Autumn Sonata Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Utterly Sad and Nearly Perfect

A wonderful portrayal of these characters and of life.
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Our monthly Foreign Film Night is typically very sparsely attended.  This is not unexpected as one cannot plan for a lot of people in small-town West Tennessee to come to a showing of a very old, expressionist German film about a child murderer, or b-grade Norwegian ninja flick.  I think about it a lot though, and how we might get more attendees.

One problem is that I think when most Americans think of foreign cinema they think of European art-house fare, which is to say they think the films are difficult, intellectual, arty, and incomprehensible.  That isn't fair, of course as their are literally foreign films in every conceivable genre and type - from Asian action movies to broad French comedies, foreign films are often just like American ones only in different languages.  Of course, there are incomprehensible art-house films as well, but that's not what our Foreign Film Nights are about.  Well, not always.

This year we've watched three different Ingmar Bergman films and he is the very epitome of intellectual, arty, and difficult.  Also brilliant, emotional, and moving. This month was Autumn Sonata.  It is all those things, and more.

After seven years of estrangement, Eva (Liv Ullman) invites her mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) to stay with her and her husband (Halvar Björk.) Her mother agrees and the reunion is at first merry.  The two embrace, kiss, and speak kind pleasantries to one another.  Charlotte speaks of the recent death of her husband and how difficult life has been without him.  Eva is the very picture of understanding.  They get along so well and even discuss Charlotte permanently living with them.

Then Eva drops a bomb.  It seems that her sister Helena (Lena Nyman) has been living with them for some time.  Helena has some type of degenerative disease which has left her bedridden and unable to take care of herself. She had been placed in a home many years ago but Eva and her husband decided she would be better of with them, unbeknownst to Charlotte.  With this information the mood immediately changes.  The warmth leaves Charlotte's voice and her body language is suddenly sullen. She asks why Eva did not tell her and the response is frank - I know you wouldn't come, she says.  Terse words are spoken and then Charlotte does her duty, she visits with Helena.

It is a testament to the acting abilities of both the character and Ingrid Bergman that though moments earlier Charlotte was seething with anger over the news of Helena being there once she opens the door to Helena's room she is nothing but excited, happy, and teeming with emotion.  Charlotte dotes on her daughter, lavishing her with kisses and kindnesses.  Helen speaks with great difficultly and it is up to Eva to translate for her.  Again Charlotte changes, but ever so slightly.  Outwardly, she is still all smiles and kindness but behind the eyes we can see disappointment.  It as if she is asking the gods why.  How could someone so beautiful, so talented, a world renowned artist in fact, how could she give birth to such a wretched creature?  What a disappointment she is.  She tries not to show this dark mood to the children but we can see it, we know the horror she feels at her own daughter's disease. For the rest of the film, we never see Charlotte visit with or really even discuss Helena again.

The mood, as well, stays spoiled.  Oh, Charlotte and Eva try to remain pleasant.  They attempt to stay on good terms, but there is no going back now.  There is a wonderful scene in which Charlotte talks her daughter into playing the piano for her.  When she is finished, the mother has generic kind words for her, but Eva pushes for a real critique and gets it.  Charlotte sits at the piano and note by note demonstrates her superiority.  The shot is in close-up, just on the two faces of the actresses.  Eva stares at her mother with an intensity while Charlotte concentrates on the music but again you can see just beyond the surface a feeling of anger and irritation at her offspring's inability to rise to her level.

There is a discussion between Charlotte and Eva's husband in which he admits that Eva does not love him, nor ever did.  He seems to accept this as part of life.  She told him before they married that she was not capable of love, but he married her anyways.  From what we can see they live - if not happily - then with a certain contentment, and acceptance that live does not always offer anything more then the staving off of disaster.

One night Charlotte cannot sleep and so she sits quietly in the living room.  Eva comes down and they begin to talk.  It is a long talk - lasting through the night and one fraught with emotion.  As the night creeps on Eva opens up to her mother letting her know how abandoned she has felt all of these years.  How she never felt loved.  How her entire life has been shaped and damaged by her own mother never really being there for her.  There is a long monologue in which Eva screams at her mother, punishing her ruthlessly with her tongue for fifteen minutes.  Charlotte takes it all, sorrowful, repentant even, but she takes it standing.  Surely she was not all that awful she says.  What about the summer when she could not tour because of her back.  Wasn't she a good mother then?  No, says Eva, you overcompensated by trying to hard to be a part of every moment of my life.  You didn't ask me what I wanted; you didn't let me breathe.

Still, the night wears on and the two let out all the feelings, all the hate.  It is a long, tense scene.  Superbly acted and built.  It is a very Ingmar Bergman-bit of filmmaking: small, simple, revealing, and completely, utterly draining.  The film ends with cut scenes showing Charlotte back at her life, traveling by train to another engagement with her manager and Eva still at home, trying to pick up the pieces.

It is a difficult, exhausting film that gives no answers.  These two characters do not change, nor make-up like they might in movies by lesser directors.  There may be catharsis, but in the end all the hurt and suffering remain.  Still, it is a wonderful portrayal of these characters and of life.  Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted.  An important film.  Though not one I'll watch again anytime soon.  I think I'll stay away from Bergman in our film night for awhile as well.

For the Blu-ray, they've given the image a new 2K digital restoration with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack and they've loaded it with special features.  For the most part, the film looks gorgeous.  The colors are bright and clear; the detail precise and exact.  However in some of the close-ups (and there are a lot of close-ups) the video suffers from aliasing in multiple moments as the backgrounds vibrate every so slightly.  It wasn't so distracting that it made me lose my connection to the film, but it was distracting enough that I commented on it several times.  Usually Criterion films are so carefully restored that I was frankly quite upset they had missed these moments. But again other than that, the film looks great.

The sound is clear and smooth, though this is almost entirely a chamber piece with people simply talking (or occasionally yelling) and so it's not something to give your speakers a workout.

As usual, Criterion does a thorough job with the extras.  There is a brief introduction from Ingmar before the film.  Interestingly, it seems that it was a difficult shoot with Ingrid, who apparently gave a poor start with her acting, but eventually was able to correct it and create a memorable performance.  Also, she questioned nearly everything about the film, which was just her way of coming to a film, but it seems to have driven Ingmar crazy.  There's an interesting audio commentary from Bergman expert Peter Cowie.  Also there is a new interview with Liv Ullman and and old one with Ingrid Bergman, and a nice booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme. 

The major extra is a three and a half hour (that's nearly twice the length of the film) documentary on the film.  I hesitate to call it a documentary as there are none of the usual talking heads, or edited togetherness of your typical documentary.  Rather this is simply putting a camera in the room throughout the production from the extensive rehearsals to set and costume designs to the final shooting of the film.  There is no commentary other than what is being said by those on the screen with no reaction to the camera itself.  Its length and style makes it a bit obtuse for all but the biggest Bergman fans.  But for those with a little patience it is a fascinating glimpse at how this master filmmaker created this incredible film.

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