2 DAYS TO CHRISTMAS: ‘Fanny and Alexander’

2. Fanny and Alexander (1982)

The first 45 minutes of this three hour Ingmar Bergman epic gives it the feel and appearance of a high-spirited Christmas movie. Based on his own upbringing in the upper middle-class of Sweden, Bergman portrays a lavish Holiday celebration complete with decadent feast, bountiful presents, and a gorgeously ornate house. This loving family setting is representative of the Christmas ideal for a young boy like the film’s protagonist, Alexander, and it starts the film with a level of perfection that can not easily be replicated.

Christmas is very much a romantic Holiday and when adults reminisce on their favorite memories they are often remembered with rose-colored glasses. However, not all Holiday memories are ideal and with that understanding Bergman presents three different settings for the characters in the film that are as different as the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Bergman and his longtime collaborating cinematographer Sven Nykvist frame each setting with a masterfully fluid camera and the shots are filled with perfectly fitting mise-en-scene. Each shot of the film is full of symbolism that represents the closeness, the harshness, and the beauty of family.

Fanny and Alexander was originally made for Swedish television and clocked in at over 5 hours. In order to be eligible for awards (and tolerable for American audiences) it was trimmed down to just over 3 hours by Bergman himself and the resulting film went on to win 4 Oscars including Cinematography, Art Direction, and Best Foreign Film. The film is a technical masterpiece with some of the most expensive set pieces and costumes that Bergman ever employed. Part of what makes Fanny and Alexander so fantastic is that it has the look of an expensive Hollywood epic, and the feel and attention to detail of a Bergman masterpiece.

Although given a title with two characters’ names, the story really belongs to Alexander and his experience with the various members of his family. The film begins with preparations for a large family celebration at the Ekdahl residence including Helena Ekdahl and her three sons Oscar, Carl, and Gustav Adolf, their spouses, children, and various servants. Alexander’s father, Oscar, shows signs of illness during the party and several months after he passes away. In her grief Alexander’s mother, Emilie, turns to a Lutheran bishop for support and eventually agrees to marry him and move Alexander and his sister Fanny to the Bishop’s home.

The Bishop proves to be ruthless in tyrannical in the running of his household and Emilie turns to family friend Isak Jacobi to rescue her children, leading Alexander to his third setting – the surrealistic and magical home of Isak. The three locations are starkly contrasted with their level of set decoration and lighting, but they are shot very similarly for the ability to compare and contrast the various locales. The film includes fade outs at the end of major scenes (as if heading into commercial break) that create excellent opportunity for shifts in tone that represent all of the joys and fears of family time.

Bergman once said “theatre is my wife and film is my mistress” and his love of the former is evident throughout all of his films which are hugely influenced by naturalistic playwrights like August Strindberg. In Fanny and Alexander we see Bergman’s love for Shakespeare with both explicit and implicit references to Hamlet. Oscar Ekdahl was playing Hamlet’s ghost when he collapses, never to recover. He then lingers through scenes throughout the film like a specter that observes more than participates, and exists as a warning to his son that foul deeds are afoot. Bergman also uses the play within a play technique for foreshadowing with Alexander using puppets and a cinematograph that tell religious stories.

The theatricality also allows for the mixture of many different styles. The blending of surrealism, naturalism, and expressionism allow for each scene to hit the perfect tone while appropriately contrasting the scenes that follow and precede it. Bergman was a believer in magic and he sets the audience up for a magical display from the beginning with a statue that briefly moves. Later Isak Jacobi uses will power to project an image of Fanny and Alexander to trick the Bishop and rescue the children. When Alexander is in confrontation with the Bishop, Bergman presents the scenes in almost painfully honest naturalism. There is a shocking abuse scene where Alexander gets beaten with a rod and Bergman allows the camera to sit steady on the atrocity for longer than is comfortable, sucking the audience in to the wince-inducing scene.

One of the major themes of Fanny and Alexander is the importance of control. As children, Fanny and Alexander have very little control over where they inhabit and what happens to them, so they use little distractions to prevent that harsh reality like theatre or, in the case of Alexander’s father’s funeral, curse words. When the family is together to celebrate Christmas there is no hierarchy or one person in control and we are even shown images of the servants and members of the family dancing hand in hand. The Bishop, however, is addicted to control and runs his house viciously and cruelly. Not only is this exhibited in his actions, but also in the way he is blocked, often appearing behind Emilie and her children as if treating them like puppets. The Bishop’s eventual downfall comes at the one moment when he is out of control after being given sleeping pills and he lashes out in an expressionistic fit.

The three different environments exist as competitors for Alexander’s soul and each setting is magnificently shot by Sven Nykvist with some of the most stunning and original camera shots in any Bergman film. One of the most riveting comes when Oscar Ekdahl passes away and we see his rose-covered body on a bed through a thin slit in the door. The shot is so profound that it is able to remain without cuts for an extended period of time without ever feeling too long. There is also some excellent contrasting of the children’s bedtime routine with similar shots showing two incredibly dissimilar environments. Bergman and Nykvist show the difference to emphasize the warmth and brilliance of the large family environment. Bergman presents the Ekdahl not only to remember the great parts of his own family, but also as his love letter to Sweden. The message to take away is that some times it is appropriate to romanticize the good memories of family in order to learn to appreciate every blessing that one has – and no matter where you come from that is one of the most important takeaways of the Holidays.

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