Movie of the Week: ‘Autumn Sonata’

Cinema legend Ingrid Bergman was born on Aug. 29, 1915, so it’s the perfect time to reflect on her work.  Let’s look back at her extraordinary performance in her last theatrical film, “Autumn Sonata”.

“Autumn Sonata” (1978) – Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman) is a mom and concert pianist, but to her, not necessarily in that particular order of importance.  Definitely not.  In her 60s now, Charlotte has enjoyed a long career of playing (and vacationing) just about everywhere, and she isn’t shy about casually mentioning her long list of faraway cities where she has left her symphonic mark.  Los Angeles, Madrid, Zurich, and Hamburg pop into conversations, and her longtime partner –  Leonardo, who just passed away – had a home in Naples, she says. 

Charlotte lives a privileged celebrity existence, although one based on a foundation of hard work and God-given talent.  The woman is musical royalty in influential circles and with appreciative audiences, but she isn’t cherished at home, and quite frankly, Charlotte has never been too concerned about reveling in her role as a mom.

Now that Leonardo passed, her 30-something (or early 40-something) daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) offers her mom a place to rest and heal, and since the two haven’t seen each other in seven years, this could be a golden opportunity to mend their estranged relationship too.  Eva is married to a dutiful older man, Viktor (Halvar Bjork), and they have a grand, spacious home with plenty of room for Charlotte to have her privacy and hold court with her hosts. 

Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) and Eva (Liv Ullmann)

Will time heal all wounds, or will the scabs rip right open?   Well, if “Autumn Sonata” featured the former, we’d have “Love, Actually” (2003), but this isn’t that movie.  

“Contention, Actually”, “Baggage, Actually”, or “Triggers, Actually” could be fine alternative titles, though.

Writer/director Ingmar Bergman’s (for the record, no relation to Ingrid) troubling family drama is almost entirely contained within Viktor and Eva’s house over the thrifty 93-minute runtime.  Ingmar’s picture is minimalist, but he infuses so much backstory into the here and now that both Ingrid and Liv relive their characters’ past strife and command it to the surface in subtle and brutally frank ways.  Since this mother and daughter now exist under one roof for a short time, they are forced to confront their differences because simply pleasantries won’t last more than a few hours or a day, tops.

Where else can they go? 

Eva isn’t leaving her residence, and there’s no escape for Charlotte unless she storms out under some heightened duress.  Charlotte and her husband managed their household affairs when Eva was a minor.  Today, the two women are temporarily paired in Eva’s home, and Charlotte has to play by her rules.  (Additionally, another person – in addition to Viktor – lives there, and every scene with this individual pours fuel on an already explosive circumstance.  These uncomfortable moments also effectively enforce Charlotte’s already existing indifference towards her family.) 

Viktor (Halvar Bjork)

No, her daughter isn’t ordering decrees, but Mom isn’t running the roost either.  She has to play defense if Eva becomes aggressive about historical gripes. 

“Autumn Sonata” is a movie about parental mistakes – that are inevitably made by every mom and dad in some ways – and the imprints on their kids.  Granted, Charlotte didn’t verbally assault Eva about mistakenly using wire hangers and subsequently beating her with one, but Ingmar and Liv show that her general apathy was just as harmful.  Perhaps, more so. 

Although Viktor offers his inputs on occasion, the movie – which would be a dynamite play – is a two-person production.  Ingmar relies on his two accomplished actresses to perform the heavy lifting, as the camera frequently moves into intimate spaces during their exchanges.  The results are explosive, hurtful, and revealing, and while Eva has straight-up motives for divulging her anger, Charlotte dances between sorrow and resentment. 

Eva (Ullmann) and Charlotte (Bergman)

Both women’s performances are rich and heroic.  Liv already earned two Oscar nominations walking into this picture, and she probably should’ve secured her third here.  Ingrid garnered her seventh Academy Award nomination as Charlotte.  She won three Oscars, and if not for Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” (1978) – in which Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Best Actor and Actress statues, respectively – Ingrid may have captured her fourth. 

Well, no matter.  The planet had already etched Bergman’s legacy in gold, but in her last theatrical role – during the autumn of her life – she gives a sonata for the ages.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written and directed by: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Halvar Bjork, and Lena Nyman

Rated: PG

Runtime: 93 minutes

Image credits: Constantin Film

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