Friday 9 December 2022

A Christmas tale: "Fanny and Alexander"

Simultaneously conceived and released as a three-hour movie and a five-hour TV miniseries, 1982's
Fanny and Alexander is late Ingmar Bergman, and is often positioned as Christmassy Bergman, which possibly suggests something softer and cuddlier than the bulk of this filmography - a project bearing the scent of pine needles or pumpkin spice. In fact, while never quite as lacerating as, say, Persona or Cries and Whispers, the three-hour theatrical version - which returned to UK screens last weekend - alights in passing upon a misanthrope who confesses "I'm glad I'm going to die soon" and a penniless professor who spitefully tells his wife he can smell her rotting; there is cheating and suffering to go along with the candles, presents and punch, and it may be inevitable that death comes calling at a crucial juncture. We are in the presence of ghosts, among other Hamlet allusions, and you will hear agonised screams to rank with those of any horror movie. Still, as often with the best Bergmans, all human life is here. Revisiting his own family history from a remove of several decades, the filmmaker appears drawn to the suspension of time Christmas represents, and with that, the suspension of the usual hostilities. Much of the first half takes place in and around the lavishly appointed home of the Ekdahls (the Bergmans by any other name, a well-to-do bohemian clan), a location that, for all its shadows and hidey-holes, feels very much a safe, nurturing space - or as safe and nurturing as any space could be at the start of the last century, with renewed conflict hovering on the horizon.

Fanny and Alexander are famously the least active figures on screen - they're fresh-faced onlookers, surrogates for the director and his sister. Yet they're also in some way us: children of history obliged to undergo a formative political shift. This liberal-boho idyll - much singing, dancing, and groping of servants - is but fleeting; things change after dad passes, and the children's mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) remarries out of necessity to a tyrannical bishop talking of purity and austerity. In cinematic terms, it's as though kids raised at Babette's Feast had suddenly been yanked sideways into Day of Wrath: the sudden sparseness of the visual palette really does tell half the story. In this shift, you keep catching flashes of the 20th century to come: it's Bergman looking back as a seasoned observer and spotting that those impulses that govern our day-to-day existence - towards joy on one hand, control on the other - were present in some form from the very start of his days. Somewhere in here, too, there's a lesson in the formation of the director's double-edged personality, what Bergman absorbed from those around him: the easy sensuality of theatre folk, and the discipline-slash-self-denial of the clergyman. Several scenes are simply too vivid in their idiosyncrasy not to have been drawn from memory: Alexander reciting swear words at his father's funeral so as to make Fanny chuckle, a maid's consoling hand placed on the back of the boy's neck as his stepfather thrashes him, an outlandish rescue attempt. I've yet to see the full miniseries, which surely merits its own revival in this era of boxsets and binging, but this version still works both as imaginative autobiography and rich, involving, novelistic drama. Even if you know nothing of Bergman, and nothing of the forty-year career that preceded F&A, you will likely find yourself enthralled by characters who leap from the film's frames as sharply as Dickens's do from the page.

Fanny and Alexander is now playing in selected cinemas.

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