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The Scrivener: Fanny and Alexander - 7

…It is refreshing and satisfying to watch a film which is free of special effects, scripted clichés, hackneyed gestures, and constant background music to tell us what emotion we should be feeling…

Brian Barratt presents the seventh in a series of eight articles about what is perhaps the best film ever made – Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’.

To read earlier articles in this series, and lots more of Brian’s entertaining columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit Brian’s excellent Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Relationships In The Little World

It is refreshing and satisfying to watch a film which is free of special effects, scripted clichés, hackneyed gestures, and constant background music to tell us what emotion we should be feeling. There are no such faults in Ingmar Bergman's 'Fanny and Alexander'. The ghosts are not created by computer software. The dialogue is rich in vocabulary, intelligent and character-based. Body language, gestures and facial expressions reflect real people. Music by Britten and Schumann is used sparingly and beautifully.

During the 5-hour version made originally for Swedish television, we are drawn into almost every facet of human experience — friendship, love, birth, childhood, marriage, sex, loyalty, infidelity, illness, death, conflict, cruelty, violence, separation, betrayal, deprivation, fear, imagination, escape, religion, tradition, dreams, and even the mystery of what might be magic. It is impossible to define a main theme such as romance, ghost story, coming-of-age or mystery. We could argue over the question of whether there is a single 'main character' — it might be, for instance, the boy Alexander, his mother Emilie, or his ever-present father Oscar Ekdahl.

One thing is clear, in my mind at least: this is a story about relationships and particularly women in relationships. This is why I suggested in the third article in this series that Alexander's young sister Fanny has a special role, and the title would lose some of its essential meaning if it were merely 'Alexander'. To use a musical simile, in dealing with relationships, sex and marriage the story is more akin to a toccata than to variations on a theme.

In a short series of commentaries, we can do little more than outline some of the relationships. The three brothers Ekdahl have quite different attitudes to the women in their lives. The children's father Oscar is devoted to their mother Emilie but, as his mother Helena tells Isak Jacobi, 'Carl and Gustav were over-endowed; Oscar got nothing. A tragedy for Emilie, who is such a passionate young woman... she has handled her affairs tactfully'. Nevertheless, Emilie and Oscar remain devotedly in love.

Oscar's exuberant brother Gustav Adolf has a loyal wife Alma who happily tolerates his affairs with other women. He adds the children's nursemaid Maj to his list of willing conquests while still having an active and mutually joyful sex life with his wife.

Moody and morose brother Carl is entirely different. He married an attractive German girl, Petra, but finds her increasingly annoying. He despises not only her difficulties with the Swedish language but also her efforts to console him when he is suffering erratic, depressed moods. She cannot satisfy him but she keeps trying. Theirs is a love/hate partnership with love on one side and hatred on the other.

Relationships in Bishop Edward Vergerus's household are totally joyless and bound by the strict moralistic limitations he imposes upon them. His mother Blenda and his sister Henrietta go along with his rule of law, but there are hints that they do not entirely agree with it. He is a handsome and persuasive 'lady killer' and it is not surprising that the children's mother Emilie Ekdahl succumbs to his charms after her husband Oscar dies. When she can no longer bear the situation in which she finds herself, because of his stern and cruel morality, he puts everything in the way of her divorcing him, including the forfeiture of her children to his 'care'.

There is discussion of a past sexual affair between wise grandmother Helena Ekdahl and the mysterious owner of the magic shop, Isak Jacobi. Theirs is now a relationship that has mellowed with age, wisdom and insight. It is significant in the overall context that Grandmama Ekdahl never sleeps.

Alexander is close to his mother Emilie, his grandmother Helena, and his sister Fanny. He has an ambiguous relationship with Maj, the nursemaid. When she kisses him goodnight she tells him, 'Tonight you can't sleep in Maj's bed because Maj will have a visitor. Maj can have lots of men in her bed, can't she? All the same, you're Maj's sweetheart, you know that'. From his subtly portrayed wordless movements and facial expressions, we are left to wonder what this means to him.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008
Some useful commentaries and reviews:
Ingmar Bergman: Summing up a life in film, by Michiko Kakutani. (Originally published in The New York Times Magazine) at


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