Top 100 Films #49 – Autumn Sonata (1978)

 

lead-autumn-sonata#49. Autumn Sonata (1978)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Bjork

Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman knew familial drama like few others before or after them, and his 1978 film Autumn Sonata may very well be one of his most powerful late-career projects.  Starring the always marvelous Liv Ullmann as a pianist named Eva who invites her aging mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) – a world class pianist – to visit her and her husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork).  Eva’s disabled sister Helena (Lena Nyman) makes an appearance in the home, shocking Charlotte and bringing about a wide range of difficult feelings.  Eva feels as if Charlotte has never truly loved her daughters as a mother should, which also brings with it a simmering tension ready to boil over at any moment.  Autumn Sonata is a beautiful, small film that likes of which are hardly seen anymore, especially from auteurs like Ingmar Bergman.  It deals with the usual Bergman themes of death, regret, and sorrow, but also delves deep into themes of reconciliation and the reconstruction of relationships, and does so very elegantly. The familial unit of Eva, Charlotte, and Helena feels genuine and depressing for a number of reasons – each character desperately wants to express themselves fully and say what they need to, but can’t for fear of furthering the chasms between them.  Eva and Charlotte’s subtle rivalry over their achievements and talents as pianists furthers the tension and Bergman uses it to produce some very subtle moments of building angst and bitterness.  The performances in Autumn Sonata are incredible, as they often are in Bergman’s best films.  Ingrid Bergman’s commanding performance as the cold Charlotte is one of the film’s strongest points – making viewers flip-flop between sympathy and genuine dislike of the woman.  Her chemistry with co-star Liv Ullmann is palpable and is a large part of why Autumn Sonata is such an affecting piece.  Ullmann’s more emotionally fragile Eva is terrific – she gives the audience a real sense that her current life is truly unsatisfying, living with constant regret and a desire for more. Lastly, Lena Nyman’s Helena stands out as being a very good performance – her character’s disabilities feel genuine and cause her and her family a great deal of real frustration and empathy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the films of Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata may not be the best starting point – but it sure as hell represents everything great that the director tackled during his prolific career.  It features great performances, an emotionally charged script by Bergman himself, and excellent, un-shaking direction.  When the emotional fissures between the lead characters finally begin to widen, Autumn Sonata becomes a true masterpiece.  

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