Five hours and twenty minutes. That is the longest time commitment that I have ever given to a film, and that was the commitment I gave yesterday to watch Ingmar Bergman’s magnum opus Fanny and Alexander: The Television Version. Fanny and Alexander tells the story of the Ekdahl family as it goes from character to character highlighting their joys and their woes. While each character is given their moments to shine eventually the film ends up focusing on one subset of the family: The father Oscar, the mother Emilie, and the children Alexander and Fanny. They have the greatest amount of trials and tribulations during the several years that the film follows. With this family you have a diverse group of personalities that compliment each other very well and result in a believable relationship between the parents and children. I will refrain from saying much more regarding the plot for now just so I don’t spoil anything. So If you don’t want anything about the plot told to you, then you should stop now. But still you should know that this film is a masterpiece.
This is one of the most effective uses of an ensemble cast that I have ever seen, and this is partly due to the way that Bergman utilizes the long run time to give the viewer some perspective on each of the characters. It allows you to see both sides of all of the characters. You see them all interacting in these large family conversations in instances such as dinner, and it is there that you see the character they play for their family. Free of troubles and just happy. Those scenes are so perfectly done that it literally left my jaw dropped in sheer amazement. You have these twenty or so characters that are all talking at the same time at this large table and you have the camera moving to give you bits and pieces of each conversation. Not only is it impressive from a technical standpoint in how difficult it must have been on both the cinematographer and the actors to get that scene done properly. To make it all the more fantastic you also have the order of the shown conversations which just introduce you to all of these wonderful characters. You have the curious children, the quiet children, the rude children, the drunken adults, the proper adults, the adults hiding their true emotions, and the maids. It really seems like what it would be like to go around and watch a family interact. This isn’t a perfect family and this isn’t a highly melodramatic family. This is a real family with its good members and its bad, and the scene captures all of that.
To contrast the large set pieces with all of these characters acting the best they can muster at the dinner table, the film also follows each of the characters private lives where they are honest and cruel and insensitive. The most interesting of these scenarios comes in the form of the widowed grandmother talking to a family friend: Uncle Isak. While in the other scenes you have the grandmother as the polite, wise, and kind women who is loved by everyone and reciprocates those feelings, in this scene you have her true self. You have a women who was holding back bursting into tears around her family. You have her without the mask that she was hiding behind. And in that moment you experience her sorrows and her reality. You get a first-hand look at her loneliness and her despair with brief moments of recollection on happy moments from her past. During her shining moment you have her addressing the way that everyone, herself included, hides their true feelings. This is one of my favorite lines from the film when she says “Everyone has their part to play. Some play it recklessly while others play it with great care. I am one of the latter.” I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the exact quote but you get the gist of it. That is a recurring issue in the film; the hiding of ones inner feelings, and it is handled expertly.
The rest of the supporting characters are just as interesting. Those include both brothers: Gustav and Carl. Gustav is a temperamental playboy of sorts who openly cheats on his wife, holds a consistent mistress, and is usually very happy. Carl, on the other hand, is a businessman who lives an unhappy life with a woman he hates. He only survives off his mother allowance and even then he is still in debt. These are two of my favorite characters not only for their interesting personalities but also because of how brilliantly acted they are. The performances in this film truly are remarkable. The other supporting characters are very interesting as well but those two are the highlights to me besides two other that I will touch on later.
I suppose I should get into the main conflict in the film so Spoilers!
At the midpoint of the third act I believe is when Fanny and Alexanders father dies. Everyone is filled with sadness, grief, and fear. This is especially true for his wife and kids, and following this event they are all emotionally paralyzed. During this paralysis they all react differently. With Alexander he becomes and angry cynic. THis is a fascinating thing to watch because you just spent two hours being introduced to this innocent child and now this one event changes his personality. Fanny, while sad, is too young to truly understand the impact of what has just happened. Then you see Emilie, the widow. She is just in a place of desperation following her husbands death. She is looking for something, anything that could help. Bishop enters stage left.
The Bishop is, without a doubt, one of the cruelest and most memorable villains that I have ever seen in film. This is coming from someone who has seen rapists, serial killers, drug lords, and pimps. He is an evil man, but all villains are evil right? So what is it that makes him special? Well lets start at the beginning. He lures a recently widowed and desperate woman into marrying him with false hopes of her and her kids becoming closer not only to each other but also to god. To follow these promises he marries her and gets them to abandon everything to come and live with him. Following that he abuses the wife and the kids. He locks them up, he beats them, and he tries to turn them into the kids he wants but attempting to change who they are. When she tries to leave him he spells out why she can’t. This is because he would get her kids in a court of law no matter how she did it and he would never agree to a divorce. Now they are trapped with him in this hell. This continues for two years as they are slowly destroyed both emotionally and mentally. Alexander becomes more angry and cynical while Emilie just falls into a state of peril. All at the hands of this man who originally presented himself as a kind and caring man.
Eventually through a series of events the family first gets the kids back through the only available option: a kidnapping.This leaves Emilie alone for the time being. What follows are some of the greatest scenes in the film. You have this negotiation between the Bishop and the two brothers regarding how they can get Emilie back. It is there where you witness the height of his cruelty. While the brothers care for Emilie, The Bishop treats the kids like pieces of a game that have been taken away from him. This entire series of scenes is enthralling and extraordinarily well-written by Bergman. The last part of the scenes just before the brothers leave is where you see the Bishops true power which he refers to as his final “card”. A pregnant Emilie walks into the room, fear in her eyes, and proclaims that the entire thing was a misunderstanding and that she needs her kids back, occasionally looking back at the Bishop to see if she’s saying the right things. The look in her eyes and the look on the brothers and the Bishops face is true acting. You witness terror in Emilie, smugness in The Bishop, and shock and awe in the brothers. That is acting.
Eventually they get Emilie back and the film almost ends with the one of the same scenes that it started with. You have this big dinner celebrating the birth of Emilies child and the child of Gustav’s mistress. While everything appears similar to the first scene before all of the events occurred, everything is also so different. There is just a layer of fog on them that is the result of the emotional torture that they had all been through. That was a brilliant moment by Bergman. He shows how even after all of those things people will still act like nothing happened, and even though they may act like it didn’t they can never make it so that it actually never did. It happened and the effects of it are there to stay.
This is Bergman at his finest. This was his swan song, this was his magnum opus, this was his finale. He ended on the most beautiful note of his career.