Autumn Sonata (1978)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
This bleak and bitter look at the parent-child dynamic finds a mother and daughter using their words for the first time. Not that the characters are inarticulate, except perhaps emotionally so, but they struggle finally to express decades of repressed feelings only ever hinted at before in facial expressions or musical performances. Liv Ullman is excellent as the girlish, mousy minister’s wife, playing mom—years after the drowning death of her toddler—to her invalid sister. But it’s Ingrid Bergman (no relation to the director), in her final nontelevision performance, as the mother and famous pianist, who has the showier part—at least at first—which she relishes; you’ll marvel at the subtle panic in her eyes upon remeeting her dystrophied daughter (who’s as disabled on the outside as her sister is crippled on the inside), or the flood of mixed emotions that wash over her face as Ullman plays for her Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in A minor.
Ullman’s uncut glower, as her mother then shows her how it should be played, is one of the great thrills in director Bergman’s body of cinema. (His usual cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, films the present-day scenes almost entirely in close-up, emphasizing the emotional immediacy—the characters’ limited awareness, in the moment, of the world outside their own feelings—while stressing the distance and clarity of the past by shooting flashbacks in handsomely lighted and blocked long shots.) As female duos often do in Bergman’s films, the women switch places, so Ullman becomes the tempestuous one during the film’s climax—a full airing of grievances—while Ingrid watches: tearful, pained, unshowy. Here are two women wrestling with each other, a true grudge match, but also two actors with distinct styles, challenging one another, making the other better. Henry Stewart (August 29, 7:45pm, at MoMA’s Ingrid Bergman centennial, introduced by Ingrid Bergman’s daughters Pia Lindström and Isabella Rossellini)