Director Ingmar Bergman makes quite a splash with his self-proclaimed final theatrical film in Fanny and Alexander. Of course, having said that, I saw the longer, 5-hour version, and not the theatrical film that won four Oscars, including Best Foreign Film. I cannot for the life of me figure out what could have been cut from this fascinating and sprawling production.
The story centers around the Ekdahl family, overseen by grandmother Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wållgren). She looks on knowingly, and at times helplessly, as her three sons and their respective wives and children go through the ebb and flow of life. She is the picture of the devoted mother and grandmother. Her mind regularly turns to her family, even, and maybe especially in her quiet moments.
However, much of the story is seen through the eyes of two of her grandchildren, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), especially the latter. Alexander has a vivid imagination, but he is also fraught by fear. He is afraid of that which is unseen, those things he senses but is never sure are there. These qualities are revealed in the opening scene of the film, as he hides under a table in broad daylight staring in fear and wonder at a statue moving in the corner. Alexander is in a sense rescued in this moment by his grandmother, who sees him and offers him a game of cards. There is a remarkable similarity with this scene at the opening of the film and one of the final scenes, as Alexander is again gripped by fear – this time of the ghost of his dead stepfather. Having been knocked to the ground by this apparition, Alexander eventually finds the courage to leave his place and seek out the comforting embrace of his grandmother. Alexander finds solace with this woman, solace from the fear that continues to plague him beyond the scope of the film.
In between these two opening scenes is a film that moves into and out of a number of relationships and emotions. With Alexander as a central character to all of this, he becomes in many ways, the most sympathetic character for us. As he makes the move from the home of his childhood to the home of his new stepfather, we ache with him at the stark difference between that old world and the coming new one. There is something terrifying and foreboding about this move that is communicated so well through the use of color alone – lush and vibrant colors in the Ekdahl home, with dull grays and browns in the new residence. The look of that home is eerily similar to the inside of the church in Winter Light, a place where Pastor Tomas is finding it difficult to find or hear from God. In the same way, we feel that too, as does Alexander, who begins to talk more about his views on God during and after his time in this home. This, of course, while in the home of a pastor, which should conceivably be the foremost place one would go and see God at work there.
All the while, Alexander never loses his love of theater, as evidenced by the stories he makes up, and for which he is often punished. His stepfather never sees this as an active imagination or as a way to see into the mind of Alexander, but only as a threat to his own reputation. And as Alexander never loses this love of theater, neither does he lose the terrible fear that grips him. That vivid imagination of his kicks into high gear at the worst of times, it seems. Thus it seems Bergman is telling us something about the imaginative mind, something quite important. The imagination can be is both a beautiful and a terrible creation. It carries with it some baggage, namely that one is keenly aware of things going on that may be unseen to others. Alexander is attuned to this world of the unseen through his imagination. This causes him obvious bouts of fear at several points, but it also provides him insight – insight into who people are and what is driving them. Alexander’s stories, while often untrue, serve the purpose of communicating those hidden feelings and drives that exist in the people around him. In telling the lie about his mother selling him to the circus, we see in Alexander both a desire to be a performer, but also the perception that his mother is abandoning him for someone else. His story, in that sense, is true. So the imagination is a double-edged sword, as we see with Alexander. At times it brings terrible fear, at times it brings profound insight. And that thought seems to me an appropriate way to talk about the films of Bergman – walking this fine line between profound fear of the unknown and great insight into things unseen with human eyes.