Though it isn’t typical of this column to focus an article’s actual material towards the relevance of the chosen title for the week ‘s relation to the time of year we currently find ourselves in, I’m making an exception for the spirit of the holiday in which we often tend to make many exceptions. Stores open earlier and stay open later for customer convenience (and monetary benefits), people you happen to dislike you may briefly get along with, or just dislike a little less, and even though you don’t attend any services any other days throughout the year, on December 25th you may find yourself amongst fellow members of your community or neighborhood (some of which may be amongst those people you happen to dislike) at a nearby church of chosen denomination.
Considering the relative lack of pure ‘holiday’ pictures in the Criterion library due to the sub-genre finding itself as a non-point of interest to center the theme of an entire picture on for the eclectic group of filmmakers that make up the majority of the library’s shelf space, I’ve selected a film that thematically and, as it pertains to the rest of the filmmaker’s body of work, is somewhat characteristically different in terms of how we view the events of the film and is representative of what we consistently try to regain as adults throughout the weeks leading up to December 25th; and that is to experience and see the incidents of life, both tragic and blissful, as we did as children.
Not to mention, the strong sense of family and its nearly unconditional nature in Fanny and Alexander is highly analogous to the spirit of the day that also happens to act as the setting for the first 1/3rd of the film.
All Adults Want to be Children
To say that the family dynamic was a point of interest for Ingmar Bergman is about as obvious as saying Michael Bay is interested in making things go boom and circulating the camera around the subjects as they watch. Many of Bergman’s films, especially from the early 1970s on through this film, deal heavily with the conflicts of adult siblings (Cries and Whispers), mother and daughter (Autumn Sonata), or husband and wife (Scenes from a Marriage). The common denominator, aside from the family relation, in all of these films and almost every other picture he’s made is the audience’s subjection of the picture from the perspective of adults. Unless, that is, you watch these films during your pre-adolescence and at that point I can’t imagine what kind of effect it may have on you.
Even so, as a child watching these films you get a slice of the life that may become, and you see it with the imagination of what you’re currently capable of – which is nearly limitless. What Bergman does with Fanny and Alexander is depict his story of a considerably large family going through the troubles of loss, self inadequacy, consensual infidelity, and psychological abuse from the perspective of two young children; primarily Alexander, the defiant one having to accustom to a new lifestyle of excessive obedience and feigned affection at the hands of his new stepfather – a bishop. When the mother realizes the mistake she has made in marrying him to replace her recently deceased husband, a beloved figure in the family, she seeks the aid of her in-laws to help free them from his tyranny.
One may find it somewhat of an oddity that the people she looks to for help is the family of her dead husband instead of her own (whom we actually never hear anything about, at least in the significantly shorter theatrical cut of the film), that is until you have seen what kind of family they are. Looking past the fact that they are considerably well-off they are also very progressive for an early 20th century household, at least from the perspective of a 21st century Westerner. Headed by the grandmother, the magnet that draws them all together, the females of the family (all married in) form a sort of glue that all of the male siblings stick to; whether it’s because they don’t ever want to get away despite being unfaithful, or because they consistently fail at reaching their own perceived level of approval.
Yet, it is the grandmother, as is in most cases, who is the one that seems to understand it all. In a conversation with her deceased son (the only other character aside from the children that sees him in his state of the after-life) she speaks of the forgotten experiences of young adulthood. It seems, as you get older, there were only two significant times in your life – those as you see now, and those you saw as a child, at which time everything was possible.
The first hour of the theatrical cut of Fanny and Alexander takes place during the Christmas holidays. While the tones shift from joyful to melancholy and back and forth (this is a depiction of life, not of idealism) there’s no denying the expressed cheer that envelops the Ekdahl family when in the company of each other. Separately, they go home and wallow about their failures as adults, cheat on their wives, or work themselves to catastrophic fatigue – but, together they prance around the illustriously large home, have messy pillow fights, and blow out candles without using their mouths (even Bergman isn’t above the occasional fart joke).
It’s symbolic of what is typical of the time of year. We may not always be able to regain the sheer joy and worry-free attitude from when we were ten years old, but even in the face of tragically large debts to be paid and managing a business that may be too strenuous than we care to admit to ourselves sometimes, when the time is right, we can pull our pants down and ask your nephew if they can do a favor and hold a candle.
Now is such a time.