FANNY OCH ALEXANDER (1982)

  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writer: Ingmar Bergman
  • Starring: Pernilla Alwin, Bertil Guve, Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Börje Ahlstedt, Anna Bergman, Gunn Wållgren, Kristina Adolphson, Erland Josephson, Mats Bergman, Stina Ekblad, and Jarl Kulle
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#84), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#44), Shown at 1983 Venice International Film Festival, 4 Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Ingmar Bergman, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

I did not know, going into Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander, as you might have guessed even if you’re not fluent in Swedish), that it was at least as much a Christmas movie as some of the other movies we have already classified as such here on the site. This makes me sort of wish I’d scheduled it as part of our upcoming Holidayfest ‘21 Virtual Film Festival, but through sheer coincidence it ended up coming up around the holiday season anyway, so that all worked out. Similar to another late work of director Ingmar Bergman, Scener ur ett Äktensap (Scenes from a Marriage), it was originally conceived for television, and now exists, and may still be viewed, in two separate versions: a 188-minute theatrical release and a 312-minute (that is, well over five hours) version to be aired as a TV miniseries. Bergman himself was never fully happy with the “shorter” version, stating that he felt it cut too many essential bits, and the full-length version was later released in at least some theaters, becoming one of a handful of the longest theatrically-released movies of all time. I only watched the three-hour version, sorry Ingmar. I mean, I feel like I got it.

This length is likely attributable less to the subject matter (a story mostly set in drawing rooms, etc., centering around two children, it is hardly the stuff of an epic) than to Bergman somehow trying to sum up a lot of the themes from throughout his career. Bergman announced before Fanny och Alexander’s release that he was retiring and it would be his final film, and unlike many such announcements he stuck to this through his his death in 2007. In his “Great Movies” essay on the film, Roger Ebert wrote that Bergman, in his final film, “tends to the business of being young, of being middle-aged, of being old, of being a man, woman, Christian, Jew, sane, crazy, rich, poor, religious, profane.” If there is a knock on the movie, and I am not the first to say this, it is that these themes are explored in very much a meandering fashion. The first half of the movie (or as I would call it, “the fun part”) is mostly uninterested in having a plot. The second half then develops a plot for most of an hour, but it is an obvious and un-nuanced one, with a clear, unsympathetic villain. Fanny och Alexander has great visuals, great performances, and many memorable scenes, but in the end, it’s not really clear what any of it is supposed to add up to. That is not really a cardinal sin, however, rather meaning that the film lends itself to numerous interpretations. I would say that, despite being a three-plus hour movie about kids hanging out in rooms, for me it didn’t “feel” long or draggy at any point. Fanny och Alexander seems to have fascinated many viewers over the years, but I think I’d peg my reaction closer to “bemused.”

The first hour plus of the movie throws us into an early-20th Century Christmas Eve party in an unnamed Swedish town (the film was mostly shot in the city of Uppsala), where we meet the various members of the extended Ekdahl family, which runs a small theater in town. Rather than exposition we simply get a long series of moments with the various family members, and I could recite their relationships to each other but I both think I’d get it wrong and am not sure this would be worth it. The two central children (played by Bertil Guve and Pernilla Allwin) seem happy, and we see the family dancing around and generally having a great time. For me this is the best part of the movie because it’s a really well-made depiction of people having fun and that is fun to be around. Later, the children’s father (Allan Edwall) has a stroke and dies suddenly, leaving their mother. Emilie (Ewa Fröling) howling with grief. Very quickly (in the terms of this movie), she remarries a stern Bishop (Jan Malmsjö), and things go very, very badly. Alexander hates him, and makes up stories about he murdered his previous wife and kids, which only pisses the Bishop off more.

The later stages of the movie then pass ever further into the realm of fantasy, in ways that have been heavily debated among movie buffs ever since. The children escape the Bishop, seemingly through magic performed by Isak (Erland Josephson, who you may recall played the male half of the main couple in Scenes from a Marriage), a Jewish antiques dealer who happens to be the lover of grandmother and Ekdahl matriarch Helena (Gunn Wållgren). At Isak’s house, Alexander has a conversation with his father’s ghost and is spoken to by God from behind a door (this turns out to be one of Isak’s sons pranking him, but the movie also seems to take it seriously). He also meets Isak’s other son, Ismael (played, interestingly, by the actress Stina Ekblad, without any comment from the movie), who we vaguely hear has something wrong with him. Ismael describes the events of a fire killing the Bishop, which we soon learn actually happened as Ismael described it. Emilie, now free, convinces Helena that they should put on a Strindberg play, and the movie ends essentially as happily as it began.

One question that always arises with Fanny och Alexander is the extent to which we are supposed to take the events depicted, particularly those of a supernatural nature, literally. I’m not sure this is the right question. Even in scenes not directly involving its two eponymous children, I would argue that the movie remains from their perspective. Alexander believes the events as depicted to be truly what happened, and therefore the movie takes no position whether that’s what is “really happening.” If Alexander believes he’s talking to his father’s ghost, Bergman might argue, it doesn’t matter whether a ghost is literally there or not. This interpretation is supported by the way the movie treats other aspects of its own narrative. When the Bishop suddenly appears and the children are told he and their mother are getting married, it feels entirely out of nowhere, and we are given absolutely no indication (other than a quick “he has been good to me when I needed someone” from the mother) why their mother would actually marry this guy. But then again, that is probably not an unusual experience for kids whose parents decide to remarry. Alexander doesn’t understand what his mother sees in this guy, so we don’t either.

However, the main pleasure of Fanny och Alexander is not parsing out plot details, but rather in simply being drawn into its visual world. The theater world, which the movie begins in and eventually returns to, is a world of deep reds and mahoganies, every wall hung with a tapestry. You will hear movie critics call something a “sumptuous period piece” pretty frequently, but few movies more earn the title than this one. That only increases the contrast with the stark whites of the Bishop’s house, which is almost unfurnished except for the occasional unadorned cross on the wall. There is no scene where one of the kids says “I hate it here because our asshole stepdad wouldn’t let us bring our toys and he’s mean to us.” The production design alone gives us all the information we need.

If you’re looking for some great Christmas visuals, fancy Christmas trees and traditional decorations, I definitely recommend Fanny och Alexander. As the last and perhaps definitive movie of one our most famous world directors, it is also essential viewing for movie buffs. Despite having some darker things in it, it is also far more “feel good” than most of Bergman’s movies. If you think of Bergman movies as black and white and depressing, you can’t get much further from that than Fanny och Alexander.

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