Friday, April 12, 2013

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Fanny och Alexander, Sweden/France/West Germany, 312 minutes
Director/writer: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Sven Nykvist
Music: Daniel Bell
Editor: Sylvia Ingemarsson
Cast: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Gunn Wallgren, Allan Edwall, Jarl Kulle, Borje Ahlstedt, Ewa Froling, Christina Schollin, Mona Malm, Jan Malmsjo, Erland Josephson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Kerstin Tidelius, Emelie Werko, Marianne Aminoff, Lena Olin, Pernilla August, Harriet Andersson

Ingmar Bergman's announced final film—he would actually make many more movies for Swedish television, including Saraband in 2003—is a colossal formal banquet of a movie, with many courses and a fine table. The long version (the one to see) rambles at its ease between the church, streets, theater, and homes of Uppsala, a small but growing Swedish city in 1907. Across winter and summer holidays, Bergman's deeply complex stories and film penetrate the tormented and banal lives it observes easily and naturally. Riffing on the profile of a bourgeois extended northern European family, much in the vein of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks for an earlier era, it is plainly the work of a master, a clinic in how to turn many sharply observed small elements into a fine movie.

Interestingly, it's not even the first time Bergman released a very good long picture theatrically, with a far superior and even longer version in the wings just behind it (in the U.S., at any rate). The first was Scenes From a Marriage, from 1973, which I think is even better than Fanny and Alexander. But Fanny and Alexander is the one that gets pride of place in surveys such as the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, where it presently sits at #57 (compared with #360 for Scenes). I suspect this is because Fanny and Alexander is more overtly and even self-consciously literary in its ambitions, applying itself equally to sumptuous Christmas celebrations, familiar rotting church-inflected corruptions of the soul, and plain old ghost stories, Henry James style. Potential spoilers ahead.

Over the years, it's the Christmas celebration that's tended to stick with me most indelibly about Fanny and Alexander, remembering set pieces such as when the extended family and servants clasp hands and snake in a line through the house as they sing—joy rendered perfectly, a scene I love. The first section, "The Ekdahl Family Celebrates Christmas" by name, runs longer than 90 minutes, the longest of the five by far (I'm not sure of the specific times for the shorter, 188-minute theatrical release, but my sense from recent viewings is that proportions are basically the same).

This first section introduces the principals, catching up with them on Christmas Eve and staying with them for their elaborate feast and rituals and celebration through the night all the way to Christmas morning (among other things, this is also one of the great foodie movies of all time, with multiple eating occasions). It overflows with comforting images of middle-class Christmas customs, obviously somewhat antiquated, but still familiar, resonant, and evocative: trimmed trees, wrapped packages piled under them, a church Christmas pageant, strange and hilarious food and dining traditions. It is effectively, and amazingly, charged with love.

The Ekdahl clan, with servants, is huge, consisting at its core of Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren), the doting matriarch, with her three sons—Oscar (Allan Edwall, a beautifully expressive face), Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), and Carl (Borje Ahlstedt)—and their wives and various children, two of which, by Oscar and Emilie (Ewa Froling), are the 8-year-old Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and 10-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve) of the title.

While Fanny and Alexander are central to everything that happens, and usually quietly right in the middle of it, they are more like the still center of a storm, behaving largely as I think most children would, in both the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances they encounter. This helps ground the story, setting the startling forays into fantasy in sharper relief. Part of the genius of the screenplay, also by Bergman, is that it effectively makes no one or two or three characters the focus but rather ingeniously contrives to make the larger family itself, in all its thrumming, writhing collisions of individual personalities and failings, the central character.

In fact, because there are so many, with such rich backgrounds and stories, it still feels almost just a little underdeveloped, which is a remarkable feat for a movie that runs more than five hours. One reason I prefer the long version, for example, is because the story of the brother Carl, a failing alcoholic academic, and his German wife Lydia (Christina Schollin) and their pitiful shambles of a marriage, opens up the dimensions of the family remarkably with the addition of a few more skillfully rendered scenes. In the theatrical version I think Carl's spectacular farting is all that's most memorable about him. But there is much more to him. I also noticed the last time I looked, as another example, that we learn very little about the children of Gustav Adolf and his wife Alma (Mona Malm), the latter yet one more brilliant performance and character in a picture studded with them.

This is all aided in no small part by two hugely important elements: a dazzling cast and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. If I were going to point to the star attractions in this smorgasbord I would start with Ewa Froling, Gunn Wallgren, and another character and performance I haven't mentioned yet, Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo). (There's also a typically excellent performance from Erland Josephson as Isak Jacobi, "the Jew," but I don't want to get sidetracked here.) The showdowns between and various turns by Froling and Malmsjo tend to be the points in this epic where the tension is most ratcheted and the narrative perfectly riveting. I'm one who tires quickly of Bergman's too-frequent resort to childhood and/or sexual abuse as plot device across the body of his work, but here it is handled very well indeed. Froling and Malmsjo utterly occupy their doomed roles.

Wallgren, on the other hand, as the soft-hearted matriarch Helena, brings a warm and human touch, a kind of emotional guide-star. She gets weepy and sentimental on Christmas Eve. "The happy, splendid life is over, and the horrible, dirty life engulfs us," she says through her sobs. Then a few minutes later she cheers up again, smiling at the thought of someone. At one point she says she loved her career as an actress, but secretly preferred being a mother. The expression on her face in a quick cut in the devastating funeral march tells us everything we need to know and feel about the death of Oscar. Wallgren's performance is one that just seems to get better and better.

The whole thing does. As with another big-movie favorite of mine, Nashville (though very different), I get the feeling that Fanny and Alexander could be twice its present size, 10 hours, or even twice that, and it would still be fascinating, every minute.

Top 10 of 1982
I reckon 1982 among the better single years in a decade that seems to me now a lot more lackluster than it did as I was living through it. No accounting for taste, maybe. At any rate, the top 10 is certainly solid, though it tends to taper off some after #8. Indeed, I feel so good about everything from the year otherwise that three of the movies in the "didn't like so much" list I actually do like (talking about Diner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and The Year of Living Dangerously). It's just that everything else made a little better impression. They may well have underwhelmed me because others have been so outspokenly partisan about them. Go figger, as a friend is wont to put it. Another day in the life of the contrarian. Also, I really should see Eating Raoul again. That means there's only one stinker I'm sure about.
1. Fanny and Alexander
2. The King of Comedy
3. Blade Runner
4. Poltergeist
5. Burden of Dreams
6. Veronika Voss
7. Tootsie
8. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
9. Liquid Sky
10. Quest for Fire

Didn't like so much: Diner, Eating Raoul, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, The Year of Living Dangerously

Gaps: The Draughtsman's Contract, Missing, On Top of the Whales, The State of Things, The Verdict

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