Wednesday 28 February 2024

Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) (1982)


Fanny og Alexander

It has been about a month since my last post and, yes, I did spend a week on a winter escape, but mostly the wait is due to the length and pace of this, the next movie on the List. “Fanny och Alexander” comes in a cinematic version of 188 minutes, but of course I happened to buy the miniseries version clocking in at a whooping 312 minutes. It was a tough one to get through and it did not help that work has been very busy. Anyway, finally done.

It is Christmas time 1907 in the home of the Ekdahls in Uppsala, Sweden. The Ekdahls are wealthy, so the party takes place in their palatial home stuffed with domestics and expensive furniture. We get the entire Christmas party in close to real-time, I do believe it is longer than the wedding in “Deerhunter”, and the amount of detail is incredible. I noticed that they have the almond present and the dance through the halls to the song “Nu er det jul igen!”, both Danish traditions, though I would not be surprised if they actually originate from this movie. Danish television has had a long tradition of airing “Fanny och Alexander” during Christmas and this Christmas scene is the only thing I remember having watched before. In any case, the Christmas party serves to introduce us to the numerous members of the Ekdahl family and show us how happy they are.

Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) are the grandchildren of family matron Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wålgren) and children of theater director Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall) and actress Emilie Ekdahl (Ewa Fröling). In this environment Alexander’s imagination is sincerely encouraged. Then, shortly after Christmas, Oscar suffers a stroke and dies. Emilie tries to carry on running the theater, but eventually she abandons it and marry the town bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö). The bishop is a hard and religious man who believes in austerity and discipline, a combination that goes down very poorly with the children. His regime of punishment and degradation makes Emilie regret, but there is no way the bishop will let go of her and the children.

“Fanny och Alexander”, I understand, is supposed to be, to some extent, autobiographical, which actually makes a lot of sense when you watch it. I can see Bergman as Alexander being born into a creative theater world and I can see how an encounter with the bishop would mark you for life. In fact, if half of this is autobiographical, this movie would offer a Freudian explanation for most of his movies.

It would also explain some of the more illogical elements of the movie, first and foremost why Emilie would want to marry Edvard. It does not take more than a glimpse of the man to see this is a bad match and any lingering doubt evaporates when he opens his mouth. Her explanation makes very little sense unless she is a complete idiot and incredibly selfish. The only explanation that works is… that it actually happened, which I am inclined to think.

Alexander experiences a number of magical or spiritual moments, such as seeing ghosts or his encounters at the home of Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson). It is easy to see a lot into this magic, but I prefer the simpler explanation of Bergman’s representation of creative imagination, the vent of his inspiration, At eleven years of age anything can become magic.

While the Ekdahls are clearly the good people (and privileged), the Vergerus are the bad guys. You need go no further than the interior décor, clothing and lighting to be convinced of that. There are no grey zones here. Christian ascetism as the source of problems is a recuring Bergman theme. The Jewish Jacobi household has a curios role here. As friends of the Ekdahls, they are clear members of the good side, but as a free agent, they can operate in spaces the Ekdahls cannot, both practically and spiritually.

In summary, “Fanny and Alexander” is not a bad movie, but it suffers from wanting to tell too much. The long version I watched is easily two hours too long. Isolated, the many details may be interesting, but they also serve to distract for the core of the story. As narratives, the many detours are simply not interesting enough and I get impatient and distracted. The Ekdahl brothers Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) are the comic relief as the movie’s Thomson twins, but sadly not funny enough for that (a classic Swedish problem).

For me, personally, suffering children are deeply problematic to watch and here their suffering is drawn out for hours. In the end we see much less than we sense, but it was still hard for me to endure.

“Fanny och Alexander” won four Academy Awards, but not for editing. That one was a big fail. Cut out about three hours and we are down to something that would work. The miniseries version I simply cannot recommend.