Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Autumn Sonata: Criterion Collection (1978)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

A stunning union of two of Sweden's national treasures, Autumn Sonata pairs Ingmar Bergman with Ingrid Bergman for their only joint effort. Ingrid plays a mother who, after forsaking her family for a music career, attempts a reconciliation with her oldest daughter (Liv Ullmann) through a night of painful revelation. Sven Nykvist contributes glorious Eastman color cinematography to this quietly beautiful story of forgiveness. Criterion is proud to present Autumn Sonata in a gorgeous digital transfer.

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Bjork, Georg Lokkeberg, Knut Wigert.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio Swedish Digital Mono, English Dubbed Digital Mono, subtitles: English; single sided - dual layered; 23 chapters; rated NR; 92 min.; $39.95; street date 1/11/00.
Supplements: Audio Essay by noted film historian Peter Cowie; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/B-(Swedish), C-(English)/C+

As I've noted in the past, I'm not exactly an "art film" kind of guy. Geez, I'm the one who gave SpiceWorld a thumb's up and who also defends the films of Jerry Bruckheimer; the idea that I'd enjoy a slow-moving, ponderous film shot in Swedish seems foreign to me (ha!).

That's why I felt so surprised when I watched Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal last year. It's a rather wordy treatise on life and death and all that other stuff northern Europeans tend to ponder during their interminable winters. Although I didn't look forward to it, I had to admit that I rather enjoyed the film; it was both thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time.

So I decided to push my luck when I got the opportunity to watch a later Bergman piece, 1978's Autumn Sonata. This one definitely seemed to be a less likely film for me to enjoy. TSS at least had a cool scary guy playing Death; Autumn Sonata appeared to just be a couple of chicks whining at each other.

Emboldened by the fact I'd get the DVD for free, I decided to forge ahead and give AS a whirl. Shock of all shocks, I liked it too! In fact, I think I prefer it to TSS, though I'm not sure I'll be able to explain why this is. (There's a sign of a quality review: a writer who can't articulate his thoughts! Well, at least I'm honest about... uh... something or other...)

While TSS featured a lot of dialogue, AS is chatty to an extreme. Essentially the film follows a long-anticipated visit by a mother to her fairly estranged daughter. Make that daughters, actually, as both the children of Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) live together; Eva (Liv Ullmann) takes care of physically handicapped Helena (Lena Nyman) along with her husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork).

What follows are the attempts at bonding and reconciliation between mother and daughter. Charlotte wasn't exactly Harriet Nelson; she generally ignored her children to pursue her career as a concert pianist, and she doesn't seem all that interested in making up for lost time. The film documents the uneasy conversations between the two and ultimately their confrontations.

It doesn't sound like much, but Bergman - both Bergmans, actually - really make it come alive. This was the first and only time they would collaborate, and it's wonderful that such a compelling project resulted. Ingrid's performance is truly marvelous; she single-handedly makes the movie work. Actually, it probably would have worked anyway, but her acting takes it to another level. Ullmann also provides tremendous work in her role and their scenes together are utterly believable.

That last statement is the key to why I liked this film so much. I can't recall the last time that I saw real human relationships so realistically and naturally presented. Neither actress ever devolves into stereotypical histrionics or hamminess and both come across as full-fledged human beings; it's tremendously easy to forget that they're acting as the film often appear almost like a documentary.

I feel Bergman's performance is even more remarkable when one considers that she was terminally ill at the time. Actually, AS was her last theatrical film; only the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda would follow before her death that year. To be frank, I'm not all that familiar with Ingrid's work, but I can't imagine she ever offered superior work; her performance is shattering and seems to be one that should provide additional insight over repeated viewings. (Bergman was nominated for an Academy Award but she lost to Jane Fonda in Coming Home.)

I'd seen many spoofs of Ingmar Bergman's style over the years - most notably in the SCTV "Scenes From an Idiot's Marriage", which casts Jerry Lewis in a typically arty and depressing Bergman opus - but he manages to avoid the apparent excesses here. Yeah, he likes his extreme close-ups, but they aren't as severe as I expected and they seem very appropriate to the movie. Above all, he paces the film well and creates a wonderful tension that exploits the story and the performances.

