Autumn Sonata (1978)

Review #1,079

Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Cast:  Ingrid BergmanLiv UllmannLena Nyman
Plot:  A married daughter who longs for her mother's love gets visited by the latter, a successful concert pianist.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Leading Actress, Best Original Screenplay
Runtime:  99min
Rating:  PG for some mature themes.

“Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I wonder whether I've lived at all.  Is it the same for everybody?  Do some people have a greater talent for living than others or do some people never live, but just exist?”

The two great Bergmans combine with aplomb, achieving devastatingly emotional heights in their work here.  Autumn Sonata, writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s penultimate feature film, pairs him up with the legendary Ingrid Bergman, their first and what would be their only collaboration. 

Running at just over ninety minutes, Bergman distills the troubling relationship between a mother and daughter into an angst-ridden encounter over one sleepless night at the latter’s home.  The film of course takes place over several days in the daughter’s beautiful house, but its essence is revealed in that key encounter. 

Liv Ullmann, who plays the daughter, shows why she is one of the great European actresses of our time, after her breakthrough performance in Bergman’s Persona (1966).  She comfortably holds her own against Ingrid Bergman’s feisty mother, a character who cannot come to terms with her willful neglect of her child in pursuit of a career as a renowned pianist many years ago.

Autumn Sonata, directed in an almost clinical, theatrical style by Bergman, is not content with plot or artistic sensibility.  It is only concerned with bare emotions, the kind borne out of absolute hatred, unbearable guilt and regret. 

Mother and daughter’s words sting, hurt and open up wounds that will not heal.  As viewers, we observe repressed emotions let loose.  It is difficult to sympathize with any of them and Bergman never takes sides.  We find ourselves in a psychiatrist’s room without the psychiatrist.  

In one baffling sequence, the mother plays a Chopin piece while the daughter looks on, disinterested in her mother’s attempt to educate her in playing the piece the right way.  The daughter is more interested in answering the question: who is this woman? 

Why it is baffling is because Bergman never hints that it should be read in any particular way.  It could be a tender moment of love and recognition; it could also be the moment when the seed of hatred is replanted.  We never know.  Ullmann’s ambiguous eyes and facial expression hide her interior feelings. 

With Autumn Sonata, director Bergman, ever the pessimist of cinema, draws us into the private lives and histories of two women.  Operating like a chamber drama, it doesn't quite hit the heights of some of his greatest works, but it remains incisive, explosive and emotionally intense.  Bergman understands the fragility of human relationships.  And then he shatters the glass for us.

Verdict:  A drama exploring the pent-up angst between mother and daughter with emotionally intense performances by Bergman and Ullmann.  


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