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'Fanny and Alexander' Review: Ingmar Bergman Brilliant Film

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

Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve in Fanny and Alexander
Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander

The Fanny and Alexander plot is basically as follows:

The three sons of the widowed Helena (Gunn Wållgren) are involved in local businesses and in the theater. They are Gustav Adolf, Carl, and Oscar, who is Fanny and Alexander's father, and much older than his beautiful wife, Emilie. Then there is Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the Jewish family friend and Helena's ex-lover. With his nephew Aron (Mats Bergman, the director's son), Isak runs the local puppet and magic shop in town. Aron's brother Ismael is locked away because he is either dangerous, preternaturally gifted, or both.

When Oscar suddenly dies during a rehearsal for Hamlet – whose narrative provides this tale's spine – everything changes for the worse. Bishop Vergerus insinuates himself into the life and heart of Emilie Ekdahl; a year after Oscar's death, they marry, thus dooming the two children to life under the psychotic Bishop's thumb.

In the shorter version, Emilie's reasons for this obviously ill match are never made clear, but in the longer version we early on learn that the young and beautiful Emilie has had lovers behind Oscar's back. Perhaps she feels she needs to atone for betraying her dead husband by either punishing or cleansing herself with a life of asceticism with the Bishop.

We also learn that the Bishop's first wife and two daughters drowned fifteen years earlier, possibly because of the Bishop's wrongdoing. The Bishop, in fact, turns out to be one of the great portraits of pure evil in film history, making life hell for Alexander.

It is only in the TV version that the depths and joys of the Ekdahls' is plumbed fully. There are longer sequences at the opening Christmas Eve party; a deeper exploration of Carl Ekdahl and his put-upon German wife Lydia (Christina Schollin) – their marriage, his rages, and his own business failings and debts, which mirror the flaws of the Bishop; a deeper look at Emilie's rationale, and her later hatred of the Bishop; more of life at the theater, especially a great sequence onstage with Ingmar Bergman's first film star, Gunnar Björnstrand, as actor Filip Landahl; and more of Alexander's imagination, especially in two key scenes deleted from the shorter version.

Erland Josephson, Ewa Froling in Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander offers some interesting bits of symbolism as well, and were it not for the sheer depth and power of the larger tale being woven some of it might feel a bit too heavy-handed, e.g., the barren mausoleum-like household of the Bishop vs. the red and lush interior of the Ekdahl residence. It is clear that the families approach life differently, but in a film like this such sharp contrasts are not really necessary; the characters themselves convey such differences. Inanimata need not be employed to underline what Bergman's dialogue and script so aptly do.

The marvelous five-disc DVD put out by The Criterion Collection is one of the best jobs that company has done. There is a single disc with the theatrical version, which – hallelujah! – comes with an English-language soundtrack option. That disc also features an excellent film commentary by Bergman film scholar Peter Cowie.

Cowie is often a hit-and-miss commentator, but this time he's well on target, maintaining an informed and leisurely pace throughout the film's three-plus-hour running time. Although scripted, he conveys an ease and breadth of knowledge of the film and actors that rarely gets didactic. We get helpful anecdotes, interesting insights, and even some rationales for specific scenes or artistic choices, as well as bits of trivia that will delight film fanatics.

On the downside, Cowie does make some unsupported statements, such as coming up with the chronological order of the three Ekdahl brothers, or telling us that Helena Ekdahl was half-Jewish. These are 'facts' supposedly gleaned from Bergman's notes for the film, but appear nowhere within the film's body. Also, in the scene where Oscar's ghost first reappears, Cowie claims that unlike Alexander, Fanny does not see him. Yet, Fanny has clearly seen the ghost, for she alerts Alexander to it and her eyes are as transfixed in his direction as Alexander's. These flaws are minor quibbles, however, in an otherwise top-notch commentary.

Ewa Froling in Fanny and Alexander
Ewa Fröling in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander

The television version of Fanny and Alexander comes on two discs, each with two of the four episodes (although the series is in five 'Acts'), but only with English subtitles. The second of these discs also offers a good forty-minute documentary called A Bergman Tapestry, featuring interviews with Fanny and Alexander producer Jörn Donner, production manager Katinka Farago, art director Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Schildt, and actors Bertil Guve (who now looks like a balder, thinner Guy Pearce), Ewa Fröling, Pernilla August, and Erland Josephson.

The final two discs have Bergman's acclaimed, but rather tedious and uninsightful The Making of Fanny and Alexander. The documentary simply follows scenes showing the filming process, with no real discussion or commentary by either Bergman or any of the participants. Especially in this DVD age, this "Making of" feels both self-indulgent and pointless.

On the same disc is a far more insightful hour-long 1984 Swedish television interview with Bergman called "Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film." There is also the near-requisite stills gallery, costume sketches, and a video of Anna Asp's models for the sets.

The final disc is a little treasure, featuring eleven several-minute-long insightful video snippets in which Bergman introduces many of his greatest films.

Fanny and Alexander

Now, Fanny and Alexander, while a great film – especially in its longer version – is not all that its most ardent boosters claim. First, it's not in any real way autobiographical, unlike Federico Fellini's Amarcord or François Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Bergman's life was not Alexander Ekdahl's, even though Alexander's despair, budding atheism, and pessimism are obviously parts of Bergman.

Additionally, Fanny and Alexander is not, as many bad critics claim, an 'epic.' Length is not what defines an epic, but sweep. Despite the two versions running, respectively, just over three and five hours, Fanny and Alexander is a small and highly intimate drama set over a relatively brief time period. The film is not filled with grand, sweeping vistas; instead, it explores the inner terrain of the frail human psyche, especially that of a gifted child coming to terms with religion, death, angst, hatred, and the life of the artist.

Bertil Guve in Fanny and AlexanderDespite its divergent themes, the inexplicable works – and works superbly – in Fanny and Alexander. Perhaps it is because most of the film is told from a child's point of view, which always warps reality to its own psychological needs. Or maybe it all is just a child's dream, for early on Alexander Ekdahl falls asleep. Does he ever really wake up?

Whatever interpretation one wants to apply to Fanny and Alexander, the film is essential to Ingmar Bergman's canon as it captures an equally essential bit of humanity's past – much like other superb works like Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story or Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Fanny and Alexander, in fact, will remain relevant for as long as humanity exists. After all, despite its early 20th-century Swedish setting, we all know people like the Ekdahls and the Vergeruses.

That Fanny and Alexander lets us know a bit more about ourselves is merely icing on a delicious cake, one that remains tempting even as eaten, and that gets tastier with each viewing. Having seen it thrice – both versions and the theatrical version, with comments – this claim is no mystery. Swallow it now.

© Dan Schneider

Note: This Fanny and Alexander review was initially posted in February 2007. Also, the views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

Fanny and Alexander / Fanny och Alexander (1982). Direction and Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Ewa Fröling, Börje Ahlstedt, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Gunn Wållgren, Jarl Kulle, Erland Josephson, Pernilla August, Harriet Andersson, Stina Ekblad, Mats Bergman, Gunnar Björnstrand, Lena Olin.

Fanny and Alexander photos: The Criterion Collection

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