Movie Review – Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman


At the start of the 20th century, the Ekdahl family are living a luxurious and free life. Helena is the matriarch of this clan, followed by three sons at various stages of life. Gustav is a boisterous restauranter, Oscar manages the theater Helena and her husband used to own, and Carl has fallen into ill repute as a result of a drink. The family is seen through the eyes of Oscar’s son Alexander during their last Christmas Eve as a complete unit, and then tragedy strikes. A series of rash decisions leaves Alexander and his sister Fanny in a dire situation and their family grieves while trying to find a way to reunite them all.

This was my first full Ingmar Bergman film after having glimpsed bits and pieces of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries during my college years. Much like the lauded literary canon, Bergman’s films feel like intimidating tomes that require in-depth study. Well, I felt that way before watching this movie, and still sort of feel that way. These are works of film that exist between cinema and theater. It is undeniable that Bergman was forced to cut so much from the original television series version of this story. A little supplemental reading led me to find out there was much more magical realism in the televised episodes compared to what ended up on the screen.

Flights of fancy are one of the core themes in the picture. In the opening scene, Alexander pulls away layers of backgrounds in a small cardboard theater toy. With the last segment, his face is revealed. He wanders around the house they share with his grandmother looking for everyone. Hiding under the dining room table, he watches a nude bust in the corner that suddenly moves with life. For the rest of the film, Alexander encounters hidden spirits and has almost mystical experiences. These experiences can be read as the young man’s interpretations of life as it happens around him, the last remnants of his childhood imagination as he moves into adulthood. The figures that captivate his imagination are all possible role models for himself as a man: his father Oscar, the bishop Edvard, and the Jewish moneylender/antiques dealer Isak. His interactions with each man are surrounded by brushes with the supernatural. Oscar gives a speech on Christmas Eve about the power of the theater to pull people out of the ordinary and into a world of the fantastic and this is mainly Bergman making a thesis statement.

Conflicting with the exploration of the mystic is an examination of religion, particularly the Lutheran system practiced by Edvard and his family. Christianity is presented in the opening, during a Nativity play, and that scene, as well as the subsequent celebration in the Ekdahl home, is filled with life and a sense of joy. Parallel that with Edvard’s house where all color and light has been banished for a more ascetic existence. There are strict modes of routine and Edvard’s will is the final one in the home, stated as a delivery of the will of God. There is a third element I expect is explored in more detail in the television version, Isak, and his Judaism. Isak appears to invoke a sort of Kabbalistic power at one point that allows him to pull off a time sensitive plan.  And later, Alexander explores his antique shop at night having an encounter with a puppet of Yahweh and a strange conversation with a Satanic figure.

Finally, there is the element of family conflict, underscored by the fact that the family’s theater is in the midst of putting on a production of Hamlet. We see only one scene during rehearsal, and that is the meeting between Hamlet and his father’s ghost, a very prophetic moment that will play itself out through the remainder of the film. Alexander definitely has his own Hamlet experience in life, but there are other interesting smaller stories about family dynamics. The eldest brother Gustav has an incredibly progressive marriage where his wife Alma encourages his extramarital affairs and doesn’t seem to have any problem when he impregnates another woman, she welcomed in as part of the family. Alma still enjoys a very vigorous sex life with Gustav, but we don’t get a very deep exploration of her own sexuality. On the flipside, there is Carl who, in the film version, barely has his drunkenness touched upon. It’s obvious his condition has caused problems in his marriage, but the film is never able to explore that fully.

My one big disappointment with the picture was the absence of any real voice for Fanny. She is Alexander’s younger sister and shares the title with him, yet she barely has any presence, at least in the theatrical cut. There are a handful of moments in Edvard’s home where we see the hint of her character coming up to the surface, but the film remains purely from Alexander’s point of view. We do get a considerable amount of story from the points of view of Helena, the grandmother, and Emilie, Alexander’s mother though. The end of the film has them in late night conversation bringing up the fact that they are now the heads of the household, regarding eldest son Gustav as a kind and charming grown boy.

Fanny and Alexander is not a light film, yet becoming enclosed in its world felt effortless. During Oscar’s Christmas Eve speech he describes the theater as the “little world,” a place that ordinary people come to both to lose themselves in fantasy but also to be reminded of truths about reality. He says the theater can be more real than reality in many instances. This film feels the same ways, a jumble of ideas and characters and plots, confusing and poignant, but ultimately very very real.

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