Tuesday, February 14, 2017

1983 Winner, Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

Directed by:  Ingmar Bergman

Distributor:  Sandrew Film & Teater

Released:  December 1982

Country:  Sweden

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Fanny and Alexander is a family movie.  And by that, I don’t mean Fanny and Alexander are dogs that talk or anything like that.  No, this is a movie about families, or rather, one big multi-part Swedish family.  Fanny and Alexander are the young kids, and really the movie is told from Alexander’s point of view—Fanny is just there for show.  By the way, this really isn’t a Rated-G family movie, as there is serious sexual shenanigans afoot; in fact, some bare breasts and a fanny or two are prominently displayed.  But not Fanny’s fanny—she’s just a kid!

The family at Christmas; Fanny & Alexander, first row right
This extended family, whom we find in early twentieth century Sweden, is full of character and characters.  There’s lecherous but jovial Uncle Gustav, whose wife Alma knows about his appetites, but she turns a blind eye because she is one of them.  There’s intelligent Uncle Carl, who doesn’t seem to know how to manage his money.  Helena is the kids' grandmother, fun-loving and wise, the glue that holds the family together.  And then there is Fanny and Alexander’s father Oscar, who runs a theater that really doesn’t make much money but whose players and crew are like a family unto themselves.  The story begins pleasantly on Christmas Eve, a time when they will all get together, sing and dance, drink like crazy, and possibly hook up with a maid (that’s mostly just Gustav).
The fun ends early on, though, when Emilie, Oscar’s pretty wife with blonde hair and impossibly dark eyebrows, loses her husband to a stroke.  Big changes are in store for the kids, whether they like it or not.  Helene wants to take care of them, and so she takes up with the seemingly caring Lutheran bishop who counsels her through this tough time.  Once they are married, the bishop wants only what's best for the kids, and so naturally he thinks things like chores and gruel and no wire hangers are exactly what they’ll need to grow up to be good God-fearing Christians.

Ingmar Bergman knew his way around the back of a camera and it shows it this expansive and engaging film.  This was the last major work of this giant of not only Swedish, but all, cinema.  It is said this is his most autobiographical film, and many details of his early life find their way into this story.  Most particularly, Bergman is represented by Alexander, a bright and headstrong boy raised by this strict Lutheran minister.  Bergman must have really hated his old man, because there little sympathy in the portrayal of Alexander’s step-father in Fanny and Alexander.

This is a marathon of a movie, but the version I watched was shortened from the original, over five hours long, made for Swedish television.  The DVD set I loaned from the library had both versions, but I, wisely I think, stuck to the three hours rendering.  Maybe someday when I have time to burn I will go back and check out the longer film, because for the entire three hours I found myself plenty entertained.

Step-father and son bonding
The Title:  Fanny och Alexander.  Honestly, Fanny doesn’t do much in this film; perhaps Bergman felt the title ”Alexander” would have been a bit dull, and would have been too great a tip off that the movie’s title character was so closely related to the director.

The Culture:  Swedish families in the 1900’s, at least this family, seem like a blast.  The early scene of Christmas Eve is especially fun and instructive—the family dances to the tune of "Nu är det jul igen" ("Now It is Christmas Again"), also portrayed, of all places, in the children’s Christmas special, Arthur’s Perfect Christmas.  These kinds of details are great in adding to the flavor of a film, and in giving you a taste of the culture it portrays.

Agenda danger:  No politics in this one—this is all about family.

Best Picture that year:  Terms of Endearment.  A very different film about family.  Interestingly, Fanny and Alexander won four Oscars that year, for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and for Costume Design.  This is a very well-made film.

Rating:  This film has all the things a regular family has:  fun, laughter, sorrow, anger, sexual encounters with maids, and maybe most subtly, spirituality.  Film enthusiasts will appreciate the skill and visceral emotion Ingmar Bergman brings to the screen; regular folks who like to watch a movie every once in a while will find themselves connecting with this unusual and vibrant family.

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