Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mothers' Day with Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman (r.) with Liv Ullmann in Autumn Sonata

Not everybody can have a perfect relationship with their parents. In honor of those who had a difficult relationship with Mom, one could do far worse than to watch Autumn Sonata. It's not on TCM's Mothers' Day schedule, unsurprisingly, but it has been released to DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion collection.

The movie starts off at a parsonage somewhere in rural Norway. Viktor (Halvar Björk) is watching his wife Eva (Liv Ullmann) writing a letter to her mother, and giving us some expository opening voiceover about what Eva is like: a tender, sensitive woman who, it seems, has made some sacrifices to take on the role of a pastor's wife. The purpose of the letter that Eva is writing is to invite Mom Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) to visit them at the parsonage for a little while. Mom is a concert pianist who has travelled the world, but has recently lost her long-time partner after an extended illness. (It's implied that Dad died some time in the past; it's perfectly normal to fall in love again and this relationship isn't supposed to be scandalous.) At any rate, Mom needs a break, and a little time at the parsonage might do her some good.

The only thing is, Viktor is asking Eva whether she's sure she wants to do this. Obviously, that means there must be some good reason why she wouldn't want to do it. And we begin to get hints of why. Charlotte can be a bit demanding, although some of it isn't out of place for an artist; besides, she's getting up there in years and some of the initial complaints could just be those of old age. That is, until Eva springs an unwelcome surprise on Mom: Eva's got her sister and Charlotte's other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman) with them. Helena is suffering from some neurological condition that's never specified, although I'd guess the late stages of multiple sclerosis, as it's left Helena unable to walk and her speech very difficult to understand. Charlotte hasn't seen Helena in years, as though she basically abandoned her own daughter when the daughter got sick.

Charlotte tries to be polite, but things continue to deteriorate in ways big and small. In one of the best scenes, Eva tells her mother that she plays the organ at the church, even giving a concert at one point, and has been working on the Chopin preludes. So Mom asks her to play one of them for her, which Eva does. Charlotte, sitting alongside Eva on the piano bench then proceeds to pick up the sheet music, put it aside, and put the piano music stand down. It's a small sign that Mom is an expert: like all good concert pianists, she doesn't need the sheet music. Daughter, however, does, and Mom's emphasizing this is a subtle but unmistakeable humiliation. Let's just say that after this, things are going to get far worse between them.

Autumn Sonata is a difficult movie. It's absolutely not the sort of movie that you'd just want to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch. I wouldn't even call it a date movie, as it's too heavy for that. But it's an outstanding movie that contains excellent performances from both Bergman and Ullmann; Ingrid Bergman received an Oscar nomination for their work here and Ullmann really should have. Director Ingmar Bergman does a wonderful job as well, deftly navigating between flashbacks and the present day, while making a film that's visually lovely to look at, even if it is about a relationship that's gone really ugly. (This has nothing to do with the Norwegian countryside which does show up a bit and is of course beautiful; the interiors that make up much of the movie are quite good.) Despite the heavy nature of the subject matter here, Autumn Sonata is one you absolutely should see.

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