Autumn Sonata (1978) marked the only meeting on film of Sweden’s two most famous Bergmans—Ingmar and Ingrid—and it’s good enough that it’s hard not to wish the two had collaborated more. This is one of Ingmar Bergman’s “chamber films,” a small-scale work focusing on a few actors in a confined space, something that in this case only serves to heighten the emotional intensity of the clash between a flamboyant and successful mother (Ingrid Bergman) and her repressed and virtually estranged daughter (Liv Ullmann). The events take place in a brief space of time when the mother pays her daughter a visit, but the visit opens up a lifetime of wounds and resentments—both real and imagined—that imbue the film with unusual power.
This is Bergman at his sparest. The film really is stripped down to fundamentals for most of its length. The exteriors toward the end mostly consist of a walk through a graveyard and a scene in a train compartment set with process-work countryside going past, but they do offer a sense of relief from the claustrophobia of the body of the film. That’s something that doesn’t happen with the flashbacks—all of which are photographed like primitive silent movies, which is to say from a distance with a mostly nailed-down camera. It is perhaps telling that some small degree of hope is allowed to surface after escaping from the confines of the house where most of the film takes place.
Autumn Sonata is essentially a mother-daughter conflict—or mother-daughters, since there are two daughters, each of whom is imprisoned by the past and paralyzed by life in different ways. The easy path would have been for Bergman to make the character of the mother into a monster, but Bergman isn’t one to take the easy path. The mother isn’t a likable character, but she’s not presented as a simple villain. Instead, she’s a woman who is almost dysfunctional outside the world of her concert-pianist career. Notice how she’s at her most relaxed and animated in the scenes where she’s dealing with her manager (Gunnar Björnstrand) and speaking English. Both of these are things that remove her from the thing she fears most: her own family. Rather than a bridge, her music forms a barrier between her and them. She can’t just lie approvingly over her daughter’s efforts to play the Chopin prelude, she has to show her how it ought to be done—complete with critique.
This is not a comfortable movie, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s a difficult work, but that very difficulty is what makes it rewarding.