Last night I watched Ingmar Bergman’s 1983 Fanny and Alexander for the third time. It’s been nine or ten years since I’ve seen it, and I wondered if the years and experience would have dulled my appreciation. No. It’s just as dreamy now as the first time I viewed it.
My husband, who is watching all Bergman’s films, some twice, played free cell while I once again fell under the spell of the Eckdahl family in 1907 Sweden. What problems do you have with it, I asked him. It’s three and a half hours long? he said. Which is shorter than the television version that I’ve never seen and now have on my must-watch-someday list. Either scene #1 is fantasy and scene #2 is fact, or scene #1 is fact and the other fantasy, or else it's just poor movie-making, he said. I now understand why there are no self-help books on his library shelves, and why he doesn't seem as confused by life as I sometimes am.
"It is very much, and in the best way, an old man's movie, the work of an artist resigned to life's mystery, full of wonder at the passage of time, full of forgiveness for past wrongs, and full of understanding, even of those people whose wrongs can never quite be forgiven," says Mick LaSalle.
The opening scenes make it the perfect Christmas movie, all pomp and gilt and velvet. It is Bergman; know that plenty of angst will follow. If you want to talk Bergman, we can discuss his take on men and their failings, and on how he regards women, even the girl children, to be strong enough to carry us past those failings. This movie was filmed after his last wife created a family for him, including the nine children he had with other women and was too disinterested to father. It is a movie where the interior life and exterior life intertwine. "Perhaps we're the same person, with no boundaries. Perhaps we flow through each other, stream through each other boundlessly and magnificently. You bear such terrible thoughts...it's almost painful to be near you," Ismael tells Alexander, while he shows him the murder we carry in our hearts. Yet murder is not the heart of this movie. Perhaps not even love is. Life is, as we flow through one another, with every moment too quickly lost, yet carried forth with us always.
By the end, I again understand life is filled with mystery and love, betrayal, and regeneration. I want to believe, along with Alexander and his grandmother Helena, Agustus Strindberg's words from the opening of The Dream Play:
Anything can happen, all is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns.…