Preston Sturges once explored and left audiences pondering art's potential to accurately express and reflect the plight of human existence with the classic satire 'Sullivan's Travels.' In my humble opinion, only one filmmaker could ever be said to have come close in achieving precisely that: Ingmar Bergman. And even more amazingly, he did so with nearly all of his films, each confronting various existential questions on life and morality. He was a true master of cinema, a genuine craftsman and artist of motion pictures, leaving behind a legacy and body of works like no other before him or since. He knew how to capture the complexities of our being in the most simple, mundane moments. He framed them in deeply fascinating, profound ways which viewers today continue to brood over as evidence of a highly creative and influential auteur.
With 'Fanny & Alexander,' Bergman examines what I would argue is the most challenging and abstract idea of his career. It could be better said that he actually surveys from afar seeing as how the film does more showing than raising the question surrounding the plot's weighty concept. In following a two-year period of the Ekdahl family, he makes the extraordinary attempt at illustrating the inescapability of time — of how we often feel oppressively imprisoned by it, yet recognize its fleeting impermanence. We live and celebrate in the moment of our happiness, yet are haunted by the sorrowful, sometimes tragic memories of an earlier period. And in many ways, as Bergman shows us, those memories of the past contribute the most in shaping our present.
Throughout the five-hour film, we witness these feelings of transience — and to a larger extent, expressions on mortality itself — revealed in brutally honest ways which make it seem as if the past and the present coexist simultaneously. In several, poignant conversations, we listen to adult family members confront their awareness of how time has unexpectedly caught up to them. It's an otherwise difficult to articulate emotion heard very early on while Grandma Ekdahl (Gunn Wållgren) talks to Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) and displayed in devastatingly melodramatic fashion during Carl Ekdahl's (Börje Ahlstedt) verbal abuse of his German wife, Lydia (Christina Schollin). Bergman's title implies this realization of our temporal selves as doubly agonizing in the siblings, Fanny and Alexander, as they're suddenly thrust into the adult world in the second episode, recalling Grandma's innocently astute remark that "One is old and a child at the same time."
Amid these intangible concepts on ontology, Bergman also introduces another complicated thought on duality. In the opening sequence with Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his puppet theater, he makes apparent not only the film's narrative told from the perspective of a child, but also suggests life having a certain theatricality weaved into its reality. The children's mother, Emelie (Ewa Fröling), comments on this most clearly, as well as the idea of wearing masks, while misguidedly making a promise to her new husband, Bishop Edvard (Jan Malmsjö). Doors repeatedly open and close similarly to stage curtains, and more importantly, they give the impression that the show's creator is peeling away life's layers, that we're gaining a deeper understanding of our selves. There's also a hint that storytelling is our only form of escape from time's unsympathetic reality as seen in the many conflicts of Alexander and the Bishop.
In truth, the profound complexities of 'Fanny & Alexander' can only be touched upon, or merely mentioned, in the allotted space of this review. The film can also be seen as Bergman's most deeply personal story, devised from memories of his own childhood but written from a life cognizant of how abruptly it all disappears. The reflective drama can serve as a kind of mouthpiece to Bergman's youth and life with several moments hinting this being his swan song to cinema. There are also the scenes at Isak's antique shop and Alexander's conversation with Ismael Retzinsky (Stina Ekblad), ripe with metaphysical meaning on the issues of identity and art. A great deal can equally be spent on Bergman's somewhat distant and informal approach to his own material, a visual style and tone that's as touching and emotional as it is thoughtful and intricate. It's an elegant and stunning portrait of a well-to-do family dealing with life.
