in a long-term relationship.  But ultimately Fern resists the temptation and decides to stick to her life of independence on the open road.

There is also an occasion when Fern’s van has a serious breakdown, and she has to go ask her married sister in California for a loan in order to pay for the repairs.  When Fern goes to her sister’s upper-middle class home, we can see the contrast in the two sisters’ lifestyles; and we hope the encounter will shed some light on the taciturn Fern’s background.  But it becomes clear that the sister has always been as much in the dark about Fern’s thoughts and feelings as we viewers are now.  Anyway, the sister does loan the money to Fern, and the van gets fixed.

Fern has further encounters with Bob Wells and other van-dwelling nomads, before eventually returning for one last nostalgic visit to Empire, Nevada, which is by this time almost a ghost town.  Then at the end of the film, she heads back out on the road.

So overall, Nomadland is a bleak, moody film that effectively conveys inescapable feelings of loneliness and a sense of loss.  But there are three connected thematic elements in the film that linger in my mind and warrant further comment:
  • Is the Gig-Economy the Future of Labour?
  • What Role Does Narrative Play in Nomadland?
  • To What Degree is a Self Defined by Narrative?
These are not items really explicitly addressed in Nomadland, but they were tangentially evoked when I watched the film.

1.  Is the Gig-Economy the Future of Labour?

Watching Nomadland made me wonder whether the traditional nature of U.S. socioeconomic society is collapsing (and since the U.S. is at the forefront of social evolution, this applies eventually to everywhere else, too).  With management increasingly centralized and specific jobs increasingly objectified and compartmentalized, the labour environment is more and more moving towards a gig-economy.  For digital workers, this can mean more and more digital nomads – people who can perform their jobs from remote locations and can therefore live anywhere.  But for hands-on gig workers, such as those depicted in Nomadland, it means that anyone looking for work must travel to the site of the job location and secure the gig-job.  In other words, they have to be nomads.

The positive side to all this is that there are likely to be available jobs for itinerants.  But of course the downside is that the jobs are reduced to lowest-common-denominator specifications and are often low-skilled and low-paid.

Chloé Zhao doesn’t take up this general social issue and its ramifications at all in Nomadland.  But what she does show is the lifestyles of the nomads and their various ways of dealing with the inherent loneliness in “nomadland”.

2.  What Role Does Narrative Play in Nomadland?
Almost all films (as well as dramas, stories, and novels) have a narrative that provides a structure for the events depicted.  The metastructure of these narratives is often characterized metaphorically as a journey.  There are one or more protagonists on such a “journey” who are struggling to reach a desired “destination”, and there are usually other agents along the way who assist or stand in the way of progress.  Much has been written about the narrative-as-journey metaphor [8,9,10,11,12], notably the more formalized characterization of it known as the “hero’s journey” [13] that was popularized by Joseph Campbell [14].

In the present context concerning Nomadland, we don’t have to delve into the various narrative characterizations, because in this case, I don’t see that the film even has a narrative.  Although one might at first think Fern is on some sort of journey, nether the destination nor the overall scheme of that journey is ever specified.  We never know what the wandering Fern wants or is thinking.  All we get is a random sequence of scenes depicting haphazard encounters that have no clear outcome – at least no outcome with respect to a given quest.  We never really learn much about what goes on inside Fern’s head or indeed who she is.  But then maybe that is the point.  Fern’s lack of a narrative is what this film is about.

3.  To What Degree is a Self Defined by Narrative?
It is often claimed that we basically model all the people we meet in terms of the narratives we construct about them, and this is how we to know and understand them [9,10,11].  It is in terms of these narratives that we know them.  We even think of ourselves in terms of the narratives constructed by ourselves and others about ourselves.  So is it really true, is that all there is to the self – the narrative that has been constructed to characterize it?  Are you and I just the stories we have constructed about ourselves?  There is dispute on that score.

Some philosophers, usually objectivists, maintain that, yes, that is all there is to the self – the narrative story (or stories) that provides a comprehensible, temporally-oriented scheme of who you are.  They argue further that any idea that there is some inner being constituting the true self is a self-deceptive hallucination.  The only existing selves, they insist, are the fabricated narratives that have long been constructed (since caveman days) to facilitate human interactions extended over time.

