Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata," opening today at White Flint, is a dubious variation on familiar neurotic themes. If anything, Bergman places an insupportable strain on his customary inconsolable tune by presenting a new note of accusatory self-pity, indulged in by a resentful child at the expense of an allegedly negligent parent. At its worst this movie sounds like the ideal entertainment for the guy who recently sued his parents on grounds of mental cruetly.
Nevertheless, one can be impressed by Bergman's instrumentalists while rejecting his composition. The first movie to costar Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, as well as the first occasion on which Bergman has directed Bergman, "Autumn Sonata" enjoys instant status as an acting showcase.
Bergman's casting coup lives up to expectations. Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann invest their roles with undeniable emotional conviction and impact. These high-powered, spell-binding actresses are a pleasure tow atch. Unlike Ellen Burstyn and Melino Mercouri in 'A Dream of Passion.' Bergman and Ullmann compete on equal terms, drawing on comparable imaginative and technical resources. Moreover, Bedgman and cinematogropher Sven Nykvist impose the sort of concentrated, intimate pictorial scheme that inspries rapt attention by relying on the expressivr range of the performances in sustained close-ups.
The movie is arguably worth enduring for the sake of the director's most ingeniously orchestrated sequence. A celebrated concert pianist named Charlotte, Ingrid Bergman, arrives for a brieg visit at the home of her daughter Eva, a country parson's wife, played by Ullmann. Dowdy, anxious Eva has referred apologetically to her own playing and sits down at the family Steinway to struggle through the opening of a Chopin prelude.
While Eva plays, her mother's face reflects a complex interplay of emotions, culminating in an impression of sincerely affectionate solicitude. Unreasonably craving praise, Eva sets herself up for a crusher by insisting that Charlotte demonstrate her interpretation of the passage. Charlotte acquiesces, and the difference is overwhelming. Anyone less vain than Eva might appreciate the demonstration as a privileged moment, revealing how much thought and feeling an artist can devote to her work.
Since she's fedding her resentment, Eva responds to Charlotte's commentary and playing with an expression of dumbly smoldering hatred. Ullmann is phenomenal at projecting the stolid ugliness that can deface a personality overcome by feelings of inferiority and self-pity. She doesn't overdo it, but her eyes begin to dilate and her mouth to slacken in a way that seems peculiarly terrifying. Slowly modulating from shy anxiety, she begins to resemble something vaguely subhuman - a stricken, helpless beast of burden.
Whether such privileged moments of acting intensity compensate for the weirdly partisan emphasis of the text is a moot point. The idea of recriminatory conflict between mother and daughter seems fair enough, but Bergman declines to play fair. For reasons that may or may not be worth speculating about, he seems to endorse all of Eva's undocumented assertions about her mother's alleged neglect and indifference.
Charlotte's egotism seems a cliche rather than a reality.Bergman contradicted himself in "Wild Strawberries" when he tried to pretend that the old doctor, played by Victor Sjostrom, who looked sublimely compassionate in his old age, had been living a life stunted by selfishness. It didn't play then, and its doesn't play now on a facial landscape as proud and sensitive as Ingrid Bergman's.
What could Bergman have in mind when he compels Charlotte to acknowledge Eva's accusations and ask her forgiveness only to have Eva respond with mad self-righteousness, "There can be no forgiveness"? The late Louis B. Mayer would certainly have been appalled by such childish impertinence, and his outrage would have been justified. Bergman overloads the case in a way that makes it easier to believe Eva is a sick girl than that Charlotte is a self-centered mother.
It hasn't been enough for Bergman to let Eva castigate her mother for making her emotional cripple. There's another daughter upstairs - a physiological cripple played by Lena Nyman, who was the heroine of "I Am Curious (Yellow)" back in anothe era.
While the articulate daughter takes out her spite on poor bewildered the country, she'll be a bigger chumpbles out of her crib to crawl along the floor and shriek garbled cries of "Mama!"
Although the evidence remains absurdly murky, Charlotte keeps taking the rap for all the misfortunes that seem to have befallen her hapless daughters. The only trick Bergman seems to overlook is blaming Charlotte for the drowing death of Eva's little boy.
After making a rather imposing case for permanent estrangement, Bergman has the gall to drop a hint of reconciliation, presumably on Eva's despotic terms, at the fadeout. If Charlotte accepts her daughter's second invitation for a little respite in the country, she'll be a bigger chump than she ought to be.
One should, no dount, smell a rat when Eva's ineffectual mate introduces his wife in the opening sequence and confides her philosophy of life: "One must learn to live. I practice every day. My biggest obstacle is I don't know who I am." Eva's method of heaping abuse on Charlotte looks like a swell way of preserving and nurturing that ignorance.