Autumn Sonata (1978)

Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978)Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning Autumn Sonata succeeds on two fronts. At first, it operates as a chamber drama two-hander, with a mother (Ingrid Bergman) and daughter (Liv Ullmann) cracking open deep emotional faultlines and unearthing toxic secrets. The subject matter – neglectful parent, unwanted abortions – is familiar but vital, thanks in large part to the superlative performances of Bergman and Ullmann alike. Their raw honesty creates an unflinching, intimidating intensity.

As Ullmann unleashes her perspective on her miserable childhood – misery that her mother was either unaware of or consciously ignored – she asserts: “There is only one truth and one lie.” Yet the genius of Autumn Sonata is how comprehensively it rejects this duality. As Bergman prises open this relationship to reveal its shattered bedrock, so too does he examine our warped, solipsistic understandings of reality. He achieves this by continually emphasising the artifice inherent in personal perception. The intimacy of close-ups is balanced with the rigidity of medium shots and, most importantly, the way flashbacks are presented with an exaggerated theatricality that emphasises the subjective construction of memories. This is suggested by the choice to have Ullmann’s character’s husband introduce the film, underlining the director’s (male) ownership of the narrative. A masterpiece.

4.5 stars

17 thoughts on “Autumn Sonata (1978)

    • Haha, it’s a fairly new addition to my vocabulary I have to say! Self-obsessed works too, though I think it has negative connotations I’m not going for (Yeah, I overthink this sort of thing). I can definitely recommend this; have you watched much Bergman? As I said in a comment above, I’m just starting to get into his stuff.

      • Definitely watch Persona! It far exceeds my grasp as a critic but it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

      • I doubt that, Dave. You possess a post-doctorate grasp of things when it comes to film-making. I’d say if you didn’t “get it” then Ingmar failed.
        I promise to rent Persona and try to write a post about it.

      • It’s not that I didn’t “get it” – well, okay, maybe that’s part of it – but that there’s just so much going on I’d struggle to put it into words (especially given it’s regarded as one of ‘the most written about films of all time’). Good stuff, even if I have difficulty explicating why! I’ll look forward to your thoughts on the film 🙂

  1. Wonderful review! This is truly a masterpiece, but there is hardly any Bergman film that isn’t. If you haven’t already watched it, I really recommend Cries & Whispers. Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal are also sublime. But none of them will top Persona, which is in my opinion not only his best work, but one of the greatest films of all time.

    • Thanks! I’ve actually seen all four of those films – they’re the only other four Bergman’s I’ve seen! I’ll probably check out The Virgin Spring next. And agreed on Persona, it’s just outside my top 10 films of all time.

    • I’m not as across Bergman as you, but if this isn’t widely considered one of his best I’m looking forward to watching more of his work!

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