AUTUMN SONATA - White Flint
Ingrid Bergman has said that "Autumn Sonata" will be her last film, and it's no wonder. Splendid as she still is, her age naturally suggests that she play somebody's mother, and the amount of flak mothers have to take in dramatic works these days is unbelievable.
Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata" is a pure Child's Garden of Grudges. Without wishing him any ill, as grandmothers used to say, may his own daughter, who appears briefly in the film, be absorbing this lesson in how to blame a parent for absolutely everything.
Ingrid Bergman plays a glamorous concert pianist who's lured to the country personage where her daughter, played by Liv Ullmann, and son-in-law have promised to pamper her on a much-needed holiday. Well! Once she walks into that trap, it's merely a matter of hours before the dowdy daughter lets loose a torrent of accusations.
In the scene that sets this off, the daughter shows off her own uninspired piano-playing. The mother properly takes this as a family effort at entertainment, and professes to enjoy it. However, the daughter keeps goading her to say how she would do it differently and, charmingly explaining that she has been "45 years working on these preludes - and they still hold secrets from me," the mother gives her professional rendition. In a facial close-up, we watch the daughter's expression turn to hate. There goes Mama, again, showing her up.
This inspires her to let it all out: Mama was ignoring her and devoting all her attention to her music, Mama was driving her crazy by devoting too much concentrated attention to her. Mama made Papa unhappy. Mama and sister sick, Mama is emotionally crippled, Mama is incapable of love, etc. After a night of this, Mama understandably hightails it out of there and gets back on the concert circuit. But - and this is the great dishonesty of the film - first Mama owns up to all these crimes and begs forgiveness, even timidly offering the excuse that she is the way she is because her Mama didn't . . .
But Bergman and Ullmann have thrown themselves so thoroughly into their characterizations that another reality, invisible to the characters they play but tantalizingly available to the viewer, suggests itself. When you look at the mother's record, you find that she has led a professionally successful life in an art where expression of feeling is crucial, that her husband had worshipped her and been lost without her and that she has had many lifetime relationships of friendship and love. Although the daughter accuses her of having caused the degenerative illness of the other daughter by her neglect, multiple sclerosis is not generally believed to be the result of mothers' going off to work; and the accusation that she is "afraid of sickness" ignores the fact that she has just nursed her lover of 18 years through a terminal illness.
What about the daughter? She is seen as caring because she has taken in her declining sister and communes regularly with her own dead son, but the fact is that she is tight-lipped and hard-souled. If she can attribute her sister's M.S. to their mother, what about her part in the drowning of her four-year-old son? Presuming that pure accidents do not occur in symbolic movies, she seems a more likely candidate for the accusation of child neglect, and yet nobody suggests this. Probably because there doesn't seem to be any way of blaming this on Mama, who wasn't there at the time.
Also, she's a lousy piano player.
It's ironic that Ingmar Bergman (this film's credits recall The New Yorker cartoon, "If you don't know the difference between Angela Davis and Adelle Davis, how can there be an us?") has such a reputation for psychological depth that he can shovel on this dated, whiny trash without even bothering to make it internally consistent. The daughter's plea is for love and acceptance - her mother should have loved her for what she really was. But the entire movie backs her up in rejecting the mother for what she really is - because, for all her human faults, she is such a huge success.