Moving Pictures
Dec 25, 2023, 06:28AM

Ingmar Bergman’s Christmas Fairy Tale

Capturing the magic and imagination of Christmas in Fanny and Alexander.

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At the time Ingmar Bergman made his film Fanny and Alexander (1982), his intention was to make it his last film. Perhaps this is the reason why the film has a different atmosphere than many of Bergman’s other films, which can appear claustrophobic, given the focus on existentialism.

Although not an epic, Fanny and Alexander is a saga of the Ekdahl family. We follow their joys and suffering over a period of one year, and for the most part, the story’s told from the perspective of a young boy, Alexander. (Fanny is Alexander’s sister, and although she figures prominently in the film’s title, her impact in the film is minimal.)

As the film opens, the Ekdahls are getting ready for their annual Christmas gathering. The matriarch of the family and Alexander’s grandmother, Helena, is trying to hold the family together since her husband is long dead.

The Ekdahls are a happy family. Although they appear to be religious, their main motives are pleasure and theater (one of Helena’s sons and Alexander’s father, Oscar runs a successful theater company). Gustav, Helena’s other son, is a kind man who can’t resist philandering, and his wife, Alma, has accepted this reality. He’s oversexed, and goes after the maids even during the Christmas party.

Helena’s third son, Carl, is a failure. He’s in debt and just found out that his mother will not loan him more money. He and his wife are now destitute.

There’s not much focus on Christ during this Christmas party. Instead, we’re treated with Ekdahls’ eroticism. Ethical behavior doesn’t matter much, only passions that run through their bodies and hearts. Even Helena is involved with a man, Isak Jacobi, whom we find out later may have been her lover even when her husband was alive.

No one gets angry at the Ekdahl household, at least not enough to break up the family. Can such a family exist—driven entirely by passions? Neither wrath nor jealousy exist, and yet, passions are also keeping God at bay.

Things dramatically change when Alexander’s father, Oscar, dies. Alexander’s viscerally afraid of coming closer to his father as he lay dying. He hides not exactly from his father, but from death itself. Mortality isn’t in Alexander’s existential vocabulary.

Alexander’s mother, Emilie, is seduced by the local bishop’s attention following Oscar’s death. Edvard is a stern man, attempting to mask his coldness with proper Christian morality. He scolds Alexander for lying and forces him to apologize. In the same moment, he and Emilie reveal that they’re to be married.

Emilie and her children are to leave the beautiful Ekdahl residence and move into the austere walls of the bishop’s house. In addition, Edvard demands that Emilie and the children bring no possessions and no reminders of their previous life. Emilie accepts this for herself but has a difficult time breaking this news to the children.

Everything about Edvard’s house is ghostly and evil in a way only a child could see. His mother and sister are straight out of the Grimms’ fairy tale, and Aunt Elsa (whom the children call “a tub of lard”) is dying, adding to the atmosphere of decay and cruelty.

Edvard is incapable of love, and he shows this through mistreatment of Emilie but especially Alexander, who continuously resists Edvard’s power. To the children’s rescue comes Isak Jacobi, who manages to get them out the bishop’s evil castle through the use of a large chest.

All of this has a magical quality, especially once Alexander comes to Isak’s shop of puppets, marionettes, and masks. Isak lives with two other brothers, one of whom is kept under lock and key. Isak’s brothers are not what one would expect because Isak’s a kind man. Instead, we see odd predators, as if they are about to either molest or eat Alexander.

It sounds ridiculous to suggest that Alexander would be eaten but if we look at everything from Alexander’s point of view, the caged brother begins to undress Alexander, as if he’s being prepared for some kind of ritual. The caged brother has an appearance of neither male nor female (he was played by a woman), and in a similar way to Bergman’s Persona (1966), he attempts to become one with Alexander.

Fear rules this idyllic drama. Even before Emilie marries the cruel Edvard, Alexander’s point of view is slightly skewed. He’s an unusual boy with an unusual imagination. This passion for storytelling and imagination is being annihilated by the events that Alexander is thrown into, especially by Edvard. Despite the fact that Edvard dies, Alexander still sees his ghost and hears the call that he’ll never be rid of Edvard’s presence. This child’s soul of an artist will be forever tainted by the cruelty of an adult.

It’s tempting to compare Alexander to Bergman himself and Edvard to Bergman’s minister father. Without a doubt, his father was a cruel man but to interpret the film in autobiographical manner would be to reduce its cinematic brilliance and complexity. Fanny and Alexander is a film about mortality. As she’s reaching the end of her life, Helena’s trying to piece it all together. What does it mean? What kind of life has she lived? Did she make mistakes? Is it all in vain?

Alexander is at the beginning of his life, but he’s already governed by fear. Is his destiny to continuously run away from fear and death? Perhaps the entire experience is a dream and not reality at all. At the end of the film, it’s Helena who comforts Alexander. She’s the only figure of stability and love that Alexander can reach toward. He’s not rejected or abandoned by Helena.

As Alexander rests in her arms, she reads the words from August Strindberg’s 1902 play, A Dream Play: “Anything can happen, all is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns.” Helena affirms the core of Alexander’s being—imagination—but she’s also creating a path of eternal masking and escape into the world where magic lanterns project our fragile souls.  


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