Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Our survey of 50 years in cinema hails a lengthy saga by Ingmar Bergman.

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 20:47


There are a few directors conspicuous by their absence in our travel through the last half century. Fassbinder, Godard and Truffaut all spring to mind. The explanation is to do with the strange fecund flowering of European cinema in the 1960s. Frankly, we were spoilt for choice. I would love to have included Fear Eats the Soul, Bande a Parte or Shoot the Pianist from those directors. Sadly, Fassbinder died in 1982. So that’s that. Truffaut made just one more film after our current year. So that’s almost certainly that. And Godard? Well, the later, barmy films have some fans. Who knows?

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Anyway, we have also left aside many masterpieces by Bergman: Persona, The Silence, Cries and Whispers, to name just three. Happily, as we enter the dubious 1980s, Bergman presents us with the gorgeous, sweeping Fanny and Alexander. It is always wise to avoid any suggestions as to “where to start” with a great artist. Such conversations will lead to safe options that don’t really get to the meat of the genius. John Coltrane’s Blue Train, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Henry James’s Turn of the Screw: those sorts of things. You could argue that Fanny and Alexandra is a good “place to start” with Bergman. Though enormously long — it originally screened on TV — the film is less avant grade than Persona, less severe than Cries and Whispers and less obscure than The Seventh Seal. What you’re really saying then is that it’s really not very typical of Bergman at all. Leave that aside. The film remains one of the great movies on the subject of childhood.

Fanny and Alexander comes across as an interesting amalgam of how the young Bergman lived and how he would like to have lived. We begin at an idyllic family Christmas in Stockholm. The title characters, brother and sister, are part of a noisy family headed by their beautiful mother and charismatic, theatrical father. It all seems surprisingly jolly. Then dad dies suddenly. Mum then marries an austere clergyman — surely modelled on Bergman’s father — and we drift into territory more typical of the director. In short, most everything is pretty ghastly. Unlike so many of his pictures, however, Fanny does eventually allow the heroes some sort of escape.

When we think of Bergman, we think of the silverly monochrome conjured up by cinematographer Sven Nykvist for The Virgin Spring, Winter Light and Persona. Here, the great cameraman shows that he is just as comfortable with colour. The contrast between the busy primaries of Alexander’s first home and the greys of his stepfather’s lair are impressively marked. Watch out, also, for the scene where the children’s mother — shielded by a door — processes her grief (as we would now say).

Bergman (closing in on 70) knew he’d made something special and announced that this was to be his last ever theatrical picture. Unlike Bowie or Sinatra, he kind of meant it. Twenty years later, Saraband, originally a TV movie, made it into cinemas. But Fanny and Alexander — a film in love with theatre, horrified by cruelty and strong in story — still stands as a great artist’s perfect final work in his favoured medium (even if, as we mentioned earlier, it’s somewhat atypical). Now, seek out the complete oeuvre.

Other films considered for 1982 included ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Tootsie, The Evil Dead and The Draughtsman’s Contract.