But there are other thinkers, both esteemed Western philosophers [15] and respected Eastern sages [16,17], who hold that there are really two essential aspects of the self:
  • an outer, worldly, narrative-based self 
  • an inner self that is founded on core-consciousness
According to this second, more nuanced scheme, it is the inner, core-consciousness-based self that is the true being that identifies who you are.  And this is the self-perspective that I find more natural, and I would guess that Chloé Zhao thinks this way, too.  It usually follows under this scheme that when a person’s inner core-consciousness gets the feeling that its constructed narrative-based self is somehow unfulfilling and leaves it disconnected from meaningful interactions in the world, it then feels alienated.  This sense of alienation can be difficult to articulate, but it lies as a root element of existentialist thinking, and it has been eloquently expressed by such writers as Albert Camus [18] and Jean-Paul Sartre [19], as well as in a number of memorable films [20].  And it is Fern’s alienation that is the artistic key to Nomadland.

As I mentioned, the film Nomadland doesn’t really seem to have its own narrative, and that comes down to the fact that the film’s main character, Fern, doesn’t appear to have a narrative-based self at all.  It’s not just an unsatisfactory narrative-based self, as it often is with some people; here in Fern’s case, it is a virtual narrative void.  She doesn’t appear to have had much meaningful interaction with her family when she was growing up.  And now that her husband has died and she has lost her longtime job and home, there is nothing left of her adult life on which to base her narrative self.  Her life is empty.  And that is what makes the film problematic.  Can a film succeed without being driven by a narrative journey?  In the case of Nomadland, I would say it more or less does succeed.   

Even though I am aligned with the philosophical position that the narrative self is not the most intrinsic aspect of the self, having only a severely diminished narrative-based self, like Fern, would be an existential problem.  And it is Fern’s existential problem that is on display in Nomadland.  We viewers want to know more about what Fern is thinking and feeling in response to her barren circumstances, but her contemplative reticence gives us little to chew on and leaves us wanting more.  Frances McDormand’s subtle, laid-back performance as Fern is crucial here.  We follow her gaze and guess about her feelings all the way, but our fascination persists.  And that is what lies at the heart of Nomadland.

  1. A.O. Scott, “‘Nomadland’ Review: The Unsettled Americans”, The New York Times, (18 February 2021, 26 April 2021).   
  2. Brian Tallerico, “Nomadland”, RogerEbert.com, (19 February 2021).   
  3. Beatrice Loayza, “Nomadland finds beauty on the rugged, ruthless open road”, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (28 April 2021).   
  4. MaryAnn Johanson, “Nomadland movie review: ain’t that America”, flick filosopher, (6 May 2021).   
  5. Murtaza Ali Khan, "’Nomadland’ Review: An inspiring tale of survival that presents the modern-day American West in a new light”, A Potpourri of Vestiges,, (4 April 2021).   
  6. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Nomadland”, The Austin Chronicle, (19 February 2021).   
  7. Chris Barsanti, “Review: ‘Nomadland’ Is a Sorrowful Lament for Lives on America’s Fringes", Slant Magazine, (12 September 2020).   
  8. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory),  (1990), Northwestern.
  9. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality", Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21, (1991).
  10. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  11. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press. 
  12. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  13. “Hero’s Journey”, Wikipedia, (17 September 2021).     
  14. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1st edition, Bollingen Foundation (1949), 2nd edition, Princeton University Press (1990), 3rd edition, New World Library (2008).
  15. Dan Zahavi, "Self and Narrative: the Limits of Narrative Understanding", Narrative  and  Understanding  Persons, D. D. Hutto  (ed),  Royal  Institute  of  Philosophy Supplement 60, Cambridge University Press, pp. 179-201, (9 August 2007).  
  16. Paramahansa Yogananda, God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, Self-Realization Fellowship, (1 September 2001).  
  17. Ching Hai, I Have Come to Take You Home: A Collection of Quotes and Spiritual Teachings from the Supreme Master Ching Hai, Sophie Lapaire and Pamela Millar (eds.), SMCHIA Publishing Co., (1 January 1995).   
  18. Albert Camus, The Stranger (L'Étranger), Gallimard, (1942).  
  19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (La Nausée), Éditions Gallimard, (1938).
  20. The Film Sufi, “Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi, (15 July 2008).   

Chloé Zhao

 Films of Chloé Zhao: