"Fanny and Alexander," Ingmar Bergman's ambitious attempt to bid adieu to filmmaking, is a sumptuous, stirring farewell bash of a movie that is not, however, without shortcomings.
Now playing at the Jenifer 2, the movie has a text that tends to ramble and gush as the plot unfolds over a leisurely 197 minutes, and the host's powers of invention frequently go on the fritz.
"The sum total of my life as a filmmaker." That is Bergman's description of this lavish, semi-autobiographical smorgasbord of savory recollections and fishy fabrications surrounding a family of provincial theater proprietors, the Ekdahls. If it's necessary to approach "Fanny and Alexander" as the "sum total" of Bergman's career, one must conclude that the parts, especially the early parts, remain substantially greater than the whole.
The enchanting first hour or so is devoted to an evocation of Christmas Eve 1907 as celebrated by the hearty, prosperous Ekdahl clan. The setting is a provincial university town, where the Ekdahls manage a lively repertory theater company. Endowed by a late patriarch, Oscar Ekdahl, for his actress wife, Helena (Gunn Wallgren), the theater operation has continued under the management of a junior Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall). His wife, Emilie (Ewa Froling), is the company's leading lady, and the title characters, 10-year-old Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and 12-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), are their children.
After the last matinee of the annual Nativity play, the family assembles at the spacious, plush suite of grandmother Helena to carouse the evening away. Oscar, who shows signs of severe mental fatigue and failing health, has a pair of robust younger brothers. Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), a restaurateur and incorrigible philanderer, sweeps in with his corpulent wife, Alma (Mona Malm), and sternly disapproving teen-age daughter, Petra (Maria Granlund). Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), a university professor, belies a spectacular early display of ribald humor--he treats the kids to a demonstration of the amazing things he can do breaking wind--by revealing himself in private as an embittered wretch, locked into a regulation-Bergman marriage, miserable but durable.
These three fraternal branches are supplemented by sundry relatives, servants and family friends. Two other principal characters emerge from the mostly merry hubbub: Pernilla Wallgren as Maj, a cherubic girl employed as a nursemaid by Emilie Ekdahl and the freshest apple of Gustav Adolf's insatiable roving eye, and Erland Josephson as Isak Jacobi, an elderly Jew who deals in antiques and discreet loans and shares a confidential friendship with Helena Ekdahl (maiden name Mandelbaum, we're suggestively told) that grew out of a brief love affair years earlier.
The opening hour introduces this large, demonstrative gallery of characters in a warm, luxurious setting that overflows with nostalgic, turn-of-the-century charm. It's a mouthwatering holiday set piece, in part because the cooks have prepared a landscape of dishes and Sven Nykvist's cinematography perceives it with a tantalizing glamor that arouses literal hunger, too. The atmosphere recalls the period setting in "Wild Strawberries," but it's much more elaborate and convivial than any social gathering Bergman has visualized before.
Tragedy strikes soon after the Christmas party: the shaky Oscar Ekdahl suffers a fatal collapse while rehearsing the role of the Ghost in "Hamlet." His death leaves Emilie and the children vulnerable to the sinister solicitude of the local bishop, Edvard Verge'rus (Jan Malmsjo). A seductively puritanical widower, he consoles Emilie into a stifling second marriage that proves especially loathsome to the resentful Alexander and eventually requires the intervention of Isak Jacobi to effect a rescue.
And what a farfetched rescue it is, obliging Isak to become a supernaturally wily Jew. This subterfuge may inspire some heavy sighing: while Isak is unquestionably one of the Good Guys, Bergman evokes Jews as masters of black magic in a literalminded way that is almost anti-Semitic. Bergman has Isak and his confederates dabbling in manipulations that are not of this world, and more than a trifle ghoulish.
The biggest flaw in the movie is its failure to rationalize the would-be Dickensian melodrama set in the austere, menacing Verge'rus household--an environment meant to suggest deprivation after the sensual luxury enjoyed at the Ekdahls. Bergman seems to lack either the conviction or invention to portray Verge'rus as a cruel, ruthless stepparent; Verge'rus tries to be harsh but his heart isn't in it, so the tension is missing.
At the same time, Bergman hasn't developed Verge'rus as a tragic figure. Nor has he documented the creation and then dissolution of passion between the bishop and Emilie. The attraction must be powerfully erotic on both sides: Verge'rus seems haunted by the tragic deaths of a wife and two children and has been living for years in a house with dependent female relatives; Emilie's husband was evidently impotent, and the published text of the screenplay contains persuasive hints, hidden or obscured in the film itself, that the children were engendered by her lovers.
At any rate, something much more intense and sexually forthright is required of the relationship between Emilie and Verge'rus to make sense of the conflicts and keep the plot from developing rigor mortis. Bergman's onto something wrenching in the marriage of Emilie and Verge'rus, but it's too sketchy for decisive impact. A line as fierce as Emilie's, "I hate that man so violently!" takes you by surprise, since it comes out of nowhere.
Bergman's most effective resource in the middle sequences is Harriet Andersson in the role of Justina, a sneaky servant who tattles on the children. The most glorious erotic adornment of Bergman's films 30 years ago, Andersson is barely recognizable in this brilliant impersonation of a shriveled, wretched woman, compulsively picking at a scab on her hand.
At certain pivotal moments it's impossible to tell what has transpired or whether Bergman comprehends the implications of his plot. For example, you have to rub your eyes when Isak abducts the kids, because they're literally spirited out of the Verge'rus house. Once sheltered in the back of Isak's vast, baroque antique shop, Alexander seems to discover an environment even creepier than the one he escaped. Alexander ends up in the room of a mystery character called Ismael, a malign visionary of indeterminate sex, played by an actress, Stina Ekblad. Ismael purrs, "I shan't eat him up, even if he does look appetizing" and then demonstrates diabolical powers by appearing to will the boy into willing a tragic accident at the Verge'rus house.
According to Bergman, it matters little whether such a fantastic episode is believable. Maybe it happens; maybe it's a figment of Alexander's imagination; maybe it's a figment of the filmmaker's own imagination. Bergman claims to be reproducing an intuition and letting the suggestions fall where they may, but some of those suggestions just won't play and others remain inescapably cuckoo and even vicious.
By the time "Fanny and Alexander" sputters to a happy ending of sorts, Bergman's jolly Christmas party has left you with an all too familiar gnawing hunger and befuddling hangover. In the last analysis, it's farewell to the same old Bergman.