Uppsala, Sweden, at the turn of the 20th century. The Ekdahls are a well-heeled theatrical family. During a long first act, we are introduced to the family, both upstairs and down, as they celebrate Christmas. It’s a happy time for young Alexander (Guve) and his sister Fanny (Allwin) but soon shadows will fall. Their father dies and their mother Emilie (Fröling) marries the local bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Malmsjö). The bishop treats the two children with considerable cruelty and Emilie is powerless to intervene. But help is on its way…
With Fanny And Alexander Bergman announced his retirement from film directing. Although he continued to direct for TV (1984’s After The Rehearsal, which did get big screen showings) and stage, he has kept to that promise. He began his career as a writer and is ending it as one: in his eighties now, he’s written often semi-autobiographical screenplays for others to direct, such as Bille August (The Best Intentions) and Liv Ullmann (Faithless). As with earlier films such as Scenes From A Marriage and Face To Face, Fanny And Alexander was made in two versions, a TV serial and a shorter cinema version. It ran for three hours in the cinema, in which form it won four Oscars (for Best Foreign Language Film, and for its cinematography, art direction and costume design, all thoroughly deserved). The four-part TV version ran five hours, and it’s this that Artificial Eye has released on DVD.
Fanny And Alexander has the air of a summing-up, the extended running time giving Bergman the space to cram in most of the themes that have preoccupied him over his career. Bergman has directed for stage as long as he has for the screen, and the film is steeped in theatre. We see the family at work (the father dies on stage, significantly playing the ghost in Hamlet). Bergman divides the film into the Shakespearean form of five acts, with a short prologue and a longer epilogue. Despite the title this is more Alexander’s story than Fanny’s: it’s very tempting to see him as a surrogate for Bergman himself. Many of the incidents have their basis in autobiography, and we even see the embryonic director at work as Alexander plays with a toy theatre and a magic lantern. The long running time allows a wide range of mood: from the warmth of the Christmas celebrations to the coldness of the middle sections, with warmth returning towards the end.
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Bergman’s great strength has been as a dramatist: with the notable exception of Smiles Of A Summer Night, his comedies have been amongst his worst films. But you could include Fanny And Alexander as another exception, as it expertly counterpoints the light and the dark. Sven Nykvist’s camerawork helps enormously, the colour palette starting with warm reds and oranges, turning to cold blues and greys during the middle section, with warmth returning towards the end. Nykvist won his second Oscar for this film (the first was for Bergman’s Cries And Whispers), which was the culmination of one of the great director and cinematographer partnerships in history. They had been working together since 1960’s The Virgin Spring.
What is interesting is how much fantasy/horror content is in the mix. A whole book could be written about Bergman’s use of fantasy motifs – The Seventh Seal and Hour Of The Wolf most obviously. But also here, in a more ‘realistic’ film: in the prologue, Alexander sees a statue move and has a brief vision of the Grim Reaper (both autobiographical incidents). Ghosts appear at vital moments, especially in a disturbing scene where Alexander meets some drowned children. And finally, one key scene depends on Fanny and Alexander being, miraculously, in two places at once.
It could be argued that most masterpieces don’t break new ground, but sum up all that has gone before. Fanny And Alexander is such a masterpiece, and a conclusion of one of the great directing careers.
Artificial Eye’s DVD is on two discs. The first contains Part 1 (Prologue and Act I, running 91 minutes) and Part 2 (Acts II and III, 75 minutes). Part 3 (Act IV, 57 minutes) and Part 4 (Act V and Epilogue, 83 minutes) are on the second disc. There is the option of playing both parts on each disc separately or together: the latter shortens the running time a little as it skips a closing credits sequence in the middle. The soundtrack is in the original Swedish, in Dolby digital 2.0 mono and fixed English subtitles. The only extras are filmographies for Bergman and Nykvist, plus a stills gallery.