Posted by: philosopherouge | August 19, 2007

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Fanny and Alexander

There are times I almost forget why I am so devoted to film, when everything I seem to watch is medriocre, unremarkable or forgettable. Then, there are times this like weekend where I was privileged enough to see two masterpieces (and I don’t throw that term around loosely),and another great film that proves hope for modern cinema (2 Days in Paris). The masterpieces in question are Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and De Sica’s Umberto D Both are drastically different in tone, and message, sharing very little in common aside from being great works of art.

Fanny and Alexander is a time consuming, albeit rewarding and unique cinematic experience. There is not a superfluous moment in the 312 minute running time, and Bergman is able to perfectly weave a fantastic world of dreams and nightmares seen through the eyes of a child. Although I’ve enjoyed the very small portion I’ve seen of Bergman’s filmography (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and the Virgin Spring are the others), they were far more overt in their questioning of life, death, relationships, and anything else that troubled Bergman. Perhaps in the allowance of such a long running time, and wisdom gained with age, Bergman weaves all these questions and ideas about the world through the experiences and perceptions of his characters, rather than having them asked more directly, or confronted head on as they were in his earlier films. The imagery though, is still there. Images that remind us of those old tapestries from the middle ages, or perhaps engravings in a church of death walking among humans as if he were one of us. Bergman now filters these images through Alexander and his uniquely imaginative perception of the world. He sees ghosts, and spirits…, and is able to fabricate elaborate and detailed stories in a blink of an eye.

The imagery of this film is fantastic, and although I love the starkness of Bergman’s black and white features, they cannot compare to his use of colour in Fanny and Alexander. The richness of the colour pallette in the early chapters represents the richness of life, and happiness. The sense of familial happiness is so warm, and it’s reflected in the rich reds used to adorn their comfortable home. The screen is crowded with relics and flowers, and there is a sense of a thriving life in the home. Once though, we enter the home of the Bishop, the warmth has dissapeared entirely. The colours become cold, and grey. Even the bishop’s face seems to lack blood as he stared down with menace at the children. It’s a home of death, and the strictness and irrationality of the environment bears down on Alexander, and his mother… two creative souls who are being robbed of all expression, and of warmth. Despite what the Bishop predicts, his house (it cannot be called a home) does not transform his wife and children, rather it makes them stronger and more rebellious. The third home we encounter is Isak Jacobi’s, the children’s saviour and close friend of the Ekdahl family. Much like their home it is cluttered, although to almost absurd degrees. There is a sense of dusty history, ancestry presented in this home, although it is devoid of human life. It’s more like a secret hiding place than a home, that shelters many secrets about the spiritual and real world. It is here that Alexander converses with his dead father, and is confronted with God… although not in the way one would think.

Thanks to the length of the film, Bergman is able to paint all his characters as real people. They all have their moments, and the actors perform every scene to such perfection that I almost feel as though I hadn’t truly scene a good performance before now. From my perspective, the most interesting character is Bishop Edvard Vergerus played by Jan Malmsjö. I want to call him a villain, because he does such inconceivably terrible things to the children and his wife, his selfishness is almost inconceivable, and he truly believes to have done nothing wrong. Yet, I can’t bring myself to do it. Outside of fiction, I can’t think of people on terms like villain or hero, and he seems to real that I can’t categorize him. He does terrible things, and is the image of hypocracy, not only as a reprentive of the clergy, but dare I say of the pompous self righteousness some men (some women as well, as his sister is exemplifies, although the role of the father tends to be more man specific) in view of their control over family, wife and children. His appearance contrasts wonderfully with this coldness, because he has an open, and handsome face as one of the characters suggest. He evokes a sense of discomfort, although you look into his eyes and there isn’t cruelty, but something akin to compassion. It’s almost appropriate that in the last scene we see him alive, he is blinded and his eyes are wild and mad. They are the links that made him human, if only for an instant. His relationship with his new family really transforms him, and it shows on his face. For the first time in his life he’s presented with people who won’t obey him, and outright dislike him. It bothers him intensely, and really eats away at him inside. His downfall, is probably the most complex and emotional of the film, and while he is clearly the “enemy” Bergman allows him the most sympathy of all his characters. His final moments are pathetic, and frightening… along with him, we are reminded that he isn’t God, but a brittle human being, a mass of flesh that can be easily destroyed.

I could easily go on talking and writing abuot Fanny and Alexander, but I don’t think I would ever finish, or do the film justice. It’s one of those truly rare experiences that has to be seen to believe.

UMBERTO D and 2 Days in Paris will come in another post or two. I don’t want to scare people away with enormous rants.



  1. I enjoyed reading your review immensely and particularly found the assessment of the priest very interesting. Such a multi-faced film that can be appreciated on so many different levels. It has also become quite clear that I really have no idea how to write good movie reviews. Your writing is absolutely superb. Keep em’ coming!

