Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander ★★★★½

Fanny and Alexander is a particularly special film. It was intended to be the final film from one of cinema’s greatest ever auteurs, the great Ingmar Bergman. It is considered among many (myself included) as the best Christmas film and the best Bergman film. And, it is one of my favourite films of all time. In fact, this is the first time I will have reviewed a film in my top four favourites.

This is essentially the culmination of Bergman’s work. As is true in Kurosawa’s Dreams, or Fellini’s 8½ or Tarkovsky’s Mirror, this is Bergman’s most personal film, exploring the fundamental and thematic aspects of his career with such tender sensitivity and wit.

There are three central themes which can be applied to almost all of Bergman’s work, and which are essential to the fundamental core of Fanny and Alexander: death, religion and women. Bergman addresses these themes an older and aged man. And he approaches them in a different way. There is no toil or anguish in his ponderings. Bergman is no longer concerned with answers, and now finds solace; solace in the ‘little world’. Fanny and Alexander is a reflection. It’s a reflection on past films and on past troubles. The characters in the film are linked very closely to Bergman himself. This is quite clearly an attempt by Bergman to return to and reflect on his career and himself.

The film is  focused on the titular character of Alexander Ekdahl, and his wading through the passage of life; his imagination and thoughts, his fears and prejudices, his joys and struggles. His initial life in the Ekdahl house with a severely flawed, yet ultimately loving family is starkly contrasted after his father’s death and his mother’s marriage to an evangelical bishop, where a newfound strict conservatism and ruthless efficiency plagues his life. It is in Alexander, a child, that Bergman may perhaps present his explorations in their purest form. 

And the character of Alexander, in the fact that he carries so much of Bergman’s fundamental philosophical aspects, manages to hold a significant amount of complexity. His child-like imagination is challenged by the death of his father and his subsequent change in lifestyle. He challenges the Bishop at every turn and becomes cunning and cynical to spite the harsh evangelism which is trying to do the opposite to him. In the innocence and not yet altered nature of a mere child, Bergman explores the relationship between man and religion and man and God. It is difficult to navigate the character of Alexander, for everything about him is complex. But Bergman approaches him, despite the fact he is a child, with the same beautiful and subtle nuance and sensitivity given to the greatest of characters. There is an understanding here, of the complexities of the child and yet the simultaneous simplicity of it all. 

But the complexity of Fanny and Alexander is facilitated by a massive cast of equally complex and nuanced characters, all facing similar issues to Alexander, but at different stages of life and under different circumstances. Under the genuine harmony and affection of the family, lies deep-rooted prejudices and insecurities that plague all humans. And yet Bergman does not present these prejudices and insecurities with a seething irony, but with a wisdom and understanding.

The matriarch of the family, Helena, is seemingly controlling and domineering, yet is desperately nostalgic and fears ageing, her immense love for her family ultimately driving her. Her son, Carl, is drunken and reckless and abusive to his ever-loving wife despite the intellectual image he tries to portray. His aching self-loathing makes for one of the very strongest scenes in the film. Her other son, Gustv Adolf is flirtatious and adulterous, and deeply insecure of how others may perceive him as being an idiot, these flaws impeding on the life of one of his mistresses, Maj. And her final son Oscar, father of Fanny and Alexander’s meek pride is what leads to his untimely death. The family thrives however, despite these flaws and specifically despite them. It is the genuine affection that this family shared for one another which ultimately matters. Their flaws are spited by the charm of their familial unit, their devotion to a small theatre, the ultimate love they possess for one another. It makes the first sequence of this film, a Christmas party, where all these dynamics are so beautifully examined by Bergman, so pleasant to experience.

It is when Fanny and Alexander’s widowed mother, Emelie marries the bishop, Edvard, that this stark contrast is initiated. His unwavering authoritarian conservatism and complete, unreasonable neglect of previous joys greatly juxtaposes their previous lifestyle, the film becoming cruel and cold.

But even the cruel and controlling character of Edvard is not trivialised by Bergman. Many people who see Fanny and Alexander will point to him as a tyrannical and callous man who perverts the word of God and is undeserving of empathy. And yet Bergman still adds layers of empathy to his character. He believes what he is doing is moral, and that his harsh punishments are displays of love - of which he genuinely possesses for the children. It is this philosophy of life which perverts him as opposed to the other way around. His monologues towards the end are genuinely endearing and it his evil presentation is certainly perpetuated and enhanced through the perception of Alexander. 

It is the characters who appear as most unconcerned with the thoughts and troubles of life, such as the Ekdahl’s Jewish family friend Isak and his nephews, or Gustav Adolf’s unconditionally loving and understanding wife Alma, or even Fanny, who appear to be the most content. Those who do not concern themselves with the petty toils of the ‘big world’, but merely concentrate their humble selves on that which they may love despite this, are most rewarded by life. Bergman approaches these essential thematic elements of his entire career through the eyes of a curious and developing child, and quenches these with the wisdom and indifference of an old man. God is present in this film, and there is a constant life in everything, as if God breathes through the entirety of the film, whether it be big or small, but he exists almost as a way to outwardly confuse this big world and endear us towards that which matters on a smaller and personal scale. There is a blurred line between Alexander’s imagination and God, and frankly the ultimate truth of this is irrelevant. For this all still leads to the same conclusion that we need only concern ourself with local, personal matters - and through those, we may gain a better understanding of this bigger world. 

