This will be the first in my series of posts where I discuss individual scenes in films. Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata  centres on the relationship between a mother, a self-centred concert pianist Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman), and her already grown-up and married daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann). One of the greatest film scenes in history takes place at Eva’s home when Charlotte asks her daughter to play Chopin’s Prelude op. 28 no. 2 in A minor.
Ingmar Bergman was a master of showing repressed thoughts and desires on screen and, here, Ingrid Bergman’s silent performance conveys brilliantly all the hidden emotions and thoughts brewing inside the character. In those few minutes as her daughter plays the Prelude, Charlotte is “living through things”… What memories cross her mind at this moment? What turbulent feelings arise in her? As she patiently listens to this “imperfect” performance of her daughter, what “judgement” is she passing on it? Are there simply criticism, pity and disappointment or also guilt, and touches of love, kindness and pride? Probably all of the above. This scene displays the level of subtlety and psychological depth which is simply rare in cinematography, and Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman truly worked something magical here.
In this scene, Eva seemingly has her last chance to be finally “liked” and “loved” by her mother, to get that approval that she had wanted all her life, but never got. Eva’s rendition of Chopin’s Prelude is that final fragile gift that she has to offer. However, things do not go according to her plan. Now, it is her mother’s turn to show her daughter how to play the Prelude, and the heart-break is renewed – on both sides. As Charlotte explains to her daughter, the Prelude is about pain, sometimes alleviated, but still persistent, recurrent, ever-present, ever-felt. This choice of music is also ingenious because it shows perceptively the very complex relationship between the mother and the daughter. Their relationship is also about pain, hidden pain, pain that was never discussed and that was left bottled inside all through the years. Now that Charlotte plays, the focus is on the facial expressions of Eva and we also see “things” there – stuff that are private, intense. Is there love, hate? There is definitely a lot of sadness there and maybe disbelief at that final hope lost, at her delicate offering of understanding, kindness, love so brutally cast aside. As seen from a number of his other films, Ingmar Bergman was very interested in the relationship between two women (one dominant and one submissive), but, in Autumn Sonata, he presented something truly complex and sublime.