We go away from our parents in youth and then we gradually come back to them; and in that moment, we have grown up.
The choice between art and real life conflicts the true artist until his grave. If he only experiences art, he will gradually withdraw into a windowless library or studio where every glance up is reflected in the works and lives that are not his own. If he eschews a knowledge of the history of creative thought, of its development and patterns, he will only wander, to paraphrase this author, into the backyard of primitive art. In an ideal situation both streams would converge into a larger, more bountiful basin, perhaps even a mountain lake wreathed by the cleanest winds. The water drawn would be a perfect blend of what has been lived and what has been created, of our days and dreams. An introduction unfortunately inapplicable to the protagonist in this film.
The arc of our film is simple, because in reality it comprises a straight line. Charlotte Andergast, (Ingrid Bergman), a relatively famous Swedish concert pianist returns after seven years to Norway to visit her two grown daughters, Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Elena (Lena Nyman, known predominantly for this notorious two-part film). I say relatively famous (many reviews claim she is world-renowned, but our only witness to her fame is Charlotte herself) because compared to her relatives, Charlotte might as well be royalty: so is she treated and so does she behave – at least at first. The sisters' residence is simple and plain like its inhabitants, which also includes Eva's soft-spoken husband Viktor (Halvar Björk), the local pastor, but it holds more than three dreary souls. Eva's four-year-old son Erik recently drowned, a tragedy which prompts Eva's letter to her mother asking her to break from her allegedly whirlwind schedule and tend to family grief. The conceit is complete and Charlotte arrives somewhat appalled at the rusticity of the living conditions even though Norwegian villages have rarely seemed so radiant.
We already perceive the conflict ahead, yet Charlotte begins by discussing the equally recent passing of her longtime companion, an Italian cellist by the name of Leonardo. It is more than implied that Charlotte has always had admirers and perhaps even married some of them. Her watch was a gift from such a gentleman; a novel she reads to get to sleep was authored by another. We are given scenes in cascading autumn hues, especially a gorgeous bright orange, as Charlotte recollects Leonardo's final tormented hours in hospice care. Are we shown anything of Erik's tragic death? Towards the film's conclusion, when Charlotte has already made a rather unfortunate decision, we see Eva at her son's tombstone as she narrates a few thoughts on her family's future. The excuse for this omission – as well as all other excuses for all other wrongdoings – is provided indirectly by Charlotte, who notes that she had been friends with Leonardo for eighteen years, a nice round adult number. Viktor, who is clearly attracted to his mother-in-law in the way one cannot but admire a fine-looking member of the opposite sex, buttonholes Charlotte in a feckless discussion about what Erik's death meant to his wife. He almost goes so far as to say that it was as significant an event to Eva as Charlotte's career was to Charlotte, but stops and gnaws on his pipe instead. Erik contained what can be loosely understood as the family's hope to escape the prior generation, which we now know may never be possible.
The middle act transitions from Charlotte's boundless vanity to a possible confrontation of mother and daughter. I should rephrase that: we have seen enough of Bergman's chamber plays to know that such a confrontation is inevitable and will probably be, considering the enormous resentment harbored by Eva, a rather nasty affair. Appropriately enough, the "prelude" to such a conflict comes during Eva's attempt to play this masterpiece on the piano. I cannot report that she is successful; but the camera, and by extension the viewer, cares little for what Eva can or cannot play. It focuses on her now-engrossed mother whose face droops so noticeably during the performance that Viktor finds it more comfortable to leave the room (a telling move since Viktor had verbally encouraged his hesitating wife with the words, "You said you wanted to have her hear you play"). At the end of the modest recital, Charlotte is complimentary if salaciously aware that she now has an opportunity to show off. She prods Eva into asking her to play by declaring her daughter's "interpretation" to be befuddled, even with regard to finger placement. "Chopin was not a sentimental old woman," says Charlotte, who is also speaking about herself. She then proceeds to play a magnificent rendition while Charlotte stares at her, both faces held closely together by the camera. In those faces we see a precursor to another wonderful scene, this one re-enacted from Eva's miserable childhood. A large music room is closed off by a series of folding doors. Outside those doors waits a little blonde girl in a pretty dress, waiting, we learn for her mother "to take her coffee." Inside the doors we hear a faint melody, and the moment it stops, the girl rushes in, if only to sit at her mother's feet and gaze upon her as she drinks. But what is she told? "Mama wants to be alone now. It's such a lovely day, why don't you go play in the garden?" From these two scenes we know everything we need to know, which is why the dénouement, correct yet bitter, comes as no surprise. As for Elena's mental illness, a somewhat unnecessary addition to what really could be a two-woman show with Viktor floating about where needed, the less said about it the better.
A personal aside: As a child, I remember my mother's copy of Ullmann's autobiography sitting around the house, progressively more dog-eared, and then finally retired to a happy place on one of our shelves. Her first name was odd, although Scandinavian names were bandied about quite a bit in my youth (I also made the common error of assuming that Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman were blood relatives). Ullmann, internet sources now assure me, has always been known for "her intelligence and beauty," although I must respectfully disagree. In her late thirties during the filming of Autumn Sonata, Ullmann had by this time appeared in several Bergman films starting with this much-acclaimed work and was never very physically appealing. Her lips were always too heavy, her eyes always too meek – but I digress. That Ingrid Bergman at sixty-four was arguably more attractive than as a young woman only adds to the widening gap between the two actresses, as well as underscores the realization by Eva that she will never approach her mother in two things: good looks and musical ability. The rest and best of life – her soul, her passion, her sympathy, her kindness, her curiosity – all that she has covered. Even if her mother's return means that Eva is now the only adult in the family.