Most people look upon a toy and see it as no more than something to distract a child. Even one of those elaborate, old-fashioned toys – like a dollhouse or a scale model of a theater – is different from today’s baubles only in that it was less likely to have been stamped out of a sweat shop in some emerging economy.Not so Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman. Take the opening scene of “Fanny and Alexander,” Bergman’s multiple award-winning 1982 film, which will screen at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Saturday evening.
For Bergman, the toys littering the room inhabited by two children (in this case the eponymous Alexander and Fanny) are sharp instruments with which to slice into the society in which he has set this sumptuous family drama, and to uncover the thematic entrails beneath.
This film opens with a loving shot of an elaborately designed miniature theater. A curtain rises upon a scene. Then another rises, and another, until the final curtain rises upon the face of a boy, Alexander (Bertil Guve), who is also the one pulling the strings.
Just in case you were coming to Bergman for the first time, though, or were innocent of terms like “microcosm,” the writer-director reminded his artistic director to have someone paint a sign on the theater facade. It reads “Not for Pleasure Alone.” Bergman didn’t make comedies.
“Fanny and Alexander” is set in the midst of the Ekdahl family, a flower of Stockholm’s cultural bourgeoisie with long connections to the country’s theater. The film opens during Christmas of 1907, which is being celebrated at the home of the Ekdahl’s formidable matriarch Helena (Gunn W?llgren), a physically striking woman who was herself once an actress.
The first relative to arrive is “Uncle Isak,” perhaps the most kindly Jewish usurer in the Western canon. He is Helena’s best friend and onetime fellow adulterer, a reminder that in Bergman’s Sweden, regardless of formalities like marriage contracts and religious sect, sexuality is something to be enjoyed.
Helena has three middle-aged sons, each representing variations on a theme of human foible.
The most energetic is Gustav. Though he apparently enjoys a robust physical relationship with his wife Alma, she is charmed by his ageing man’s serial dalliances with younger women – the most recent of these being his mother’s young domestic Maj.
The most pitiful of the brothers is Carl, a university professor with a penchant for debt. In the years before the start of this story he has repeatedly taken loans from his mother to balance his books. Now Helena – who amusingly reads his decision to marry a German woman as a sign of moral weakness – refuses to give him any more.
The most noble (and, significantly enough, the most fragile) is Oscar Ekdahl, Fanny and Alexander’s father. Himself an actor – no doubt the source of Alexander’s scale-model theater – Oscar manages the local repertory theatre. Oscar is married to the beautiful, and much younger, Emilie (Ewa Fr?ling). She is also an actor and could easily be a youthful version of Helena.
It is on this otherwise happy Christmas that Oscar expires. The fact that Bergman has Oscar fall ill during a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” in which he is playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father – a rehearsal that Alexander is watching, mesmerized – adds additional resonance to Bergman’s tale.
Emilie is crushed by her husband’s passing and finds herself compelled to remarry with what is (in Alexander’s view) indecent haste. Worse still, she doesn’t marry either of Oscar’s clownish brothers (which might have precipitated a comedy, were they not already married) but the man who buried him – Bishop Edvard Vergerus (played with jaw-clenched verve by Jan Malmsj?).
The marriage is no less unpleasant for Alexander and Fanny, not least because Vergerus asks Emilie and her children to leave all semblance of their past lives behind – toys, jewels, friends, memories and the like – when they move into his stern 15th-century mansion. The stricken mother not only agrees, but says she will convince the children to agree as well.
Oscar’s family moves into the bishop’s house and find themselves among Vergerus’ own caricature of a household, one that is no less dysfunctional for being devoutly Christian. For their part, the children themselves literally inherit an old dollhouse which, as Emilie tells Fanny, used to belong to the pair of little girls who lived in this room 15 years earlier before, before drowning with their mother.
“Don’t play Hamlet,” Emilie says, turning her attention to the sulking Alexander. “I’m not Queen Gertrude, and your stepfather isn’t the King of Denmark, and this isn’t Elisinore, even if it does look rather gloomy.”
“Fanny and Alexander” has none of the grand gesture of a Shakespearean tragedy, it’s true. It does have all of the English playwright’s fascination with story-telling, however, and with actors in particular. This connection makes Bergman’s film still fascinating to watch 30 years after it was first released.
Like Bergman’s characters, audiences today hare moreliekly to be invested in appearances and playacting than tragedy.
“Fanny and Alexander” screens Saturday at 8 p.m. Metropolis Cinema’s Bergman retrospective “Winter Light” closes Sunday, Feb. 12, with “After Rehearsal.” For more information, see www.metropoliscinema.net or call 01-204-080.