The Compleat Ingmar #39: Fanny and Alexander (TV series) (1982)

We’re almost at the end of this journey. I’ve now, for the first time, watched the TV version of Ingmar Bergman Fanny and Alexander, and only the film version is left. It’s a fitting time for this, as Fanny and Alexander is always on television in Sweden around Christmas the way that other countries might show Czech fairy tales or Frank Capra’s darkest movie, and it’s easy to see why: it begins with one of the greatest family celebrations ever captured on film, a bourgeois, early 20th century Swedish Christmas. Food, festivities, fart jokes: everything that comes to a cinephile’s mind when they hear the name ‘Ingmar Bergman’.

Fanny and Alexander is in some ways an odd entry in the director’s oeuvre. There are so many individual elements that are immediately familiar, but they’re used very differently than in most of Bergman’s oeuvre, in service of a story that admits sentiment and cherishes family. It doesn’t ignore the disappointment and cynicism and existentialist dread of other films by the director, but they don’t win out. This is a film about loss and the inexorable walk towards the grave, and yet it is also a film that affirms our silly little lives and our striving for art and beauty, for love and meaning. It has a warmth that few Bergman films have, and a generosity that is heartbreaking at times.

And yet it is no simple exercise in nostalgic sentimentality. It is rich and strange and defined by its child-like perspective but not limited by it. Fanny and Alexander can be as harrowing as Cries and Whispers, as uncanny as Hour of the Wolf. It is recognisably Bergman, but it is also Shakespearean and Dickensian, it’s got flatulence, jump scares, feasts, bawdy and ghosts both frightening and sad. Bergman pokes fun – yet again – at theatre folk, at performers, but there is great affection in his humour rather than the sour irony he sometimes overindulges in. Several of his male characters in Fanny and Alexander are buffoons to varying degrees, but they’re not the little-veiled Bergman stand-ins, and other than for one or two scenes that the series might have benefited from cutting, and that aren’t present in the theatrical version the story isn’t mired in the pompous self-pity that Bergman’s men often display. There is magic, both theatrical and genuine, that is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and none of it takes on the cruelty of, say, The Magician or The Rite. Which is not to say that there is no cruelty in Fanny and Alexander, especially in its gruelling middle section, but it is the cruelty of fairy tales, framed in the strangeness of fairy tales.

Seeing how long the miniseries was in total – 312 minutes, more than five hours – I was a bit worried at first that, even stretched out across several evenings, it would simply be too long, too much, but as much as Smiles of a Summer Night (with which we started this journey), it is a joyous story to watch, and while joy is not absent from Bergman’s world, it is rare. The sadness that tinges it (death only occurs a few times in Fanny and Alexander, but the reaper is as present throughout as he is in The Seventh Seal) isn’t competing with the joy, they are both part of the same tale.

Fanny and Alexander is not flawless: it is generous to the point of turning flabby (like some of its characters, and in perfect fitting with the Christmas feast the story begins with), and while some scenes that are only found in the TV version are great, others are rightly absent from the more focused theatrical version. But, regardless of which version, the film shows a filmmaker and storyteller at the top of his art, and its messiness fits the film’s themes. Bergman somehow manages the impossible in Fanny and Alexander: he shows us family at its worst and at its best, he doesn’t shy away from the resentment and bitterness and secrets and sadness, and yet this is one of the only times the director tells the story of a family that one wishes to be a part of – perhaps the first time since Jof, Mia and their baby in The Seventh Seal. While watching this longer, made-for-TV version, I found myself thinking two things: Fanny and Alexander may just have found its way into my favourite films; and I’m already looking forward to revisiting this world very soon, when I’ll watch the theatrical version: our last leg on this almost four-year journey.

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