Autumn Sonata: Review

Autumn Sonata: Review

Autumn Sonata: Review. By Joe Muldoon.

John Gielgud once playfully quipped, ‘Ingrid Bergman is fluent in five languages – and she can’t act in any of them’. These are the words of somebody who hadn’t seen Autumn Sonata, in which Bergman delivers the performance of a lifetime, a very fitting final bow to her widely celebrated cinematic career. For me, Autumn Sonata marks the very pinnacle of chamber cinema, and remains almost unrivalled in significance and brilliance.

Played to perfection by longtime Bergman collaborator Liv Ullmann is Eva, who lives with her husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) and disabled sister Helena (Lena Nyman) in their rural village home. Life has been unkind to Eva; she has a respect for her pastor husband, but not any particular romantic fondness, she is still haunted by the tragic drowning of her four-year-old son Erik, and she feels abandoned by her mother. The two sisters’ mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), is a world-renowned concert pianist, and having not seen her in seven years, Eva writes to her a letter of invitation.

Upon Charlotte’s arrival, she is graciously received by her daughter, who dutifully plays the role of hostess. Charlotte’s joviality is short-lived upon her discovery that Helena lives with Eva, and that her condition has worsened in the many years since they last saw one another. Hidden cracks begin to appear, and the fractured family dynamic quickly becomes stifling. Over the course of painfully impassioned twilight conversations, the ageing musician is forced to answer for her past neglect and failure as a mother.

To point towards a standout performance is near impossible considering the sheer talent on display. With the striking similarities to her own life, Bergman’s Oscar-nominated swansong performance was undoubtedly informed by experience, and the deeply personal touch is felt searingly. Ullmann’s is quite possibly the greatest of her storied career, the strain and turmoil cruelly inflicted upon Eva being upsetting to witness. Understated but powerful is that of Nyman, who brings dignity to the person of Helena, something denied to her by the callous Charlotte.

As is also the case with the earlier masterpiece Cries & Whispers, I find there to be a somewhat devilish irony in the fact that Sven Nykvist’s marvellous cinematography provides such a visual warmth to what is such an emotionally cold film. Compared to the black and white features of Bergman’s earlier career, the switch to colour gave Nykvist a much-needed licence to more easily juxtapose emotional tone with visuals.

By the time of Autumn Sonata’s 1978 release, Bergman already had to his name some of the most beloved and critically-acclaimed films of all time; The Seventh Seal, Persona, Scenes From A Marriage – most directors yearn to make even a single picture as magnificent. Over three decades into his directorial career, I would argue that the auteur reached the peak of his mastery, and will go so far as to suggest that Autumn Sonata may well be Bergman’s magnum opus.

By Joe Muldoon.

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