Why Fanny and Alexander is my new favorite movie

I had all these grand ideas of presenting my new top 100 movies list in a long and drawn out way, building anticipation and excitement and all that jazz until the reader just couldn’t wait to know which movie of all the ones I’d talked about was number one. Would Magnolia retain its title, or would There Will Be Blood swoop back in and reclaim its rightful throne? Or would it be some other movie entirely, either newly watched this year or newly appreciated (Blade Runner, maybe, thanks to praise from awesome Swedish blogger Jessica over at The Velvet Cafe)? Well, nearly a month after watching that movie up there in the title of this post I can’t stop thinking about it and I can’t wait to talk about it some more. So here it is, a whole post gushing about Fanny and Alexander, my new favorite movie of all time.

It’s kind of funny (or perhaps I’m just clever) that I mentioned Jessica in the previous paragraph, as her hometown is featured heavily in this wonderful film about growing up and mothers and fathers and faith and evil and family and the power of stories. Maybe the strongest single element of the Fanny and Alexander is the world it creates. It all begins as Alexander, our main character, is left seemingly alone at home. We’re introduced to his opulent surroundings which at once indicate that his family is rich and that they’re also quite good at making the ostentatious feel comforting. It’s a warm place, though you can also tell that it’s chilly outside. The house is a protective cocoon which fosters all kinds of imaginative playing as Alexander finds ways to entertain himself. I, too, spent much of my childhood making my own house into a personal playground, and I, too, sometimes imagined scary sights out of everyday object. Here it’s a statue that has probably faded into being just a part of the scenery for Alexander until his imagination sparks it to life. Creepy stuff, and table setting by director Ingmar Bergman to prepare us for what will come later. But then our fear is wiped away as Christmas comes.I watched the full TV version of Fanny and Alexander. It is preferred by Bergman himself, who had to go in and cut out nearly two hours of footage to get down to a still-long three hours for theatrical presentation. Bergman himself stated that “with each cut I reduced the quality of [his] work,” (Images). It feels true, though I have not yet gone back to watch the theatrical version. The full TV version dedicates the entire first “episode” to the prologue I discussed above and the subsequent Christmas celebrations. This is the first bit of evidence for the film’s masterpiece status, and it’s a large bit. Christmas on film has often been warm but never this warm. We begin with each of the family members separate, going about their last duties on Christmas Eve. One brother is wrapping up a good season at his theater company he shares with his wife and kids (the titular characters). He gives a speech to his players and thanks them for participating in his “little world” that gives the audience a chance to get away from their larger concerns. This dichotomy between the little world created by stories and family as a protector against the big, harsh world is echoed by his brother in the final act of the movie after all of the bad stuff has happened. Still the little world remains, “a little room of orderliness, routine, care and love.”

Yet another brother closes up his restaurant while the matron of the family prepares an elaborate dinner, or guides her maids in preparing it. She’s visibly old and kind of broken down, but when she speaks her spirit is lively and strong. Once a stage actress in the theater group her son now runs, she was famous, and through her the family made a lot of money. Yes, it’s a bourgeois paradise of intellectuals and artists, and that might throw off some viewers from initially connecting to these characters. Once the Christmas celebrations begin in earnest, though, it’s hard to not get sucked in. Taking up a full hour and a half, the Christmas feast and post-dinner activities give way to bedtime for the kids and a splintering for the adults. Some relish in secret dalliances, others fight over their marriage. A comedown, to be sure, from the delightful Christmas scenes, but an important one which sets up each of the characters and enriches them into being real people. The relationships are all complex and realistic, which again helps the later fantasy scenes feel more real.

The most important scene in this first act is one which reveals how kids are drawn in by stories and audiences are made to believe in anything if the storyteller is any good. I’ve included the scene above so that you can watch it for yourself. Fanny and Alexander’s father comes into the kids’ room to scold them for still being awake at such a late hour. He sees that they aren’t finished celebrating and decides to tell them a story about a seemingly ordinary chair which is, in actuality, possessed of supernatural powers. An invented fairy tale, it bewitches the kids instantly and sends them to sleep with a little magic. Of course, all cannot remain so sweet, and the next episodes put one giant obstacle in their path.

Before his untimely death, Alexander’s father (Oscar) rehearses a (not-so) new play, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which he was going to play Hamlet’s ghost dad. He has a stroke onstage and is rushed home for medical treatment which doesn’t work. His death sets into motion a series of events which leads to his widow (Emilie) marrying the town’s bishop (Edvard). Edvard is everything that Oscar wasn’t: cold, mean, vengeful, and cruel. It’s clear to see how Emilie could get pulled into his arms, wanting to get as far away as she can from Oscar’s theatricality, but man, it’s also clear how bad of a choice she’s made from the get go. If Bergman weren’t so good at what he does Edvard would be a one dimensional villain like, say, the Emperor from Star Wars, but he’s got depth and a purpose behind him which makes him not only evil but humanly evil. His religious convictions lead him to be ascetic in all undertakings, including child-rearing. When Fanny and Alexander move into his house they aren’t allowed to take any belongings, not even books or clothes. It’s positioned as a new start for them but it’s really a way to indoctrinate them into a particular world-view which would be undermined by any worldly possessions.

Maybe the easiest way to see the differences between Oscar and Edvard other than looking at their characters is to examine their households. One is decadence to the max, a rich, red and gold wonderland which seems like it would be the softest place to exist. There aren’t any sharp edges except on the knives used to cut giant mounds of meat into edible chunks. Contrast that with Edvard’s house run by his shrew of a sister. There the walls are blank and gray, the only books allowed are in the bishop’s personal library, and I’d hazard to say that there won’t be many fairy tales to be found on those shelves. The kids’ room sports a doll-sized replica of the house but even that isn’t enough to make it a fun place to live. In that first scene Alexander’s imagination was spurred by his lavish surroundings, when he moves into Edvard’s house the only inspiration he encounters is for nightmares.

Early on Alexander hears about Edvard’s previous family, how he had them killed through some kind of cosmic force or constant terrorizing. His telling of this story to his young sister and their keeper while Emilie is away enrages Edvard – though he never really shows it – and gives him an opportunity to punish Alexander physically and mentally. Here the insidious nature of Edvard’s evil is in full evidence. He’s all grim smiles and lengthy speeches about taking responsibility without any real display of caring for the young boy or how he grows up. Alexander does learn from this, of course, but it’s not the lesson Edvard was teaching. Instead Alexander learns that sometimes being right is no match for wrong people with more power. He is sent to the attic for the night as additional punishment where he encounters the creepy ethereal ghosts of the bishop’s previous kids. They taunt him for messing with their father, which is supremely unsettling as they must have been getting treated similarly when they were “alive”. If we take their appearance to be real in the world of the movie, it’s the first really supernatural occurrence with any kind of repercussions for the characters, though they could just as easily be hallucinations brought on by Alexander’s lack of food and mental torment earlier in the day. Bergman won’t commit one way or the other, so we’re left to our own interpretations. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think that’ll do for now. Consider this part 1 of 2, the second of which will tackle the second half of the movie/series. If you haven’t already seen this movie, take the time to watch it before coming back. It’s only 5 hours and in Swedish, what’s not to like?

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