Ingmar Bergman’s filmography has garnered the reputation as among the most lauded and languid of entry-level foreign language filmographies. As Kurosawa brings excitement with his tragedy and Fellini provides comedy with his introspection, Bergman’s seemingly reserved, distant, and muted style connote the stoic and serious. In pop culture, his work is commonly considered the starter-pack for burgeoning cinephiles that revel in the miserable and pessimistic. To Bergman, the world is profoundly restricting: religion is oppressive, family dynamics are overbearing, and art is the only method of appreciating one’s surroundings. Still, behind the cold and miserable exterior is a palpable humanism, a perception that the miserable are victims of their oppressive environments.
Often moving between high melodrama and religious introspection, Bergman’s later work, specifically Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata, found a consistent subject in the dissection of the bourgeois family life. Commonly, Bergman presented a world with little to praise beyond its aesthetic beauty; most of his characters were bitter, betrayed, confused, or condemned. In Cries and Whispers, the central family features adulterers, self-harmers, and the diseased. In Autumn Sonata, a mother and daughter feel uncomfortable expressing anger and passion out of concern of being judged. In both, a dysfunctional family dynamic is sustained by the conclusion.
Frequently barring witness to the misery of seeing families in turmoil, Bergman often allowed for the understanding that the miserable do not exist in a vacuum. Their emotional disunity came from a place of longstanding trauma beyond their control. Sexually hostile marriages and distant parental relationships often result in an inability to express oneself by adulthood. There is a quiet comfort that while the actions of the family members may be offensive and often hurtful, they do not come from a place of intended cruelty, but from a misunderstanding of what a meaningful connection may entail.
The mother’s injuries are to be handed down to the daughter. The mother’s failures are to be paid for by the daughter. The mother’s unhappiness is to be the daughter’s unhappiness. It’s as if the umbilical cord had never been cut.
Autumn Sonata (1978) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Bergman’s later films would often end in surface-level stagnation. Cries and Whispers concludes without a lasting positive or negative resolution between the living siblings. Emotional highs and lows are met, hurtful speeches and warm embraces are had, but their departure feels indifferent and inconclusive. As though no greater truth or honesty had been expressed, siblings do not show a greater interest in communicating. Late in life, the glorious expression of varying emotions become taxing instead of satisfying. Autumn Sonata concludes with Ingrid Bergman’s dominant matriarch character expressing some interest in bettering her relationship with her family, but showing no change in her day-to-day selfishness. The rhetoric of change is challenged as she leaves her vacation with her daughter earlier than expected. As usual, the abused daughter takes the responsibility to tend to her abuser and a status quo is upheld.
The resolution comes not from the characters forming a closer, lasting bond, but from the viewer developing an understanding of the difficulties of progressing. As Bergman presents his characters, growth sits as an ideal that is enticing and exciting, but nearly impossible to attain. Characters eventually understand the status quo needs to shift, but their insecurities prevent themselves from doing so. Some works feature higher stakes than others (Cries and Whispers holds women who actively injure themselves, while Autumn Sonata features one extended, but intense argument), but each serves as a gesture of comfort to all sides of a potential familial conflict. Change is difficult, but for a man who produces films that are so seemingly bitter and stoic, Bergman understood all sides.