The Compleat Ingmar #40: Fanny and Alexander (theatrical version) (1982)

So, here we are. The last of the stations on my travels with Ingmar. (Or not, as there are some epiloguy bits to follow.) The theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander, about a month after having watched the TV series in its full, 5+ hour glory, and a couple of weeks after Christmas, so close enough to the film’s natural habitat, seasonally speaking.

As with Scenes from a Marriage, which we stopped by on this trip just before the COVID-19 pandemic affected, well, everything, I think I prefer the longer version and its structure into chapters – or perhaps rather acts, seeing how important theatre is to this particular story. The characters have more time to breathe, and some of the least plot-relevant scenes are among my favourites: Oscar (Allan Edwall) telling his children the whimsical story of the chair, Emilie’s speech to the group of actors, or Gustav Adolf and Carl trying to play good cop/bad cop when negotiating with the Bishop for Emilie’s release. I like Bergman’s unexpected riff on The Exorcist in one ghostly interlude, and the additional time spent with the Ekdahl’s servants. Fanny, too, gets more screen time in the series, though sadly she still isn’t as prominent as the Bergman stand-in Alexander. Doubtlessly, there are also some scenes that I was okay with losing: an odd, strangely tacky dream that Alexander has (even if they refer back to iconic earlier films by the director), or the additional time spent with Carl, arguably the worst of the three brothers, being horrible to his long-suffering German wife. But the longer format fits Fanny and Alexander – as does watching it over several days, as you might read an epic turn-of-the-century family novel.

In the shorter (if you want to call 3+ hours short) format, Fanny and Alexander is still one of Bergman’s most sympathetic, least sardonic works – and in this, I found myself reminded, quite unexpectedly, of one of his earlier films, which can be neatly encapsulated in two of Bergman’s rather untypical characters. The director’s films don’t exactly have many positive male characters. His husbands, boyfriends and partners are often selfish and jaded, they have a sense of entitlement and are generally less mature than their female counterparts. The same is true of several of the men in Fanny and Alexander, and the titular character’s father Oscar is not entirely exempt from this: in a scene, albeit one cut from the theatrical version, he is described as Emilie’s third child. But he is not jaded, and there is genuine affection in his portrayal and his role in the film.

You could see Bergman depicting the same character in a much more negative light: Oscar the failure, the terrible actor, the man-child who spends what little energy he has on escaping into fictional worlds, because he doesn’t have what it takes to deal with reality. But that is not how the film presents Oscar, who is clearly loved by his wife, children and family, as well as by the theatre folk (albeit not without a generous helping of self-interest on their part). Although his wish for a small, private funeral is ignored, the numerous mourners suggest that the film’s affection for him is shared by the world he inhabits. The same cannot be said for the man who later becomes the children’s stepfather, Bishop Edvard Vergérus: he is largely a bully and a villain, though not without pathos (largely due to Jan Malmsjö’s memorable performance). Vergérus seems to be something of a fictionalised version of Bergman’s own father, but from Fanny and Alexander it seems clear that Bergman would have preferred a father that more closely resembled Oscar, though perhaps it is the more cruel man that Alexander, and Bergman, take after more in some essential ways, as both the stepfather and the child lack the softness, the sentimentality, that Oscar has.

While watching the theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander, I found that, in these qualities, Oscar reminded me of The Seventh Seal‘s Jof: another child-like, loving, theatrical father. Neither of the two would be called strong or masculine in a traditional sense. But neither is looked down on by Bergman. The typical male characters in the director’s films are self-important, acting superior but feeling inferior. They tend to affect a rather facile cynicism to detract from their fear of inadequacy. And, arguably, many of them are, at least partly, stand-ins for Bergman. Meanwhile, while neither Oscar nor Jof are without their flaws and insecurities, they are not driven by the toxic overcompensation and constant drive to feel better about themselves by thinking worse of the world they inhabit and the people they deal with that so many of Bergman’s men display. And this is what makes both Oscar and Jof, with all their faults, two of the more positive male figures I’ve encountered on this journey through (practically) all of the director’s films. Even as the ghost that he is for much of Fanny and Alexander, Oscar loves and is loved. He is one of several reasons why the film (or indeed the TV series) is exceptional among Bergman’s works, even when many of its individual elements are very typically Bergmanesque – and in the end, Oscar and the way he differs from the typical Bergman male contribute to my affection for a film on which Criterion chose to end their collection.

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