Thursday, January 19, 2012

You Can't Choose Your Family

Film: Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.

Family is one of those words that’s difficult to define. Who you consider a part of your family differs from person to person. Generally speaking, we don’t get to choose the members of our family. We’re stuck with them, like it or not. Everyone has those people in their families who they wish they didn’t need to claim, but that’s not the way it works. Family is family, regardless of how you classify it.

Bergman’s Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) is a film about family and all that that word entails. It’s also a film by Ingmar Bergman, which means you can expect existential pain and suffering a lot of it expressed oddly in Bergman’s style. Lots of austerity. Lots of self-inflicted emotional trauma. Oh, Ingmar.

The film concerns the Ekdahl family, particularly the two eponymous children, Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve). They live in a large, loving family happily ensconced in the upper middle class of turn-of-the-century Sweden. Their parents Oscar (Allan Edwall) and Emilie (Ewa Froling) run a playhouse and enjoy a sort of magical existence. They have kooky uncles, a nursemaid devoted to them, and a grandmother who adores them.

And then, tragically, their father dies. Seeking comfort, Emilie relies on the local bishop (Jan Malmsjo) for spiritual guidance and comfort. At least at first. Eventually, the bishop asks Emilie to marry him and she agrees. One of his conditions of the marriage is that she will leave her entire life behind—and so will the children. No clothing, books, trinkets, jewelry from their old life. And no contact with their old family. Essentially, the children are to be plucked out of their old lives and dropped wholesale into the world of the austere and harsh religious man. That they see visions of their dead father is not surprising. That others see him as well is perhaps a bit more.

The bishop seems to spend most of his punishments and his harshest behavior for Alexander, who is as defiant as most young children. His greatest sin is the telling of lies, each of which comes with a punishment—generally a bare-assed whipping witnessed by the rest of the household and evidently enjoyed by the bishop’s mother. Emilie sees what she has wrought with her children, that in selecting her family, she has perhaps chosen too quickly, too much in earnest, and thus poorly. Pregnant but not caring, she asks him for a divorce and he refuses, telling her that should she leave, he will take her children and raise them as his own, depriving her of them. Such a nice, upstanding, holy man, that bishop.

All of this takes us to the third act, and Emilie’s decisions regarding the welfare of Fanny and Alexander. It’s not something to spoil, so I won’t.

For all of the pain and misery that Bergman gives us in this film, it is very much a meditation on the power and value of family. The Ekdahl clan is one that, for lack of a better way to put it, is what a true family should be. They get angry with each other, frustrated with each other, and are constantly dealing with the foibles of one family member or another. And yet, at every turn and every problem, there is always the sort of unconditional love that creates a true family.

Bergman, of course, made his career creating the kind of movies that made Woody Allen concerned about his position in an uncaring universe. For all of the pain and suffering, all of the existential crises, and all of the people doomed by their own decisions he filmed in his career, he ended his career in the cinema with a movie that is, ultimately, incredibly uplifting.

(Yes, I’m well aware that Bergman made other films after Fanny och Alexander. However, this film is the final full-length feature of his career that was released in theaters. While not particularly his swan song, it was his last go-around with the venue that had been his mistress for so long. So no complaints.)

Fanny och Alexander is, like life, filled with both joy and pain, happiness and sadness, triumph and tragedy. I’ve not gone too far in Bergman’s filmography, but it would not surprise me if no other film of his felt as genuinely human, accessible, and natural as this one.

Why to watch Fanny och Alexander: A meditation on family, both good and bad.
Why not to watch: It’s long and pretty Bergman-y, even if it’s not quite as depressing as you might think.


  1. It's definitely the must accessable of his works and while he probably isn't quite as appreciated in his home country as abroad, I think this is the one that most Swedes have watched and loved, only rivalled by The Magic Flute. (The Seventh Seal is more for cineasts I think.)

    I've watched it as 3 hour movie, 5 hour movie and TV series, but it's been a while and I'd love to give it a revisit. Oh and btw there are a lot of exterior shots from the town where I live!

  2. I've seen this (the 3 hour "short" version). I didn't enjoy it very much. I ended up willing myself to complete this and not shut it off. The 3 hours felt like a lot longer to me. In all fairness, I've seen 5 or 6 Bergman films and none of them have done much for me, so I am probably reacting to his style, more than the plot of the movie.

  3. I've heard it's long and a tad peculiar ... but I'm looking forward to diving into Bergman's filmography.

  4. Bergman is an acquired taste, I think. Some of his films are genuinely great--others are "great" because they are Bergman films and if they had been made by anyone else, they'd be also-rans.

    Fanny and Alexander might be one of the actual great ones, though.