The film was originally meant to be Bergman's final movie production, retiring to his first love: the stage. In a sense, this was his last since 'Saraband' was only shown in theaters outside of his native country of Sweden. In the U.S., 'Fanny & Alexander' was severely edited (cut from 312 minutes down to 188 minutes), eliminating most of the film's fantasy elements. While the theatrical version is still a thought-provoking, existential tale on memory and mortality, the intended five-hour television cut, as it is known, is far superior because the ideas on the dichotomy of life and art play more prominently in the narrative. In either case, both are highly recommended as masterpieces, the pinnacle of a lengthy career from one of the world's greatest filmmakers to have ever lived.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Fanny & Alexander' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #261) as a three-disc package. Both versions of the film are kept on two separate Region A-locked, BD50 discs while the third BD50 disc contains supplements along with the 110-minute making-of documentary. They are all housed in a tri-fold cardboard box with each disc on opposing plastic panels and a slipcover that features a scene from the movie on the front. Inside is also a 32-page booklet with a production photos and stills from the film as well as three thoughtful essays: Stig Björkman's "In the World of Childhood," Ricky Moody's "Bergman's Bildungsroman," and Paul Arthur's "Just a Director." There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
As explained in the accompanying booklet, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encodes of both versions of the film were struck from the original 35mm camera negatives. The only difference being a 35mm interpositve used to complete the five-hour television cut. Comparatively, both appear petty much identical in terms of quality, with neither having a significant edge over the other. There are a couple moments when the source(s) shows its age, but for a majority of the film's runtime, 'Fanny & Alexander' looks absolutely gorgeous in high definition.
Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the picture is beautifully detailed and elegant, revealing a wealth of visual information. The set production can be wonderfully appreciated as viewers take in the marvelously ornate interior of the Ekdahl family home. Small architectural nuances and the design of each room are crystal clear and sharply defined. Even in the barren, depressingly austere house of the Bishop, we can make out the tiniest crack and imperfection on the walls, furniture and other inanimate objects. Poorly-lit scenes with heavy, oppressing shadows, which there are not many of, also allow for the smallest objects to be seen.
Contrast is spot-on and well-balanced, appropriate to the style of the film with crisp, bright whites from beginning to end. The color palette is not overtly striking as cinematographer Sven Nykvist's approach was towards capturing natural light. Primaries are accurate and cleanly rendered, especially reds, with lots of warm, soft hues and healthy skin tones. Black levels are quite strong and deep, but not always consistent. Nonetheless, it's nothing which ruins the transfer in any significant way and is overall handsome to look at.
The same care and time used for making the video encode was also applied towards creating this excellent uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack. Both cuts of the film were taken from the same 35mm sources, and the results are a splendid, emotional track with a great deal to appreciate despite being limited to only one channel.
Being a dialogue-driven drama about essentially the relativity of simultaneity, the film's sound design is strictly focused in the center of the screen. Listeners are made to pay attention to the subtly-revealing conversations of characters, exposing great fears, heartache and the joys of life as if occurring all in the same space. Every tonal and emotive inflection — the small, sudden changes in one's voice — is crystal clear and highly intelligible. Still, the lossless mix contains a great sense of presence and fidelity, feeling incredibly spaciousness and terrifically engaging. Room acoustics are convincing as the small bustles of familial activity fill the room with laughter and excitement, and the mid-range is surprisingly expansive during these moments, supplying the film with lots of tiny audible details throughout. Although bass is non-existent, a healthy low-end is still in attendance to give the understated score some depth, making this a wonderfully satisfying experience to a deeply profound Bergman film.
Criterion ports over the same set of bonus material from their five-disc DVD box set of 2004. In this three-disc package, the first is reserved for the five-hour cut of the film, but the second contains an insightful commentary while the third features the remaining supplements.
Ingmar Bergman is one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. The five-hour long family drama, 'Fanny & Alexander,' can be seen — and it often is — as the director's magnum opus, the pinnacle of a career spanning more than half a century. Intended as his swan song, the film examines the life of a bourgeois family at the turn of the century and touches on deep, philosophical fancies about time, mortality and the significance of art in human existence. It's a beautiful, touching portrait made all the more marvelous by this Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection with an excellent audio and video presentation of the film. The bonus section looks small, but it's actually quite an exhaustive look at the production with nearly every aspect of the movie's making covered, making this three-disc package highly recommended and a must-own for Bergman lovers everywhere.