The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


You Can’t Escape Me

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.

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. La Femme du Boulanger (Marcel Pagnol)
  2. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
  3. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz)
  4. Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)
  6. Fanny and Alexander – TV version (Ingmar Bergman)
  7. Ready or Not (Bettinelli-Olpin/Gillett)
  8. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick)
  9. Hope and Glory (John Boorman)
  10. Ex-Lady (Robert Florey)


1- Ready or Not is easily the worst film I have seen in the last 20 years. It never settles on a tone. Are we in a comedy-horror world? Are we in a slasher film world? Are we in some kind of bone-headed ‘eat the rich’ satire? Who knows? All I know is that the violence unleashed on our heroine is one of the most blatant examples of misogyny it was ever my misfortune to see. She survives, yes, but lots of other women in the film don’t and their deaths are all gory and treated comically. I was hoping that this would be in the grand tradition of James Whale’s The Old Dark House. It needs to be flushed down the nearest toilet.

2- I felt compelled to see Once Upon a Time in …. Hollywood (note the pretentious and unexplained ellipsis in the title!). The way it was promoted (‘The Ninth Film From Quentin Tarantino!”) made me fear that it would have everything I hate about his movies and at almost three hours I would be bored out of my mind. Well, actually it was an entertaining enough watch. Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio’s characters are lovable misfits and Tarantino’s by-now trademark of rewriting unpleasant history is prominent in the last 15 minutes of the movie. But what hit me, like in Ready or Not, was the gleeful violence toward women. Yes, these are members of the Manson family, not girl scouts, but is the exuberant beating and torching necessary. At one point, Pitt is bashing the head of a Manson girl repeatedly into a wall phone. At the screening I was at, some idiot 20-year old fanboy was laughing out loud at this. I stood up, got right in his face and screamed ‘ What the FUCK are you laughing at??’ A moment of triumph I will relish the rest of my life.

3- Ah, the magic of Fanny and Alexander. Please see my recent thoughts on this masterpiece.

4- I am less and less convinced of the value of Stanley Kubrick. I thought I would watch Spartacus out of fairness and a sense of completeness. What a bore. What a plodding elephant. I know that Kubrick was brought in after the project started so he didn’t get to his anal attention to whatever his concept was, but man was this dopey.

5- God bless Criterion for issuing another Pagnol masterpiece. First The Marseille Trilogy and now the sublime The Baker’s Wife. All your friends are here! Raimu! Charpin! Alida Rouffe. Even little Maupi. Can I be greedy instead of grateful and ask for more?

6- I have been trying to watch or rewatch all the films of Bette Davis that I can. You can tell what projects she was fired up about and which she wasn’t. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex she seems to be phoning it in. Very over the top and in high-Diva mode. Ex-Lady a much earlier pre-Code wonder obviously engaged her. An accomplished and talented woman who is engaged and very successful in her career is not interested in marriage, but is interested in relationships….to a point. A delight.

7- Blinded by the Light is sweet and engaging. I felt very good after it was over due to the lovely story, appealing hero and the hearty helping of Springsteen. What’s wrong with that?

8- I saw Hope and Glory when it first came out and remembered it fondly. Why haven’t I seen it since then? It is an absolute delight. It is quirky and heart-felt in a way that one the English can do. A warm-hearted, funny film about a family living in London during the blitz. Really!

9- I hadn’t seen The Grapes of Wrath since I read it for the first time last year. I remembered the movie being powerful but after reading the book, I wondered how powerful it really was. The answer is plenty powerful. I was surprised that the labor issues are not toned down. Tom Joad is not a hero, but an Anti-hero extraordinaire. Of course we do not get the bizarre closing shot of Rose Of Sharon suckling a poor Okie with the milk intended for her now dead infant, but that is a minor complaing