Ingmar Bergman, a fairly depressed fellow, has spent his life sharing his angst with film-goers. And now, in what he says will be his last picture show, he has cheered up, relatively speaking. "Fanny and Alexander," an elaborately set and lovingly photographed fairytale, rummages in the auteur's early autobiography. It's as grim as "Hansel and Gretel," as bountiful as Scrooge redeemed -- an orally fixated Swedish swinger's "Christmas Carol" set in 1907 Uppsala, Bergman's native town.
We see it through the eyes of Alexander -- the pensive Bertil Guve, portrait of the artist as a young man. We gorge on laden boughs, red-velvet skirts and groaning tables. Everyone seems about to burst from over-indulgence. Bodices about to pop. Wiggling, giggling maids pass platters. A gross uncle passes gas. There's excess aplenty: hundreds of extras, 197 minutes of film with themes and scenes, layers and players. Bergmania: "The sum total of my life as a filmmaker," says the director.
The story, a year in the life of the theatrical Ekdal family, opens at the mansion of matriarch Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren), celebrating the season with her three sons: Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), Gustav (Jarl Kulle) and Oscar (Allan Edwall); their wives, mistresses and children. It takes an hour to sort them out.
But if there is a star of this likable lot, it's the sensual Ewa Froling -- a laughing Liv Ullmann -- as Emilie, wife of the ineffectual Gustav and mother of Fanny and Alexander. Emilie's the star, but Alexander controls the mood, sometimes letting his imagination conjure plot. Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), his eight-year-old sister, is Alexander's silent partner, a tiny version of a Bergman woman, with strength in her face and a breakdown in her future. Her stubborn stance and wide-eyed silence fill the film with wordless, filial devotion.
Emilie headlines in the family theater with the ineffectual Gustav, whose favorite role is the ghost in "Hamlet." His collapse during a rehearsal and transmigration to real haunts signal the beginning of plot and motion. The widowed Emilie, with a child's pouty lips and less strength than Fanny, flirts with piety, seeking sex and salvation in the arms of Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo).
But it's ashes for Cinderella and gruel for the stepchildren. Vergerus beats Alexander and locks Emilie in her room. Yet the visualizations in Vergerus' austere household allow for some of the most memorably framed and accented sequences in the film, photographed by Bergman's longtime colleague Sven Nykvist.
Harriet Andersson, once a sexy Bergman leading lady, leaves an ever-after image of a tattletale maid who gains the children's trust and then reports their behavior to the bishop. She imagines the house is eating her. A doorknob has chewed off the skin on her hand, she says, and picks it bloody. No wonder -- the whole household is starving, except for a fat, leprous step-aunt. Bergman will be Bergman, after all.
A rebellious Alexander has begun to see his father's ghost, now less speechy but no less inept despite his angel-white linen suit. Emilie is pregnant, and her enormous, bountiful belly recalls the joy and largess of her life with the Ekdahls. Heaven can wait: She wants to escape.
Well, fairytales don't have unhappy endings. And just as Bergman, it would seem, ditches any unhappy memories he may have had as a clergyman's kid, so Alexander, Fanny and Emilie escape Vergerus with the aid of a magical Jew (Erland Josephson).
The Ekdahls reunite in a festival, as short and bright as summer in Sweden, with garlands of lilacs and two new babies -- the servant Maj's illegitimate daughter by Oscar and Emilie's little girl. Rebirth. Summer smiles. The magic flute trills.
"Fanny and Alexander" is happy if sometimes heavy-handed. It's a Bergman film for those who can't stand Bergman or subtitles. And for devotees, there are many allusions to other films. It's like going through an old man's scrapbook and reading the notices. FANNY AND ALEXANDER -- At the Jenifer..