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FANNY AND ALEXANDER Review - Ingmar Bergman

Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin in Fanny and Alexander
Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Fanny and Alexander

Why Ingmar Bergman's final 'filmic film,' Fanny och Alexander / Fanny and Alexander (1982) bears its appellation is a mystery – one of many in the film – since the first titular character, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) is at best a third- or fourth-level supporting character. In fact, in the three-hour theatrical version she is not even mentioned by name for nearly an hour into the film.

Fanny and Alexander should have been called "Alexander and Fanny," or simply "Alexander," since it most closely follows two years in the life of young, handsome, brown-haired Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) – the original 'boy who sees dead people' – from 1907 to 1909.

Better yet, it should have been called "The Ekdahls," for that whole family is central to the film, especially Fanny and Alexander's beautiful blonde mother Emilie, played by Ewa Fröling, a more intellectual, sensuous, and earth-motherish version of Denise Richards – and who bears a remarkable facial resemblance to Bertil Guve, especially in the cheekbones and puffy lips. Fröling's gorgeous, deep blue eyes hold the viewer's attention much like the eyes of Liv Ullmann, who was originally offered the part but turned it down.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many things that do not make sense in Fanny and Alexander – both in the internal narrative and the external aspects of the tale. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The theatrical version won four Academy Awards, but it is the 312-minute television series that is unquestionably a great film, even though it lacks the unadorned greatness of earlier Bergman classics such as Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, and, most cogently, Scenes from a Marriage. The last title was Bergman's 1973 TV miniseries that was also released theatrically in truncated form; it's a superior film to Fanny and Alexander, especially when comparing the shorter versions.

The big-screen version of Fanny and Alexander, for instance, feels chopped up, having too many plot holes as a result of some questionable editing by Bergman. Why, for instance, does he retain any of the stand-alone scenes of Carl Ekdahl (Börje Ahlstedt, who gained fame in the I Am Curious films of Vilgot Sjöman) and his marital woes, since they go nowhere and contribute nothing to the denouement? (That character's best scene shows him farting out a burning candlestick to entertain the children. A clear example that leaving just bits of a plot thread does no good to the film.)

On the other hand, there are a number of scenes from the longer version that should never have been removed, e.g., the sequence showing Alexander's run-in with the tormenting ghosts of the daughters of the evil Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö, who played Peter, the feckless friend to Erland Josephson's Johan in Scenes from a Marriage). Or the dramatic showdown between Carl, the Bishop, and Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) after they have engineered the rescue of the children from the Bishop's home while revealing the Bishop as a philanderer who owes 110,000 kronor in debts.

Bertil Guve in Fanny and Alexander

Yet, Fanny and Alexander deserves its place in the Bergman canon, even if it does occasionally suffer from some of what can be labeled 'old artist's syndrome,' i.e., the tendency to over-sentimentalize the past. (Bergman was 64 when Fanny and Alexander was released.) What makes it work, especially in the longer version, is that it leisurely sets up the characters of the tale, without telling us any extraneous matter that is not important later in the film. There is no 'fat,' so to speak.

That approach allows non-Bergmaniacs to be lulled into the tale's more traditional narrative start – which is more emotional than intellectual – before Bergman wallops the viewer with his deep and angst-ridden themes the audiences either love or hate. A key to this transition are the primal screams that Emilie Ekdahl hurls at the cosmos when she is alone in a room with the corpse of Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall). From then on, we get the Bergman mainstays: magic, hatred, sex, suffering, atheism, perversion, monstrousness – and it all works.

In fact, in some ways Fanny and Alexander takes the best of the earlier Bergman canon and reworks it beautifully. There is the period setting akin to Wild Strawberries; there is the stench of death as in The Seventh Seal; there is the agonized preacher as in Winter Light; there is the hint of Alexander's sexual abuse – first by family nursemaid Maj (Pernilla Wallgren) and later by the freakishly androgynous Ismael (Stina Ekblad) – reminiscent of The Silence; there is the supernatural as in Hour of the Wolf and Cries and Whispers; and so on. Fanny and Alexander even opens with a shot of Alexander looking out at the audience, as does the unnamed boy at the start of Persona.

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