Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Fanny och Alexander (prologue), Ingmar Bergman, Sweden/ France/ West-Germany 1982

Opening credits of Fanny och Alexander

When Ingmar Bergman shot Fanny och Alexander (Sweden 1982) he intended it to be his last film, which may explain why this particular film seems almost like a kaleidoscope of his entire oeuvre. Furthermore, the prologue to Fanny och Alexander can be seen as a kaleidoscope of the film as a whole since it deals with a number of topics such as mortality, religion, love, and the isolation of the individual in a godless universe – all topics that have preoccupied Bergman all his life and that culminate in this, his arguably most personal film. In what follows I seek to examine the film’s prologue from the questions of viewpoint, memory and identity, the latter including both, individual as well as national identity.

Fanny och Alexander begins with a close-up of water endlessly flowing down a river. The river, which is frequently used in film as a metaphor for life, and with all life originating in water - without it there would of course be no life at all - one of the film’s prime concerns is already established: the passing of life, the endless flow of it, and the memory of life long past. Next, we see an image of a theatre. Only when the camera zooms out do we realize that the theatre is not a real one, but in fact a toy, a miniature theatre. The words ‘Not solely for pleasure’ are inscribed above the stage. The stage itself consists of a backdrop of an Italian landscape until it quickly gives way to a Northern landscape, one that looks far more stern and joyless than the lush, jolly and playful one we saw before. An effective, yet subtle hint that unlike in countries like France or Italy, were indulging in the pleasures of life is indeed part of the culture this is not the case in Northern European countries like Sweden. And, presumably, was even less so at the time the film is set in. Thus, one moment later this backdrop also disappears, revealing a close-up of Alexander’s face -or rather: his eyes- thus establishing the film’s viewpoint, which marks a clear departure from literally all of Bergman’s previous films, for in Fanny och Alexander the story is told through the eyes of a child, Alexander, who, we must assume, is a reflection of Bergman himself, who, as an old man (he was sixty-four when he made the film), is looking back on his childhood by mixing fact and fiction, or, in other words, by reinterpreting reality. That Bergman worked at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre deserves to be mentioned here, and so does the fact that the theatre itself is another metaphor on life, albeit on a rather strict one, a life that is ‘not solely for pleasure’. Depicted as a lonely child, we see Alexander placing an additional figure onto the stage of his toy-theatre: a woman. But, with the camera focusing on Alexander’s eyes, this figure also is blurred, just like the two existing ones -a man and a woman- so as if these figures, although physically present, do not really exist, or if they do, their presence is not really felt. Given Alexander’s obvious solitude and his need for protection and love, exemplified moments later when we hear him, almost terrified, crying out for company, I argue that the three figures stand in fact for his parents and his grandmother, all of whom are notably absent and only the latter eventually appears.

Seemingly frightened, we then see him restlessly wandering through the vast, murky flat where he all but disappears among the heavy, gloomy furniture. Feeling lost, alone and anxious, his cries for company unheard, he hides under the covers of his grandma’s bed. Moments later he is sitting on what looks like a loo, discovering a mouse, trapped in a mousetrap. This is followed by a close-up of his face behind the mousetrap, so as if it was him that is trapped inside the mousetrap, which by now fills the entire screen. In Alexander’s case, the mousetrap may symbolise the dark, immense, deserted apartment in which he himself feels trapped. A jump-cut shows him standing at the window, looking through lace curtains that turn out to be frost, denoting the emotional coldness and isolation he is surrounded by. The mournful music, that so far has underscored the film, suddenly stops, and we see Alexander staring outside. The dimness of the flat is contrasted by the almost glaring white of a peaceful winter-landscape, in the midst of which a street vendor is selling flowers in ostentatiously bright colours. He stands there, wistfully observing the completely mute, tranquil scene, like an animal trapped, longing to break free. This being Sweden, were winters are notoriously long, I would argue that it is no coincidence that Bergman chose this particular season for the opening sequence.

So as if the serenity of it had been too much for him to bear, he runs off in a mad dash, seeking shelter by hiding under a table. But peace and quiet are not to be found. Someone, who not only is the victim of such a strict, if not love-less, upbringing, but whose life has also been dominated by religion (Bergman’s father was a Lutheran priest), Alexander is soon haunted by demons. But he also becomes the victim of his own fantasy and desires. Observing the room from his hideout under the table a marble statue suddenly comes to life, signifying his loneliness and his need for company, and if real people cannot be had, a marble statue will do. Eventually, death himself appears in the guise of a skeleton, carrying a scythe. The memento-mori motif -reminding us of our mortality- has been a persistent theme in nearly all of Bergman’s films. This is highlighted by the clock, connoting the vanitas motif - the passing of time - which seemingly stops at 3pm, the time, according to legend, Jesus died on the cross. He looks at the enormous chandelier, meant to give warmth and light, but whose crystals resemble icicles. Out of nowhere, his grandmother appears, and oblivious to his plight, asks him if he wants to play cards, which may be what she wants but which may not necessarily be what Alexander has in mind.

As previously stated, the prologue to Fanny och Alexander is nearly as rich in motifs as the whole film and, for that matter, as the entirety of Bergman’s output as a director. As such, this prologue is like a film itself. In a mere seven minutes, Bergman succeeds in aptly outlining a childhood in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The images he evokes certainly have their origins as much in Bergman’s own childhood as they are connected to the country he grew up in: Alexander, a child raised in a strict household, where he feels ignored and uncared for. Given the various suggestions, not to mention Bergman’s own background, it is safe to assume that religion plays a fairly large part in the life of the family, while indulging in life’s pleasures is anathema. The coldness Alexander is surrounded by is mirrored in the external coldness, for the brief glimpse we are granted of the outside world shows us a universe dipped in snow, looking as uninviting as it looks strangely alluring - which adequately summarizes and describes this brief glimpse of Alexander’s world.