NOTE: If you haven’t yet seen Fanny and Alexander you might want to wait to read this post. But the question is: why haven’t you seen Fanny and Alexander yet???
Watching Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, especially in the complete, five-hour plus television, is the closest cinematic experience to reading a good, juicy 19th century novel. Since this is Bergman, though, there is much more than plot and sumptuous scenery.
Bergman is the supreme film psychologist. I don’t always like what he comes up with, but I can’t think of any other director whose work so plumbs the minds of his characters and lays them bare.
Fanny and Alexander is considered his last film although it was followed by some more television work. I remember at the time of its release the common thread of the critiques was that in his last work Bergman gave us a sprawling, life-affirming, exuberant work that dispelled the tragic world-view of his previous films, much in the way that Verdi’s glorious comedy Falstaff was a reversal of that master’s long string of tragic masterpieces.
Well, yes and no.
First of all, many of Bergman’s previous works do ultimately give us a reason to live, even after, say, playing chess with Death for two hours. Also, many of his previous works are outright comedies.
In Fanny and Alexander there are many depictions of love: familial love, romantic love, sexual love, love of theater and love of life. But there are demons that are dealt with, as well.
After leaving the nurturing womb of the Ekdahl family home when their mother remarries, Fanny and Alexander find themselves in a very different world. The austere Lutheran aesthetic of the Bishop’s house stands in unsettling contrast to the Victorian splendor of the Grandmother’s home decorated for Christmas from the first part of the film. The children very quickly find that there will be no comfort in their new life. Alexander rebels and becomes locked in a struggle for self-determination with his new step-father.
Through the magic ministrations of the loving and mysterious Isak Jacobi, the children are spirited away from the hell of the Bishop’s house and are soon to be united with their loved ones. But not right away, and here is where the psychoanalysis comes in.
The children are taken not to their grandmother’s house, but to Uncle Isak’s strange shop. There are echoes of the Ekdahl home in that Uncle Isak’s house is also filled to the brim with ‘things’, but not the lovely, ornate Victoriana we find in the grandmother’s place. Instead, this is a world of magical things, of puppets and costumes. In fact, it seems to be a cross between the two worlds that the children grew up in: the comfort of the Ekdahl home and the other-worldliness of the theater that was also a huge part of their family.
It is important they come here first, because Alexander has healing he has to do. It is not a case of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother being cut out of the evil wolf and living happily after. There is work that needs to be done.
I was always baffled by the long static scene between Alexander and the purportedly mad and dangerous Ismael, Isak’s strange nephew who is locked up in the maze of the paraphernalia of the Jacobi’s magic dwelling. I didn’t understand why Alexander and his sister could not be brought right back to their grandmother’s after the horrendous ordeal they survived.
This time around it became crystal clear to me what is happening. Before you meet him, Ismael (for some reason played by a Finnish actress – perhaps to add to his strangeness?) is describe as extraordinarily dangerous. However the man we see is a beautiful, calm, seductive creature. What is terrifying about him is that as soon as he is alone with Alexander, he can read his deepest thoughts and emotions. Ismael reveals to us (and perhaps to the boy as well) that Alexander is frightening to Ismael because he is willing a man to die. Of course he means the Bishop and of course we don’t blame Alexander one bit for feeling this way. But we have the feeling that this revelation and purging of this feeling has to happen before Alexander can return to a healthy, loving Ekdahl world.
The Jacobi shop is a kind of Cognitive Behavior staging area before he can rejoin the world. He needs to be cleansed of the damage that was done to him.
At then end of the film we see Alexander once again integrated into the world of his grandmother and the theater. He is cockily walking in the halls munching on box of cookies, the golden prince restored. But as if to counter the relief we feel that Alexander is finally home free, from behind him out of the dark comes a figure, wearing a prominent gold crucifix. It is the Bishop.
He knocks Alexander to the floor. Alexander peers at him from his prone position, and before the Bishop leaves forever, he turns to Alexander and says, “You can never escape me.”
As a survivor of an abusive childhood this scene resonates with me. Yes, Alexander can move on and enjoy the love that he is surrounded by. However, the hell he went through will always be there. It won’t overwhelm him, but it will always be a part of his make-up and will always be part of his future, no matter how joyous it will be.