Last week I started writing a big ol’ post about how Fanny and Alexander was my new favorite movie of all time. I thought I might be able to get it all into one post but the task quickly grew a little out of control and I only ended up covering about half of the greatness of the film in 1,500 words. So here’s another attempt at it, call it the second half and hopefully it won’t turn into a three part series, though that probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Let’s get this party train moving.
Last time around I left off with the very real threat of Edvard, the evil town bishop and new father for the titular children, demonstrating the full force of his terror with physical and emotional abuse towards Alexander which led to a visit from his previous victims while Alexander was trapped in the attic of his dreary house. With all of that in mind, let’s visit in on what his mother, Emilie, was doing in the meantime. When she married Edvard he forced her to cut off all communication with her dead husband’s family, the warm and friendly, if a little odd, Ekdahls. A matriarchal family, Helena embodies all the grandmotherly characteristics one could want. She’s off in her summer home and worrying about her daughter-in-law since she hadn’t seen her or her grandkids for a long time. While the rest of her family is off on an afternoon boat trip, she gets a visit from Emilie who has escaped her imposing husband for a few days. They discuss the problems Emilie is having and whether or not the children are safe (hint: they’re not) and Emilie shares a new wrinkle, her pregnancy. This meeting is important for setting up the endgame of the film, a clever heist pulled off by family friend Isak Jacobi.
This is another important location in the film, one of four which go a long way towards establishing the mood of the scenes that take place therein. Here we have another opulent location, this one set in clean whites surrounded by lush greens which perfectly evoke the spring setting. Still, it’s raining outside and there’s clearly an air of melancholy permeating the vacation home. It’s also the location of a visit from Oscar, Helena’s dead son. He is decidedly quiet through the visit which allows Helena to talk to the audience about how she’s feeling and what is happening with his widowed wife. Ghost-Oscar repeatedly visits his family members – mostly Alexander – to remind them that there was once something good in the world, and that the good could return. His most important visit happens in the fourth location, after Isak Jacobi pulls off a spectacular (and supernatural) “kidnapping” of the kids away from Edvard’s evil grasp. They stay for a while at the Jacobi house, a weird and wonderful repository for stagecraft and semi-religious artifacts. Here Oscar’s visit feels entirely natural, as if the magic of the surroundings summon him from beyond as much as Alexander’s yearnings for his father.
Oscar is an embodiment of the question Bergman asks throughout his career (or, at least over the two movies of his I’ve seen, but I have it on pretty good authority that he continues the trend), that of the existence of God. Oscar basically is a kind of god, a creator who projects from his own mind a view of the world for others to step into lasting at least the duration of a play, if not longer in the audience’s mind. Alexander understands this implicitly and gawps at even the rehearsal of such an act early in the film. After Oscar dies Alexander becomes a liar, a creator in his own small way before Edvard attempts to take that expression of creativity away along with the books and stuffed animals. Even in punishment, though, Alexander’s creativity is manifest as he conjures the ghosts of Edvard’s first set of children. And when placed into the great workshop that is the Jacobi house his imagination is allowed to run wild, first seeing his father in his typical all white ghost garb then falling back in fright from a giant puppet version of God operated by one of Jacobi’s nephews. It’s pretty clearly a puppet after the first few seconds of screen time but it’s a darn convincing one and Alexander’s questioning of God has opened him to the potential veracity of this appearance. And really, wouldn’t it? If you were magically rescued from a horrible step-father by an enigmatic old Jewish man and then visited late at night by the ghost of your beloved father while thinking deeply about the existence of God wouldn’t a larger-than-life marionette version of God, full throated and with accompanying giant footstep sounds, feel real? An answer to a probing young man made of wood and string and theater tricks is actually closer to “real” for Alexander than a cloud-borne be-cloaked guy with a beard. The Jacobi house is full of reassuring and scary answers to the questions Alexander and the audience have been asking for the previous four hours.
Jacobi himself soothes the kids to sleep with a parable that must have been the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ own tale of religion gone right and wrong, A Serious Man. Stories are the ultimate power in Bergman’s world. Religious tracts, classics of literature, fairy tales, or just comforts and tales of good days past, the story’s ability to transport literally or figuratively is demonstrated over and over again. The performance of those stories allows others to come along for the ride. A chair becomes a precious heirloom because Oscar is so convincing. Hamlet enables Oscar to return for guidance and warnings like the titular hero’s own father. A discussion between a mother and her dead son puts the both of them at ease and on the right course of action. A lie becomes the truth thanks to Jacobi’s magic.
Fanny and Alexander is, in part at least, a magical realist tale which allows it to operate on this theoretical level with great power and flexibility. Shelter is found in the comforts of family and stories. At the end of the film, after everybody is rescued from their captivity and two babies born Gustav Adolf Ekdahl gives a speech that echoes his brother Oscar’s speech from the beginning of the film. In fact, much of the same audience is in attendance and there are even stronger familial bonds forged in the tribulations surrounding Emilie, whose return to the theater company her husband had once run is welcomed and celebrated as much as the newborn children on this occasion. Gustav implores his audience, “Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.” The little world of family, the little world of friends and co-workers, the little world of stories and performances. All are celebrated in Bergman’s garden of Eden, returned to its former glory after a brief fall. As a capper (well, nearly) to his career, Bergman at once justifies his work and indulges further in the escapist capacity of film. He celebrates, too, cinema’s power to put us through the ringer and come out the other side as changed as the characters we follow. Escapism is important, so is the didactic ability inherent in stories.