In 1976, two years before his 60th birthday, Ingmar Bergman was rehearsing a play at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm when two plainclothes policemen arrested and booked him for income-tax fraud. Although the charges were false and eventually dropped, this terribly humiliating experience caused the internationally acclaimed Swedish filmmaker to suffer a nervous breakdown and a deep depression. He vowed never to work again in his native country, and began a self-imposed exile during which he made two films (before finally relenting and returning to Sweden): The Serpent’s Egg, an English-language picture shot in Munich, and the British-Norwegian co-production, shot in Norway, AUTUMN SONATA (available on DVD).
An extremely moving, intimate drama about the attempted reconciliation of an estranged mother and daughter, Autumn Sonata is among his most immediately accessible works. In this it is enhanced not a little by the casting of Sweden’s other (and even more famous) film artist who, though not related, shared his last name, and whose last theatrical feature it would turn out to be. Having already won three Oscars by then (two as Best Actress, one as Best Supporting), Ingrid Bergman received one final Best Actress nomination for her swan’s song movie performance here of a famous concert pianist who put her career far ahead of her family.
Though only three years older than the director, Ingrid was already a world-renowned superstar by 1944, the year Ingmar received his first screen credit (as scenarist on Alf Sjöberg’s Torment). When making Autumn Sonata, the actress had already been battling valiantly for four years the cancer that would kill her in another four years at age 67. The moviemaker would only do three other fiction films (plus a personal documentary) before conclusively retiring from picture directing. For both Bergmans, then, Autumn Sonata was a prophetic title.
It also remains an entirely uncompromising, quietly devastating look at the extraordinarily tangled relationships between an artistic mother and her two neglected daughters, one severely retarded (and acted with shattering conviction by Lena Nyman). The older daughter is played by Liv Ullmann, who by that time had already starred in eight other Ingmar Bergman pictures (starting with Persona in 1966), had lived with him for five years and borne him a daughter. In Autumn Sonata, she gives one of her finest, most heartrending performances. The numerous complicated scenes she has with Ms. Bergman are the core of this work, especially their final long night’s journey of rebuke, regret, and recrimination, a tour-de-force of resentment and fury, anguished hate and tortuous love. Implicit in all this is the author’s keen understanding that close family members can say the most horrendous things to one another and somehow still remain connected.
There are, too, quite a few personal reverberations behind the writing, not only from the director’s own life, but from his star’s. After all, Ingrid Bergman had been vilified in the international press for abandoning her first family in order to “run off” with Roberto Rossellini—they made six films together—-and it is virtually a commonplace that artists will often neglect loved ones for their all-consuming art. The setting of Autumn Sonata is a small Norwegian parsonage—-Ms. Ullmann’s compassionate husband is a parson (gently, effectively played by Halvar Björk)—-and a Swedish parsonage is where young Ingmar lived his often traumatic childhood with a strict disciplinarian father.
Indeed, everything in this picture seems profoundly personal to its principal creators. Though Mr. Bergman does not obviously take sides in the conflict, showing sympathy for both mother and daughter, the ultimate feeling one is left with is that no artistry can really be worth the agony caused to others. Nevertheless, forgiveness becomes the only true salvation. As with his mesmerizing, marathon Scenes From A Marriage (1973)—-as with all good art—-there is a universality to Autumn Sonata that transcends the specifics and makes it possible for each of us to see ourselves more clearly.