“I’m seized by fear and see a horrible picture of myself. I have never grown up. My face and my body have aged. I acquire memories and experiences but inside all that I haven’t even been born. I can’t remember any faces not even my own.” – Ingrid Bergman as Charlotte Andergast in Autumn Sonata
The Film: Sometimes mere simplicity can make a film a masterpiece. Autumn Sonata is perhaps Ingrid Bergman’s most delicate yet dense film, but it ironically lacks most of the conventions her typical films possessed. There is nothing “Hollywood” about this film and instead it relies upon two components: The script and its actors. It is evident writer/director Ingmar Bergman wanted to keep the format of his film in close association with these two components, to which he knew both would excel tremendously if they were given the right direction. Furthermore, Autumn Sonata gave each of its actors the space to invent their character and establish their mannerisms before clashing their characters together in the context of confrontation. Therefore, the film was crafted in the style of the stage, to which it was demanded of the actors to have their actions embody tremendous realism in their performances knowing there weren’t any cinematic devices they could hide behind. Ingmar Bergman’s direction style set the tone for each of his scenes, but once they were established, it was up to his actors to utilize the space he provided them. The spotlight was always centered upon the actors and the film never lost its firm expectation that these actors must deliver perfection in their performances in order for the film to be believable.
Autumn Sonata is a film that opens with a willfully repressed wife, Eva (Liv Ullmann), who invites her mother to her home for a few days to reconnect after seven years of distance between them. Her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), arrives and immediately a slow acceleration of tension begins to occur. It is revealed that Charlotte is a famous pianist, who neglected her husband and children for the sake of her career. Years later in present day, Charlotte behaves as though she were emotionally detached from life events and only exerts passion when it is in the realm of music. This proverbial bubble of emotional safety ultimately bursts when Charlotte and Eva have a midnight conversation that opens the door to each of them confessing repressed anger towards each other regarding the past and revealing their internalized motivations about life.
Ingmar Bergman’s film is astounding in that its believability is first-rate. The film mirrors realism so closely that occasionally the viewer gets uncomfortable; as though they are privy to something they aren’t supposed to be seeing. Bergman’s style of direction provides the viewer with a vantage to see the narrative’s action; but like an individual looking at an event from afar, the viewer isn’t given the specifics of the situation that has arisen. The film is skewed towards the vantage of Eva with the viewer also being given quick glimpses from Charlotte’s vantage, yet the film ultimately leaves it up to the viewer to decide which of these women truly have clout in their defense of themselves. The film’s complexity stems from both actresses confessing truths that are valid, yet the film begs the question if these rationales are justifiable to one’s actions. Viewers may find this sort of narrative type off-putting, but Bergman’s choice to have his film crafted in such a way is brilliant. By maintaining ambiguity with the plot and its characters’ motives, it maintains an ongoing conversation of interpretation of the narrative, thereby keeping the film alive decades after it was released to audiences to see.
The Performance: Out of Ingrid Bergman’s vast and versatile career, never before did she give a performance that conveyed such a tremendous range of realism. With Autumn Sonata being Bergman’s final film performance, this makes the performance even more profound in that she concluded her career with a role that required her to display emotional vulnerability and weakness. Bergman’s entire film career was about persevering over the expectations of others and defeating the clichés that were thrown at her gender. However, Bergman’s performance as Charlotte in Autumn Sonata in some regards appears to be a confessional to the viewer, to which she begged forgiveness for her past. There is regret and pain on her face that truly extended beyond the performance, to which Bergman seemed to be confronting her mortality and legacy within her acting in this film. The reason for this may be in that Charlotte’s backstory dramatically parallels Bergman’s own past of abandoning her husband and daughter to be with another man and pursued her career away from them in Italy. This left Bergman confronted with a reality she had to recognize when performing this role.
What further adds to this dimension of super-realism within Bergman’s performance is the fact she had learned she had cancer upon the beginning of filming Autumn Sonata. This cancer would ultimately claim her life prematurely in 1982 at the age of 67. Therefore, Bergman was being confronted by both her past and mortality during filming, to which it is no surprise that her portrayal of tremendous pain and suffering in her performance must have, at least to some extent, been synced with her own regrets on life. What she provided in the scope of the performance, as a result, is something truly astonishing. Her performance in Autumn Sonata is the very definition of perfection in acting. Bergman portrayed her Charlotte as only confident when her character was involved in the context of music. Yet when it came to real-life events, her character exhibited nervousness, almost unable to process how to discuss topics that she usually repressed. Her performance is especially profound in the defeatist behavior she portrays when she is confronted about her past from her daughter. Bergman’s Charlotte not only allows for her daughter to stab her with her words, but she allows for her to twist the blade. It is evident that Charlotte has been able to justify her past by denying the reality it had affected anyone when she says to her daughter, “A sense of reality is a matter of talent. Most people lack that talent and maybe it’s just as well,” indicating her own weakness within herself. In that regard, this makes Bergman’s performance heartbreaking to watch due to the character’s own self-realization that she has made mistakes, but is too terrified to confront them herself. This makes the scope of Bergman’s acting immersed with so much realism that it is almost uncomfortable to watch. This is acting perfection.
Ingrid Bergman received her 7th Oscar Nomination for this film, and it is the opinion of this author, that it is a crime she did not win for this performance. Autumn Sonata is undoubtedly the best performance of Bergman’s career; not only for the range and realism she provided for the character, but because it was the first film in her entire career that truly showcased the acting, thereby the actors were dependent upon the script and their interpretation of it. Ingmar Bergman’s directing style of letting the actors embody the space within the camera frame put Ingrid Bergman in a position that she could not hide behind costuming, dramatic music or even bouncing off the acting of her co-stars. Instead, Bergman provided her rawest and the most real performance of her career. This performance should have won Ingrid Bergman her fourth Oscar.
Autumn Sonata: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 5/5
Cactus Flower: 5/5
A Woman Called Golda: 4.5/5
For Whom the Bell Tolls: 3.5/5
Joan of Arc: 3/5
The Bells of St. Mary’s: 3/5
Autumn Sonata: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 5/5
Cactus Flower: 5/5
A Woman Called Golda: 4/5
For Whom the Bell Tolls: 4/5
The Bells of St. Mary’s: 2.5/5
Joan of Arc: 2/5
Links for other Ingrid Thursdays can be found here:
A Woman Called Golda
Joan of Arc
Murder on the Orient Express
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Bells of St. Mary’s