What Bergman achieves in Sonata is an entirely believable examination of the deep resentments between Charlotte and Eva that have accumulated over the course of several decades. So natural are the co-lead performances, the film evokes the uncomfortable feeling of eavesdropping on someone’s most private moments. Concert pianist Charlotte has been an absentee mother to her two daughters. The physically disabled Helena (Lena Nyman) lives with Eva, who extracted her from the long-term hospital care to which Charlotte committed her some years ago. In fact, Charlotte has accepted Eva’s invitation to visit without advance knowledge of Helena’s presence.
Though Eva’s husband, Viktor (Halvar Björk), is present, little is heard from him. The very simply staged story unfolds as a long, soul-searching discussion, culminating in a series of bitter confessions by each woman. Eva feels, at the age of 40, that her life has been largely unfulfilling as a result of her mother’s unsympathetic, uncaring style of mothering. She holds her mother almost solely responsible for her lack of accomplishments (a scene depicting Eva performing a piano piece for her sternly judgmental mother is almost too painful to watch). On the other hand, Charlotte reveals herself as a woman with nearly zero maternal instincts. Her career was more important than either of her children.
Ingmar Bergman’s aim was quite apparently to allow the two women to lay their innermost feelings completely bare. Neither comes off smelling like a rose, quite frankly, though each is oddly relatable in different ways. Charlotte is easily the tougher sell in terms of identifying with, as her cold detachment seems inescapably (albeit unintentionally) cruel. Eva is scarred by the lack of affection she experienced as a child, though she certainly could have tried harder to move past the difficult upbringing.
The one weak link is the character of Helena. Gripped by some unnamed malady that has left her with extremely limited mobility (and nearly robbed her of speech), Helena unfortunately comes off as a symbol rather than a character. Nyman does what she can with a character that is more the proverbial elephant in the room and less a flesh-and-blood personality. Charlotte’s callous institutionalizing of her daughter is a little too obvious a way to make the mother a hissable villain. By the same token, Eva’s embrace of Helena makes her a martyr and gives her something to hang over Charlotte’s head. Helena’s climatic cries of “Mama” late in the film are the only moments that ring false in an otherwise pitch-perfect drama.
Also available on Blu-ray, the Autumn Sonata DVD edition offers a strong standard definition image, framed at 1.66:1. I can only imagine how great the 2K digital restoration (from the original camera negative) looks in high definition. The original Swedish soundtrack is presented in mono, but it’s absolutely worth mentioning that Criterion has included an English-dubbed track. I understand (and usually agree with) the common practice of avoiding dubbed tracks at all costs. But here it is actually quite valuable. Since Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann did their own dubbing, the vocal performances are authentic. I watched it both ways and found each to be an emotionally satisfying experience.
Criterion’s supplements package on this two-disc DVD set is comprehensive. Recorded in 1995 for a previous edition, film historian Peter Cowie’s commentary repeats here. It’s a little dry, but packs a lot of information. Other vintage features include a short “Introduction” by Ingmar Bergman recorded for Swedish television in 2003. The director shares his memories of Ingrid Bergman’s initial over-preparation for her role, displayed during the table read. The actress is spotlighted in a 1981 interview at the National Film Theatre in London, the year before her passing. A brand new interview with Liv Ullmann finds the actress shedding light not only on Sonata, but her other work with Bergman.
Clocking in at more than twice the length of the film itself, disc two houses the exhaustive documentary, The Making of Autumn Sonata. Quite simply one of the most detailed “making of” docs that one could imagine, this 207-minute film covers everything from the initial meeting (September 5, 1977) through the 50th day of production (November 8, 1977). This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot by cinematographer Arne Carlsson (who was the still photographer for Sonata) with no post-production interviews. Anyone with a deep interest in Bergman’s directorial methods should absolutely invest the time.