Film Scene Spotlight: Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata

This will be the first in my series of posts where I discuss individual scenes in films. Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata [1978] 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.

10 thoughts on “Film Scene Spotlight: Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata

  1. I remember some promotions using the “two Bergman’s working together” even though most people knew they weren’t related. Probably Ingrid Bergman’s best performance harkening back to her early career in Sweden before coming here to the States. Ingmar Bergman used Ingrid’s talents to their full potential.

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    1. I agree. Yes, Ingrid was really great in this film. I have seen all three films for which she won her Oscars and dare say she was even better in Autumn Sonata for which she was only nominated.

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  2. I’d say this new “Scene Spotlight” series is an instant hit here, DB. I am captivated by your focus on the psychological, emotional nuances of this scene, and the two acting performances, Bergman and Ullman as Mother and daughter, respectively. And I’m happy to learn more about Ingmar Bergman as director, as believe it or not I know very little about this very great director or his films!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your support, I really appreciate it! I find Bergman fascinating, but he made so many good films that I am still to see even half of them. I am not even sure whether I prefer his “historic” films like The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, or his more “modern” and intimate dramas.

      In my opinion, despite the diversity of his films, Bergman is stating the same messages in all of them and repeating the same themes in almost all of them. His vision remains the same and though I know that other directors such as Tarkovsky and Bresson did the same with their films, I still find it incredible that Bergman felt compelled to make so many films to show essentially the same human condition and issue, as well as raise the same questions.

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      1. The fact that his message was the same, basically, in all his films makes me stop and appreciate. I must watch this great director. Wild Straweberries and Seventh Seal have both been recommended to me. So I’m going to start with one of those. Would you agree?

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