  2. Thank you very much, I wouldn’t call what I do reviews, more like organized rants (I went to a ridiculously strict school, so even my rants are organized at least somewhat coherently). I could definetely go on talking about this one, just a beautiful film.

  3. I think you’re crazy.
    But that’s not important.

    You should break out of your organization and rant free-form. I think you could have a lot of fun that way.

  4. I’ve been thinking about doing it myself. I’ve been meaning to try putting a word limit on myself for a little while to see how I can concentrate all my thoughts into a smaller space, forcing myself to be clearer and think a little more before writing

  5. My reviews (if you want to call them that) are mainly just incoherent sub-conscious ramblings. No structure, no sense of rhythm, etc. I’m hoping to improve on my writing which is why I stared the blog in the first place. Anyways, I wouldn’t change a thing in terms of your writing style because it’s really excellent but if you feel the need to experiment a bit, I’m sure it will be still be successful.

    Is it just me or was there a “Sixth Sense” vibe when Alexander encounters the ghosts? It’s possible that Shyamalan was influenced by this film. Just thought I’d throw that one out there.

  6. I thought that too for awhile, although I really liked how it continued to develop. The first time he saw a ghost it seemed so similar to The Sixth Sense, and then later when he meets the two girls in the attick it’s almost identical in The Sixth Sense (with the girl with OC). The ghosts are even very similar… I think it would be interesting to ask him about it because it clearly seems as if it’s an influence.

  7. Ugh I wrote quite a bit but then I lost it. UGH.

    I wanted to comment on the fact that Sven Nykvist did the cinematography on F&A, so a lot of credits goes to him as well. He also did a fantabulous job on Cries and Whispers, another Bergman masterpiece in rich, touchable colour.

    I also wanted to comment on Jan Malmsjo, Ewa Froling and Gunn Wallgren – that’s the priest, the mother, and the grandmother, respectively. They are all on my list of favouritest performances of all time. You’re also right on about the priest – he was a villain only by his blind conviction. Bergman was not in the habit of abandoning his characters, even the more despicable ones – mostly because he was a humanist and really did not see people as villains and heroes, but just plain people with interesting way of dealing with life.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the film this much, Rouge. Good job on the write up as well. Like you, I can just go on and on about the film – maybe that’s why I never wrote anything on my this – or any Bergman for that matter, despite being the biggest fan. Heh.

  8. I hate when that happens, and I appreciate the efforts of re-writing your thoughts.

    Of course I should have mentioned Nykvist, he deserves a lot of credit. I’ll have to see Cries and Whispers, because the colour makes me happy.

    Bergman is a humanist. I love that… he really is, at least in all that I’ve seen. He is so interested, and fascinated by humanity… and I think maybe that plays into his questioning of God. I can’t explain why this makes sense to me right now, but it works in my brain.

    You should write about some Bergman sometime. Maybe write a book 😛

  9. When I Discovered Fanny and Alexander, I was praised by othr fans for loving it as much. It’s one of the top picks on my site too, and I’m glad you went with the full 5 hour version over the short edit. Congrats! What I loved most about Fanny and Alexander is how it made me open my eyes to film as a whole and the potential of greatness that it represented. Nothing beats bumping another mediocre film down off your favorites.

  10. Well I don’t know if Cries and Whispers is going to make you feel “happy.” It certainly is less joyous than F&A, even with all that colour.

    I appreciate that you told me you appreciated my efforts. That was nice to hear – read. 🙂

    I do intend to write a book on Bergman, and when I do I’ll tell you all about it. 😀

  11. Fanny & Alexander is a fantastic film that I only just saw last year.

    You’ve certainly hit on something with the contrast between the lively world Alexander is born into and then the stark, colorless world he is brought into. Thinking about it further, he’s “saved” in a sense by the world of theatre and magic.

  12. Squish: It is definetely an eye opening experience, and especially in it’s length really defying our preconceptions that film should be put into relatively small lengths of time. I suppose from a financial/business perspective, it’s easier to market a 90 minute film, but I think in some cases (although, I’d still argue most flmmakers couldn’t pull it off), some more allowance would be wonderful.

    Elle: I don’t expect to feel happy exactly, but seeing great art rarely puts me in bad spirits even if it makes me sad. I feel happy to have witnessed something wonderful.

    If you do write a book, I’ll buy it! I’ll buy 2 copies even.

    AR: Saved by art and theatre! What a wonderful idea, and a very apt one too. I can’t tell you how much I love your comments, you touch on this I’d never think of… but it all makes so much sense.

  13. Wow! What an astute review! Great job pointing out the use of color in the film, which is especially interesting considering how well Bergman utilized black-and-white in his early films.

    There was something oddly sympathetic about Edvard the Bishop, wasn’t there? He was horrible, but fascinating; a deeply disturbed individual who I think truly wanted to do good (in his own warped way).

    Anyhow, I recently discussed this film as well (along with Bergman’s “Persona”)…

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