If you'd told me a year ago that I'd now sit here and write a glowing review of Autumn Sonata, I'd have slapped you silly. However, here I sit, keyboard in hands, writing those exact words. Autumn Sonata offers one of the best, truest and most compelling character dramas I've ever seen. It demonstrates that even a populist clod like myself occasionally can get a little art into his life.

The DVD:

Autumn Sonata appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; due to the mildness of the matting, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not terrific, the film looks quite watchable and satisfactory.

Sharpness generally seems good, but I think that's somewhat deceptive due to the nature of the photography; most images look sharp when close-ups are involved, and this film offers tons of intimate shots. When the camera strays farther from the subject, however, the situation is less clear - literally. Some of these shots look fine, but a number of them seem excessively soft. It never reaches the point of annoyance, but it's not as crisp as I'd expect.

The print itself shows a fair number of flaws, probably too many, in my opinion. After all, this movie isn't all that old. I saw speckles, scratches, grittiness, grain and occasional black dots. None of these seem overwhelming, but they add up to a less-than-pristine film.

Colors usually seem fine, with the film tending toward a warm, orange tint (not surprising given the title). At times I felt the hues were somewhat oversaturated and too strong, but it seems likely this was a design decision. Black levels were nice and deep, though shadow detail seemed a little weak at times, with the darkness occasionally too heavy. Ultimately, the frequent close-ups save this picture; they often look so good that the remaining faults only drive my rating down to a "C".

Since this is a foreign film, that means I have to rate two different soundtracks. We have one in the original Swedish and one in English. For the record, my preference for subtitles or dubs varies from film to film. During this movie, I switched back and forth between the English dub and the Swedish with subtitles. In this case - as also happened with The Seventh Seal - I preferred the dubbed version. Autumn Sonata is an insanely dialogue-heavy movie, so when I used the subtitles, I felt as though I was reading a book; I rarely had the opportunity to actually attend to and absorb the cinematography and the actors' physical behaviors, both of which are essential to this film.

Anyway, also as with The Seventh Seal, a quality difference exists between the English and the Swedish versions, with the latter being superior. The disparity was much greater during The Seventh Seal, whereas it's not nearly as big an issue here, mainly because the only difference between the two in the case of AS relates to the sound of the speech; both music and effects seemed identical for both mixes.

Of course, since AS depends so heavily on dialogue, that's still a very important factor and was wholly responsible for the difference in ratings between the two editions. The Swedish sounds notably warmer and more natural than does the English. The latter's not bad but it does appear somewhat harsh and edgy, whereas the Swedish seems clean and smooth. I'd still take the English dub over the Swedish with subtitles, though.

Autumn Sonata doesn't include much in the way of supplements, but at least the main one is terrific. That would be a running audio commentary from film historian and Ingmar Bergman expert Peter Cowie. He also did the track for TSS, and while that one was good, this one's even better. Cowie devotes a lot of time to discussing the ins and outs of the creation of the film itself, but he also sprinkles in a nice historical component to his commentary. I found the track to be very compelling and it increased my appreciation for the film.

Other than that, all we get are the film's original theatrical trailer (in Swedish) and some good text production notes from Cowie within the DVD's booklet. Oh well - while a more feature-laden special edition would have been nice, at least this DVD's contents are solid.

The advent of the year 2000 may not have brought about the apocalypse, but this might: I wholeheartedly recommend Autumn Sonata. No, neither sound nor picture are great, but they're both perfectly adequate, and while the DVD lacks massive amounts of supplements, the main one - an audio commentary - makes up for that lack of quantity with excellent quality. Much to my surprise, Autumn Sonata is a tremendously well-made film that gives the realm of "boring" character dramas life. My only qualm about this DVD is its relatively high list price of $39.95; that's pushing it for a disc with so few supplements. Nonetheless, I feel Autumn Sonata is worth it.

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