From iconic director Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata is a blistering examination of the mother-daughter dynamic starring Ingrid Bergman (no relation to Ingmar) and Liv Ullmann.
Ingrid plays a woman whose successful career as a concert pianist takes her away from family. She pays a visit to her adult daughter (played by Ullmann), who is the wife of a country pastor. Over the course of the visit, the two women expose their true feelings, bringing up long-harbored resentments and bitter rejections.
Both mother and daughter end the film having achieved some sort of clarity, although it remains uncertain how productive the visit was. Will the revelations bring growth to their relationship, or are these truths sent back to the realm of unsaid and unacknowledged once they’ve returned to their separate lives?
The tone is inevitably bleak, since the film rests on naked emotion and uncomfortable familial tension. It raises difficult questions about wrestling family with the demands of a career and with the demands of making art.
It has almost a mythic quality because I don’t believe such a lucid confrontation would happen in “real life”. It speaks to the very power of the artform that actors like Ingrid and Ullmann can embody two sides of an argument and make the debate exhilarating to watch.
The central performances are nothing short of magnificent.
Ullmann had made many films with Ingmar prior to this one, but it marks the only collaboration between Ingmar and Ingrid, two Swedish giants of the film industry.
Additionally, the film is the last feature film credit for Ingrid, coming at the end of a career that spanned 5 decades.
She began in Swedish films in the 1930s before becoming a Hollywood and tabloid star and working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Leo McCarey, taking a sojourn into the Italian neorealist films of Roberto Rosselini, returning to Hollywood and eventually collecting 3 Oscars (for Gaslight in 1944, Anastasia in 1956 and Murder on the Orient Express in 1974).
Though she received one last Oscar nomination for Autumn Sonata, she did not win, likely since it was only four years after her last award. That is a shame because, though she’s good in Murder on the Orient Express, she has only a couple of minutes of screentime and a weepy monologue in that movie versus the tour-de-force acting showcase in Autumn Sonata.
Few directors could handle the raw emotionality of the material with as much precision and insight as Ingmar Bergman. That’s why, when it comes to films dealing with questions of the human condition, there’s simply no one better.
Image from IFC Center.