Thoughts On: Autumn Sonata - The Infantalising Mother


Autumn Sonata - The Infantalising Mother

Thoughts On: Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten, 1978)

A daughter, estranged from her mother for almost 8 years, invites her to stay in her home.

Ingmar Bergman's cinema is truly one of the most terrifying cinemas that have ever manifested in the most pure and existential sense; the horror that shivers from his characters' words so immeasurably penetrating, the truth that emerges from his frames so impossibly heavy, the humanity that looms over his lights so incomprehensibly confounding. Bergman's cinema is just so, as can be best seen in the likes of Cries & Whispers, Scenes From A Marriage and this film, Autumn Sonata, because he was able to show life like no other; life as a sum of all our actions, a network of all our interactions. It is looking over their shoulder and seeing these grotesquely colossal structures made up of all they have done, said and been present through that Bergman's characters are haunted by time's direction itself, by their place in their own messy history, tying to sort through it, to live through the present and build a better future. The sheer insurmountability of life as history, action and interaction is what makes Bergman's drama so dense, impossible, almost, for his characters to lift and impossible, too, for the audience to fully come to terms with.

Autumn Sonata is a true masterwork in respect to this. And in focusing so specifically on character history in this film, Bergman pushes deep into a more theatrical mode - which, he, of course, would be incredibly familiar with having written and directed over 170 plays. We see this theatrical mode with the narrated opening, the confined setting, the sheer volume of dialogue and even much of the wider mise en scène, which is flat and plain faced as if it was on a stage. Railing against the idea that cinematic stories are hinged upon motion and imagery as opposed to sound and imagery, Bergman then forges this masterpiece by simply filming great performances - something that Dreyer did in the likes of Gertrud, Ordet and Day Of Wrath. And, as a side note, Autumn Sonata is certainly thematically in much conversation with Dreyer's Gertrud as both films challenge their female protagonists with a conflict that tears them between sacrificial love and personal desire whilst taking on a deeply theatrical mode of shooting. But, taking a step back to performances, it has to be said that Autumn Sonata captures what is almost undeniably Ingrid Bergman's best performance. Cast, not for her image to carry melodrama, which is how the likes of Hitchcock and Rossellini cast her in slightly different respects, but for her presence as a woman, a mother and a celebrity who would have deeply understood her character, Ingmar allows for such a genuine performance to flow from Ingrid. And what more can be said of Liv Ullmann other than the fact that she remains, to this day, one of the greatest actresses ever to work in film.

It is the culmination of performance, direction and Bergman's conception of life as presented by his script that makes for such a staggering film in Autumn Sonata. So, though this film is so often less renowned than both Cries & Whispers and Scenes From A Marriage, I certainly think that Autumn Sonata is almost a conclusion (of sorts - not an absolute one) of both films. With each of these films exploring familial bonds, they are tied together by the discussed idea of life as an individual's history of actions and interactions. It is with Cries & Whispers that Bergman reaches into a selection of sisters' pasts to investigate a sisterly structure of sorts; with Scenes From A Marriage he investigates a marital structure; and with Autumn Sonata, a parent-child structure. Each film talks to one another so well because they form a lineage. Scenes From A Marriage deals with the history of characters that starts in adulthood. Cries & Whispers deals with character history that begins in childhood. And Autumn Sonata deals with character history that essentially transcends birth as sister is not just sister, and wife is not just husband in this film. Rather, our main character, her essential humanity, is bound to her husband, her sister, and  also her mother; she is simultaneously sister, wife and daughter with emphasis on the latter. And so, whilst Scenes From A Marriage deals with bad actions and interactions made as an adult, Cries & Whispers is more focused on a haze of bad actions that stem from further back in childhood. In contrast, Autumn Sonata gazes deep into its main character's present, past and even her mother's past before her to see conflict and troubling drama in her life and beyond her life. And so, one of the main questions that Ullmann's character, Eva, seems to constantly ask her self is: why was I born into this life? In juxtaposition to this, she asks why she did and did not give birth to children. And her mother, surely, asks why she gave birth to a child at all. And it is from these set of questions that comes Bergman's existential horror show that reaches out of the screen like a grotesque hand whose fingers bear a touch of death.

Because Autumn Sonata reaches so far back into Eva's history as a person, it seems to be the most complex of the three Bergman films we have been mentioning. This point could, however, be argued against with the fact that these films do not just deal with the past, but a character's journey into the future. And, in this respect, I think Scenes From A Marriage is more complex than Autumn Sonata. Alas, the draw of Autumn Sonata and the depths of its drama are in the narrative's ability to present a mother as a judgemental force. It is then by seeing the mother and daughter conflict that the daughter's crippling weakness, her inability to express love and feel loved, is revealed to be the consequence of her mother's, Charlotte's, disgust-sensitivity. What's more, the conflict between mother and daughter also reveals Charlotte's crucial weakness to be an inability to look back, over her shoulder, at that structure of her history as action and interaction; an inability to judge herself and a penchant to excessively judge others. It is because Charlotte was then so blind to the present when she was in it (and also is in it) that she has such a skewed view of how her actions impacted her daughter. It is then all too easy to say that Charlotte was selfish, but, empathising with her, you sense that she is a torn woman. She had a gift and she had a craft that she worked her whole life to hone; she was a successful pianist. This took her away from her home. She was hated for leaving and was hated for being there. True, Charlotte made many mistakes, built herself into a nightmare of an oedipal mother who meant to smother her child in her breast with disgust wrought across her face, but, no one was there to save her from herself. You cannot blame the world for what she has done to her child, but, her life carried a momentum that blinded her, which makes it hard to see her as inhuman.

This crucial point of conflict becomes an epicentre from which shock-waves of neglect, isolation, desire, wanting, repulsion, disgust, love, infatuation and hatred pulsate. And this is all so perfectly expressed in a scene in which Eva plays the piano for her mother. This seems to be an act of self-flagellation. And though she is whipping at her own flesh as she plays for her mother, she feels as if it is Charlotte who stands behind her and cracks at her skin. Nonetheless, Eva's mother finds beauty in her daughter's imperfect playing - she is deeply touched. Eva cannot conceive of this, and so she forces her mother to criticise her and overshadow her on the piano. There then comes a look of complete and utter loss and love that simultaneously mingle into one another, reducing Eva to a child in awe of the mother she stares at. As the playing continues, from that childish gaze eventually comes the adult's knowing and hatred. And such is the uncanny cycle that repeats itself across the narrative; there are moments of understanding that complexify themselves - adults becoming children, women becoming mothers, individuals projections of another - into oblivion; into an oblivion tantamount to an answer to the previous existential questions; Why, if we question our lives and births, should we be alive? This seems to be the ultimate question that mother and daughter act out as they fight.

It cannot be overlooked, however, that this self-perpetuating conflict that rises between the two, whilst it tears at the mother and daughter, also breeds truth and reflection; the only possible cures to their relationship and its myriad of troubles. And so this becomes the question of the narrative that projects it into an ambiguous future. Can the infantalised child and the judgemental mother become human?

To find out why this is apart of the Kaleidoscope series, please check out the screenplay that it is attached to.

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