A mother faces her biggest challenge…the judgment of a daughter, and the specter of their shared past.
Autumn Sonata qualifies as yet another stupendous special edition from the Criterion Collection. It contains all the best that DVD has to offer, a wonderful gem film, intimately shot by a gifted director and cinematographer, and a commentary track by one of the most insightful critics on the planet.
By now, most of you should be familiar with the work of Criterion. But just in case, here's a quick refresher course. The Criterion Collection is a group of movies selected by Janus Films as being representative of the best film has to offer. We often refer to the company as Criterion, but that really is a bit of a misnomer. In any event, I shall continue this bastardization of the company behind the collection because it is how most of our readers recognize them. Frankly they should simply change the name of the company and be done with it. In any event, Criterion could easily claim that they have started everything we have in DVD today. They were the first to really push widescreen in any format (Laserdisc) and the first to command premium prices for special editions of those discs. They invented the commentary track. And their ultimate goal is to adhere to the wishes of the director, trying to bring his or her vision into our homes. In other words, they are the progenitor of all we are enjoying today in the best that DVD has to offer.
Their latest release, Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata is another in their own line of DVD's, and it is exceptional. I am a relative newcomer to Bergman's work, and this was my first viewing of this particular film. It is a severe counterpoint to much of the work being done in and around Hollywood today. Whether one attributes this fact to differing cultures, ages, or abilities, matters not. The point is there IS a difference, and a serious one at that. This difference no doubt, is what appeals to fans of foreign films as a genre.
Autumn Sonata tells the story of a broken relationship between mother and daughter, and tries, to a degree, to portray the relationship onscreen as rather emblematic of all mother daughter relationships. Charlotte (the mother), played beautifully by Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, Notorious, Joan of Arc) is a renowned concert pianist who spent many days and weeks, and even months away from home while her daughters were raised by their father. Her oldest daughter Eva, played by Liv Ullman (A Bridge Too Far, 40 Carats, Pope Joan) has invited Charlotte to stay for a while in the country estate where she and her husband live. The two have not spoken in person for over seven years.
The writing is exceptional, and reminds me of "Buried Child" or some other Sam Shepard play. The big difference being the setting has changed from a dysfunctional family set in the Great Plains of 1950s America to a dysfunctional family set in the great fjords and fells of 1970s Norway.
As great as the writing is, the acting is what makes this film. Ingrid Bergman is literally astounding. Unable to rely on the sweet beauty of her youth and the sweeping motions of her stage career training, the actress is forced to carry us into her world by small, contorted, and painful facial and body language. She succeeds with such brute force that one cannot help but feel Bergman herself had lived this role prior to acting it, which is largely the case. She spoke out after the filming of Autumn Sonata of her great sorrow of having essentially abandoned her children in order to pursue her own career. The impact on screen of these feelings is palpable. Liv Ullman is equally effective in the role of Eva. A far more emotive part, Eva confronts her mother with their shared past in a brutal and unforgiving way. But Ullman keeps pace with Bergman's work on screen and her character is clearly the driving force of the conflicts, which sustain us for the duration of the film.
The 1.66:1 video transfer is not enhanced for widescreen TV's, but that doesn't keep it from looking marvelous. Ingmar Bergman sets a mood to film as well as any director ever, and Autumn Sonata is no exception. We have sweeping vistas of mountains set off in a cold and distant fashion, foreshadowing the cold and distant relationship between mother and daughter. There is a marvelous series of scenes where Charlotte is looking back, remembering the hospital room where her lover has died. Best of all, Bergman utilizes many close-ups, and he's not afraid to hold them uncomfortably long. One close-up shot early in the film shows mother and daughter catching up on old times in a congenial way. Both faces remain in the picture, one in profile, and the other turned straight on the camera. The camera doesn't move for well over 90 seconds! The sets are beautiful as well, including strong colors like a gold painted bedroom for Charlotte and a dark red painted stairway hall. The colors literally jump off the screen at you. Very nicely done by the team at Criterion.
The audio track is mono only, in keeping with the original theatrical release of the film. The soundtrack utilizes various piano pieces, sometimes played by the characters themselves. There is a wonderful scene where Eva tries to play a very difficult, somber piano piece, in honor of her mother's arrival only to be criticized and set aside while Charlotte goes on to play the piece to perfection. This scene illustrates perfectly well, Charlotte's inability to think f anyone other than herself and how important it is for her to be seen positively by those around her, even if it means demeaning her daughter.
The extras here are few, but of very high quality. We get the typical original Swedish theatrical trailer, sure. But we also get a film commentary track by noted film historian Peter Cowie. Cowie is not only an expert on film in general, but particularly expert in all matters Bergman. He has authored many books on the subject both generally and specifically, including "Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography," "Finnish Cinema," "Icelandic Films," "Max von Sydow: from the Seventh seal to Pelle the conquerer," "Scandinavian Cinema," and "Swedish Cinema, from Ingeborg Holm to Fanny and Alexander." And let me tell you, Cowie can write! I am in the midst of his biography on Coppola and it is very well done.
He may be one of the best at offering up a detailed commentary on a film with which he is familiar. This commentary track is no exception. It is entertaining and wonderfully informative, while never boring. In other words, this is an exemplary track, which many other studios would do well to imitate. I realize there are only so many Peter Cowies in this world, but the majors need to seek them out and involve them in their productions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just about the only trouble here is the transfer. It has not been digitally restored the way Criterion handles so many of their older releases. This is no doubt due to the relative youth of the transfer elements. The film is not really that old, and I suspect the internegative used was of good, but not necessarily great, quality. The transfer suffers from some nicks and scratches, some more noticeable than others, but none of which would prevent me from highly recommending this disc. Despite the minor annoyance of these flaws, the transfer still rates very highly.
Autumn Sonata is another outstanding example of the best that DVD has to offer fans of the format. The movie is outstanding—tautly written and directed and powerfully acted. The cinematography is gorgeous and well composed. The commentary track, exemplary. This is a must have for fans of Swedish films, as a quality example of Bergman's later work. Also fans of Ingrid Bergman will want to snatch this up as it easily represents her finest and perhaps most personal work.
Criterion is acquitted of all charges. Ingrid Bergman proves herself to be one of the finest actors of her day and not just another pretty face. As a result, any burden associated with that distinction is summarily lifted from her historical shoulders. Disc and film are also acquitted wonderfully with this release. All charges dismissed!
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• Original Theatrical Trailer
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