It is evident that this is the quintessential Bergman film in its maturest form. There is a humble beauty found in how despite personal and universal adversity, this ‘little world’ persists as a pure indulgence and reflection of life. In simple pleasure, life’s most essential elements may be found. I suppose this is above all a humanist film, tender and understanding, witty and mature and perhaps maturely immature as well. This is an endlessly beautiful narrative with excellent dialogue and complex characters, extremely well-written.  The only real issue I have with Fanny and Alexander’s screenplay regards more-so the production than the writing itself. This is after all, the incomplete film version and not the television production. Over two hours of what was in the mini series is missing and it is evident in the character of Carl, whose character isn’t developed upon once established. There should perhaps also have been more time dedicated to the transition of Gustav Adolf’s character and his coming to appreciate the ‘little world’. As I said, these are not issues with the writing itself, rather the severe cutting down which the film version had to endure. Still, nothing feels obtuse or trivial and this is one of cinema’s greatest stories by one of its greatest artists.

The cinematography of Fanny and Alexander is immense. The layered framing makes for some of cinema’s most beautiful compositions in an effortlessly spontaneous style. Nykvist is all over this, with simplistic yet immaculately composed wide shots, and of course, his familiar observation of the face, creating facial compositions of equal quality. There are some beautiful intimate insert shots as well, giving the atmosphere it’s aforementioned liveliness. The more simplistic and objective framing at Edvard’s home is a large factor in the film’s contrast from home to home.

This is further accommodated by the mise en scène. The intimacy of the framing is achieved through the placement and utilisation of set design and props. In the Ekdahl home, the underlying life and vibrancy can be found in how the camera interacts with the home itself and its contents. The intimacy of each scene is fully accommodated by the mise en scène, as it is by the lighting. The hard, bold lighting of the Edvard’s home contrasts the softer and more vibrant lighting of the former setting. Of course, facial composition is also very intertwined with lighting, and the lighting certainly plays a large part in that as well. Especially towards the end, shadowing is utilised extremely well.

Another cinematographical quality which is very prevalent in Fanny and Alexander is how the camera moves, which it does constantly. It’s not necessarily noticeable, but it’s not intended to be. Especially towards the end of his career, Sven Nykvist’s cinematography gained an air of spontaneity to it. The camera tracks the characters with such ease, relative to both to them and the mise en scène. The intimacy is achieved with the camera movements, how it moves with such nuance. The way the camera moves perfectly supplements the screenplay. These movements can also, when suited be playful such as the that scene with Carl and the children, or even in the way Maj moves into a static shot when the door opens. Everything about the style of this film is pleasant, and it is evident that Bergman does not take everything too seriously, the pleasures of this ‘little world’ existing even within the style. The only gripe I have regarding the cinematography is a minor one. The camera has an awkward and shaky movement as it moves around a candle in the nursery. There aren’t really any other technical or general cinematographical flaws.

The editing in Fanny and Alexander further supplements the style. The film flows so as to maintain that spontaneous style and keep a smooth continuity to the film. The cutting is focused more on navigating the cinematography which gives way for the richness of the film to flourish. Just as with the cinematography, Bergman changes his editorial style when appropriate to tonally suit the scene. More jarring cuts are applied for instance, during Oscar’s death, where a series of bold cuts create an unease and demonstrate Alexander’s fear. Such methods, with more deliberate editing can be seen further throughout the film. Through both the cinematography and the editing, Bergman is able to deeply personalise his style, giving the film an intimate spontaneity so that he may harshly and cruelly contrast this later.

The editing, whilst brilliant, is probably the most flawed stylistic aspect of the film. The reactions shown during the caning scene are well-founded, but come off as rather awkward, and there are some very interesting and peculiar editing choices towards the end. Ultimately, it is still rather charming, but it just comes off rather strangely.

The sound in Fanny and Alexander gives the film an audial atmosphere which further contributes to the aforementioned stylistic techniques. Bergman uses amplitude, especially in scenes with the establishing shots of water to establish mood. In the beginning, for instance, the water becomes quieter until the house is entered, easing the atmosphere, whilst the opposite applies for the later scenes. This applies elsewhere too. But it’s also just the subtle uses of sound design throughout, the little sounds, if you will, which help create such pleasantries throughout. The soundtrack used gives an almost theatrical mood. It’s humble and modestly pleasant, something you would expect to hear from an old toy. Fanny and Alexander, though to a subtle extent, is an audially fantastic film.

The acting is also fantastic, more-so in fact. The child actors aren’t by any means a detriment to the film, and are each fantastic. Ewa Frölling and Gunn Wållgren and the entire cast of the family is more or less perfect. The best performance, however, is Jan Malmsjö as Edvard Vergerus. Everything about his performance is incredible, and this is among a cast that includes the likes of Wållgren and one of late Tarkovksy’s best actors, Erland Jospehson. 

Fanny and Alexander is one of the most pleasant and compelling film experiences there is. The beauty in how it views the ‘big world’ from afar is almost unparalleled in cinema. On a narrative and filmic level, I’ve had to reduce Fanny and Alexander on account of its flaws, but this has not changed my adoration for the film remotely. This is Bergman, fully matured, at the end of his career and at the peak of his powers, condensing everything he ever did ponder through the lens - death, God, women, the theatre - into one film, observing it all in the most beautiful and tender way he could. The nature of Bergman shines through this film, in a way so emotionally endearing that it is impossible not to love this film. Fanny and Alexander is surely one of the greatest films ever made.


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