Saturday, 21 February 2009

Bergman's Autumn Sonata

Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata is a challenging and disturbing film with it core subject of the relationship between children with their parents and parents with their children. Sometimes, as in this film it is better if parents and children are separated by their different worlds of experience. The time is not always right for an exchange of truth, one or both may not be able to listen, digest, understand, or accept, and yet without communication there can be no progress, development and resolution.
There is always the risk of irreparable damage and in this film we are left with the likelihood that this is what happens. It is both the fault of mother and daughter, but paradoxically, it is also not their fault. Hegel and Marx were simplistic in the proposition of the juxtaposition of opposites from which there can develop a synthesis. Black White Grey co-exists on a shifting spectrum of emphasis according to internal and external forces. Everything has a casual relationship and connection, predestined, predetermined but is also random and chaotic. Everything is controllable and uncontrollable, well, so it seems to me
In this film the parent is a concert pianist, past her best, wracked with back pain and losing her best friend. She only has the piano to give her life meaning and this is now failing her or at least the recognition of her peers and public regarding her professional ability. She is like the footballer and all those whose time upon the stage has to be limited by age and fashion.
She cannot cope with one daughter who is severely disabled and ill and by the other because a gulf in understanding has widened over years of unresolved issues about which the mother appears to be unaware.
The daughter is married having lost a child of her own, but the marriage from the outset was a compromise. Her husband is a country vicar living in a beautiful location and part of a local community, accepting the knowledge that he cannot convince his wife that he loves her unconditionally. He does not know how to reach that part of her which has been locked away.
He reads from one of his wife's two books about the search for identity and her hope that through a relationship she will come to understand herself. (Never a promising basis for a long term relationship)
The daughter writes to the mother inviting her to visit, and there is genuine joy and expectation at her arrival and a longing to be understood and accepted. The first problem is that daughter is looking after the disabled sister who the mother had placed in an institution.
This leads to the first of several great lines, "I have never had a taste for people who are unaware of their motives," says the mother when she finds that her daughter has failed to disclose in advance the presence of her sister in the household, when she is aware that her mother cannot cope with sickness in general and her disabled daughter in the particular.
The daughter is unable to communicate her feelings, and what she really wants, and what she is thinking. Fortunately, the husband understands, having become integrated with his own childhood and life as it had developed, but he also despairs of being able to make his wife understand and accept his unconditional devotion to her. He also understands his wife's pent up anger with her mother.
In an attempt to impress and bridge the gulf between words, the daughter plays the piano for mother and presses her to be honest in her appraisal. Mother cannot be anything other than honest, something which in reality the daughter finds humiliating. "Human beings cannot stand too much reality," but even as this point the film gives not hint of the ferocious interaction to come.
The daughter has partially resolved the death of her child through the belief that the child continues to exist in parallel life within a reality which is beyond our capacities to understand.
The mother is a woman who understands her own needs, and has the funds to pander to them. She has a clear view of her own childhood, and the person she has become has become and of her mother. She believes she understood her daughter during childhood and has little awareness that all her perceptions are challenged by the daughter.
Look into the abyss etc and once you step through certain doorways, into some portals, there is no return
The truth as the daughter sees it emerges. "Once you said I should have been a boy," so I hated how I looked.
"I wanted you to stay, to be a proper mother but I also could not cope with you as you were."
"You had taken care of all the words in our house."
"At fourteen you took over everything when you stayed home you put all your energy into me.” "It was horrendous I still shake horror/ terror about those years." The mother tries to explain how she felt about herself, why she could not stay or return what she tried to do and was not equipped to do.
"What scared me more I thought I was going insane."
"You damaged me for life just as you are damaged."
"You tied me down because you needed my love."
"And it all took place in the name of love."
"A mother and her daughter what a terrible combination."
"The daughter shall inherit the mother's injuries."
In the daughter's unhappiness mother's triumph
I remember very little from my childhood, says mother
"Only through music did I get the chance to reveal my emotions."
"I wondered if I had ever lived at all."
"Do some people ever live?"
"I see an ugly picture of myself"
"I spent my life accumulating experience."
"I cannot remember faces even my own"
"I remember the pain of the births but not the taste of it the details"
I wanted to love you but I was afraid of your demands
You can't put all the blame on me
You always wanted excuses there can be no exceptions
I wanted you to take care of me
But I was only a child
It is one of the most excruciating honest exchanges witnessed in the cinema alongside who's afraid of Virginia Wolf and Look back in Anger.
There is a necessity and inevitability about what happens although it would have been better that it had not.
There are several levels of revelation in this film. One is the performance of Ingrid Bergman in her last role before she died of cancer five years later. Her performance is no less remarkable than that of the disabled daughter while the other daughter is played by Liv Ulman being Liv Ulman at her best. The husband's role is expertly crafted. This film is such great truth as to be unbearable. I thought this was the best of all Ingmar Bergman's until Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband. There are others which inhabit separate dimensions which are also brilliant and painfully challenging.

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