Criterion // 1978 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 16th, 2013
The only collaboration between cinema's two great Bergmans.
"It was all done in the name of love."
Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca) is a famed concert pianist taking a short break from performing in order to visit her estranged daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann, Persona). It's supposed to be a simple visit, just enough to keep Charlotte from feeling too guilty about neglecting to stay in touch her children. However, things turn messy when Charlotte learns that her mentally-disabled daughter Helena (Lena Nyman, I Am Curious: Yellow) is now living with Eva. Though Charlotte professes to love Helena, in truth she's very uncomfortable around her. Shortly into the visit, Eva and Charlotte engage in a long, difficult conversation about the past, which reopens quite a few old wounds.
It's somewhat remarkable that Ingrid Bergman (who is arguably the greatest Swedish actress of all time) took such a long time to collaborate with Ingmar Bergman (similarly named but no relation, and arguably the greatest Swedish director of all time). On the other hand, Bergman was such a big star in America and Italy at various points that she hardly had time or reason to make movies in her native country, and Bergman tended to re-use his favorite local actors over and over again, anyway. Still, the two finally did manage to join forces in 1978 for the poignant, painful Autumn Sonata (though the film had to be shot in Norway due to Ms. Bergman's tax problems in Sweden). Though it would be difficult to argue that the film represents the very best work done by either Bergman (a statement that says more about their great achievements than the quality of this film, to be sure), it's nonetheless an impressive effort that makes one regret that the duo didn't have the opportunity to work together more frequently.
Earlier in the 1970s, Ingmar Bergman had produced two of his most intimate, challenging works: Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage, both of which are as riveting as they are difficult to watch. Autumn Sonata covers similar territory thematically and tonally, as much of the film is centered on quiet, anguished conversations between family members with long, complicated histories. It would be an astonishing achievement for most directors, but given Mr. Bergman's earlier achievements, it occasionally feels like a film cobbled together from the leftovers of some of his earlier works.
Such fleeting thoughts can easily be ignored, however, as Autumn Sonata succeeds remarkably as a showcase for two tremendous actresses. The ongoing dialogue between Bergman and Ullman is spellbinding. Observe an early sequence built around both characters offering their interpretation of a Chopin piano prelude. There's so much tension, sadness and mutual resentment built into this sequence, and almost all of that is conveyed by the subtle facial expressions of the actresses. It's a miniature masterpiece, a scene that I'd argue is even more effective than the louder, more aggressive display of emotions that the film delivers late in the proceedings.
Charlotte may be a professional musician, but it's clear that she could have easily had an alternate career as an actress (a fact her daughter notes with more than a hint of bitterness). It's remarkable how quickly Charlotte can turn transform a dark conversation into chipper small talk, or how easily she can mask feelings of terror with a lilting voice and a radiant smile. Ullman, on the other hand, delivers a portrait of timid insecurity. She tends to let her mother dominate the conversations -- until a bit of liquid courage permits her to share her true feelings, anyway. Ullman is essentially delivering the damaged counterpoint to a film built around Bergman's performance, but she does so masterfully and matches the elder actress every step of the way.
Autumn Sonata: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) features an excellent 1080p transfer that beautifully accentuates Sven Nykvist's aching, autumnal cinematography. Detail is superb throughout, colors are lush and vibrant and darker scenes benefit from strong shading. It's a visually involving movie from start to finish, and Criterion's new release looks vastly better than the DVD. The PCM 1.0 Mono track is simple but strong, delivering the dialogue with unwavering clarity. Music is used only sparingly throughout the film, but what's here is excellent. What really impresses is Criterion's beefed-up supplemental package. In addition to the Peter Cowie commentary that was included on the DVD release, you get a 3 and ½ hour documentary on the making of the film that covers every single step of the production process. It's a long watch, obviously, but tremendously insightful and engaging stuff. Just an incredible bonus. You also get a 40-minute interview with Ingrid Bergman conducted in 1981, a brief introduction to the film from Ingmar Bergman, a brand-new 20-minute interview with Liv Ullman, a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Farran Smith Nehme. Props to Criterion for a top-notch selection of supplements.
Autumn Sonata may not be as extraordinarily powerful as Bergman's best work, but it's nonetheless a fine film that features outstanding performances from its two leads. Criterion's Blu-ray release is tremendous.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG