Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review – Fanny and Alexander (theatrical version)

December 27, 2008

Fanny and Alexander – Sweden, 1983

I am not a believer in ghosts. That said, I can accept the existence of ghosts in films as long as it makes sense in the context of the film. There are several ways in which ghosts are used in films. First, there are films such as The Sixth Sense and Ghost in which ghosts can be seen by only a select few people. In these films, there’s a reason that the ghosts are still lingering in this world and reasons for their invisibility to the general public. Then there are films in which everyone accepts that ghosts are a reality, and therefore their existence is never questioned. Many movies from Asia, films such as Nong Nak and Rouge, use this approach. Last, there are movies in which ghosts have a symbolic meaning, perhaps reflecting a character’s inner turmoil or inability to let go of the past. Films that use ghosts for this purpose risk confusing or alienating viewers who may simply not get what a director is trying to do, and I suspect that some people may lump Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander into this latter category.

Fanny and Alexander begins with what to outsiders must appear to be a perfect family Christmas. Smiles and laughter abound, and there’s food aplenty. So why is Mrs. Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren) fighting back tears? Why is Uncle Carl (Borje Ahlstedt) drowning himself in alcohol before the feast even begins? And why does a woman think it’s “cute” that her husband Gustav (Jarl Kulle) is hitting on Maj (Pernilla August), a maid his daughter’s age? But perhaps the most puzzling behavior is that of Mr. Oscar Ekdahl (Allen Edwall), an actor and director. After a Christmas performance that receives rapturous applause, he delivers a long, somber speech in which he expresses his fondness for what he calls “the little world” that the theater inhabits. He sounds like a man who recognizes his own vulnerability and the transitory nature of his place in the world around him. Just two months later, what he seemed to sense unfortunately comes true.

Before his death, his children’s life had been one of laughter and magic. His son Alexander (Bertil Guve) used to sit in the audience watching his father rehearse. A family maid would chase him around the house playfully and he, his sister, and their relatives would engage in pillow fights that – in true movie fashion – would end with feathers flying everywhere. After Oscar’s death, Alexander is filled with an understandable fear of further abandonment. Perhaps it is as a result of this fear that he tells other children that his mother has sold him to the circus, a lie that causes him to be subjected to a lecture on the difference between a lie and the truth by Bishop Edvard (Jan Malmsjo). After this lecture, Alexander’s mother Emilie (Ewa Frowling) drops a bombshell on her children: The Bishop has asked her to marry him, and she has accepted his proposal. It is hard to describe the joy that is in Emilie’s voice and expression as she tells her children this, yet her life with the Bishop will be one devoid of the laughter and bliss that had once filled her home.

Fanny and Alexander would be a rather accessible film if it were not for the presence of Oscar’s ghost. The ghost plays the piano, walks the halls of his mother’s house, and has conversations with his son and mother. In addition, the latter half of the film introduces a character who seems to be able to perform magic, seems to see what is happening in the Bishop’s house even though they are not there, and has to be locked up for the safety of others. I suppose the purpose of the former could be to lend credibility to a story that Alexander tells Fanny and Justina (Harriet Andersson), one of the Bishop’s maids, but the film is purposefully vague as to the veracity of Alexander’s story. Furthermore, I cannot fathom the purpose of the odd, psychic character, or the eerie implication that what happens in the Bishop’s house is somehow what Alexander wishes would happen.

Fanny and Alexander ends with many questions left unanswered, and yet life seems to have taken a turn for the better. Laughter has returned to the children’s lives, and characters are beginning to exert a control over their lives that they had not previously had. I find myself conflicted about the film. While I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the impressive performances, I could not completely make sense of the film’s use of ghosts and the supernatural. Some reviewers have called Fanny and Alexander a masterpiece. While I would not go that far, the film is certainly fascinating and well-worth watching. If only I could figure out how a ghost could knock someone down but not be visible to everyone. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

3 and a half stars

*Fanny and Alexander is in Swedish with English subtitles.

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