“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-evasion 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.).

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