Thursday, December 2, 2010

#60: Autumn Sonata

(Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is an infinitely better movie than Precious. Let's get that out of the way now.

Okay, that being said, let's talk about movies that punch you in the gut just because it seems like a fun thing to do. Autumn Sonata, like Bergman's earlier Cries and Whispers, is the kind of film you need to watch an episode of Entourage after viewing, just to clear your head of the bad thoughts (or any thoughts, really). Combining mentally challenged people, dysfunctional families, and stunted emotional growth with topics ranging from abortion to rape, the movie is so spiritually draining that it becomes extremely difficult viewing, even as it holds your attention completely throughout its running time.

Are movies like these really worthwhile? At a certain point, Precious, which did not have the benefit of a director who ranks among the ten or fifteen greatest of all time and two actresses that have similarly high-level talents, becomes so over-the-top tragic that it takes on a pedantic tone that turns the film into medicine instead of art, though the medicine is there for a sickness that doesn't really exist. Finally, it just ends up tasting bad for no reason. The question then becomes whether or not this effect is tied to the technique and artfulness of the film. In other words, does Autumn Sonata avoid the ditch Precious drives into, simply because it is a far better executed and intelligent movie?

Mainly because this is a difficult question to answer, Autumn Sonata isn't quite Bergman's late-era masterpiece (more on that one later) but it does have the kind of confident preciseness and masterful thematic and technical control viewers are rewarded with when an older established filmmaker nears the end of their career. The issues and motivations Bergman is most interested in exploring had been honed over thirty years of filmmaking, and with a film like Autumn Sonata they come so naturally that the movie seems to be both reality show and extended metaphor simultaneously. However, I do think Bergman covered similar themes more successfully in Cries and Whispers, while the piling on of tragedy after tragedy is not as rewarding or worthwhile here as it was there.

The film is also a pairing of Swedish cinema's two most famous (and similarly named) film icons, Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman, and this is really where its major significance comes into play. Despite the fact that Ingrid plays a horrible woman, her performance is excellent, and she is able to make us feel sorry for her without playing the victim. It's certainly weird to watch her speaking Swedish, but it's also interesting to watch her in a film that is so much more modern than movies I've seen countless times, most notably (of course) Casablanca and Notorious, both of which I have probably seen over 30 times. Seeing this film reminds me that apart from the star system that carried her through so many masterpieces throughout her career, Ingrid was truly a great actress who was beautiful to both the viewer and the camera, and one of the great stars in film history.

The last and most obvious observation I made was just how similar Woody Allen's Bergmanesque films are to this one. Interestingly, Interiors, undoubtedly Allen's most overt tribute to Bergman, was made a year before Autumn Sonata. It's almost as if Bergman saw Allen's film and said, "You think that's Bergman? Here's some fucking Bergmany Bergman."

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