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The Criterion Collection presents
Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander): Special Edition Five-Disc Set (1982)

Fanny: I think we've got a terrible stepfather.
Alexander: And the sister is crazy.
Fanny: And that tub of lard that has to be fed.
Alexander: I don't want to live here.

- Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: November 18, 2004

Stars: Bertil Guve, Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Pernilla Allwin
Other Stars: Gun Wållgren, Jarl Kulle, Pernilla Wallgren, Erland Josephson, Allan Edwall, Börje Ahlstedt, Mona Malm, Christina Schollin, Marianne Aminoff, Harriet Andersson, Kerstin Tidelius, Gunnar Björnstrand, Per Mattson, Mats Bergman, Stina Ekblad
Director: Ingmar Bergman

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for (minor cursing, brief nudity, a scene of sexuality, a scene of child abuse)
Run Time: 03h:09m:09s (theatrical); 05h:10m:51s (television)
Release Date: November 16, 2004
UPC: 037429197622
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ AAB A+

DVD Review

Ingmar Bergman characterizes Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) as the sum total of his career. For those who have closely studied the director's progress from Smiles of a Summer Night to The Seventh Seal to Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander seems almost like an inevitable conclusion to his magnificent career.

The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1907, with young Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) sitting alone in his grandmother's apartment. The opening sequence of shots, masterfully orchestrated by cinematographer Sven Nykvist (he won an Academy Award for his work here), is essential Bergman. Elegant close-ups of clocks, a puppet theater, and fine furniture are set to Schumann's Piano Quartet in E Major in order to isolate Alexander in a lifeless world. Lifeless, that is, until Alexander's imagination kicks in. He imagines a statue of a nude woman moves her arm. At first, this seems to be Bergman's nod to childhood fantasy, but it soon becomes clear that the whole of the film is an exploration of the whole of childhood.

Nearly all of the first hour is devoted to the Ekdahl family's celebration of Christmas. The scene is reminiscent of Michael Cimino's wedding scene in The Deer Hunter, but Bergman's script and direction treat the Ekdahl's in a manner more akin to Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy. The family is brought together by Helena (Gunn WŒllgren), Alexander's paternal grandmother. Her three sonsÑthe mediocre actor and Alexander's father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), the womanizing restauranteur, Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), and the indebted alcoholic, Carl (Bšrje Ahlstedt)Ñconverge on the residence with their familes in tow. The scene artfully introduces many of the key players in the story, especially Oscar's actress wife, Emilie (Ewa Fršling); Gustav Adolf's accommodating wife, Alma (Mona Malm); Helena's former lover, Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson); and Alexander's nursemaid, Maj (Pernilla Allwin). One of the most impressive accomplishments of Bergman's screenplay is its depiction of women. At no time does he forget the role assigned to women in turn-of-the-century society, but Bergman manages to show their enduring strength and intelligence as well.

After the Christmas celebration, which is a stunning virtuoso in set and costume design (both of which won Oscars), Bergman's tone shifts from a loving tribute to a bygone era to what many viewers think of as "a Bergman film." Alexander and his younger sister, Fanny (Pernilla Wallgren), lose their father. The reaction of Alexander to his father's death appears to be coming directly from Bergman. But unlike his earlier work, death is not an Unknown Abyss to be feared, for here Oscar returns as a ghost, making himself visible to both of his children. Initially, he is a silent observer, watching his wife Emilie remarry to Bishop Edvard Vergeras (meticulously played by Jan Malmsjö).

It takes the viewer about ten seconds to understand that Edvard is a harsh, domineering personality who will wreak terrible havoc on little Alexander and Fanny. Emilie, however, is blind to this as she takes the children to live in a barren palace with their stepfather and his family. Once they arrive at Edvard's ascetic residence, it is easy to relate to the shocking, abrupt change this new life will inflict upon the children. Symbolism and theatrics are ratcheted up during this portion of the film, but surprisingly they don't feel out of place; Bergman, who was well into his sixties while filming this, seems to have delved into his own childhood. One of the most effective scenes is when Edvard canes Alexander for lying. The director wisely chooses not to show a single blow, which places the viewer within Alexander's frame of reference, since he cannot see his own punishment.

While Emilie and her children become trapped in the Bishop's Palace, the remainder of the Ekdahl family continues on, though they now worry for their estranged family members. The rest of the film becomes a sort of mystical, even suspenseful prison movie. It incorporates a variety of ambiguous scenes, including Alexander's conversation with his dead father and perhaps even with God. These seem to serve as a window into Bergman's own psyche, where he displays a tremendous candor about his own faith, or lack thereof.

Jarl Kulle creates just the right amount of comic relief in this long, epic film as Gustav Adolf. The character of Oscar, although a mediocre actor, has a flair for storytelling that is unmistakably similar to Bergman's. Gustav Adolf's affair with Maj, among others, is certainly implicative of Bergman's own sexual history. Additionally, Isak Jacobi represents Bergman's fascination with the supernatural, since he dabbles in magic. Even the character of the bishop can be compared to Bergman's authoritarian mentality towards his cast and crew. What all of these characters and the rest of the cast add up to is a film of epic scope, with a highly personal, emotional touch.

As impressive as the theatrical version is, the Swedish television version (which clocks in at just over five hours) is even better. The longer version is Bergman's preferred cut of the film, though one would be wise to view each of its four episodes on a separate night. Some of what is added is merely brief extensions to certain scenes or slightly altered cuts of others, but the vast majority of the footage is character oriented, allowing each character's progression—particularly Emilie's transformation from grieving widow to star-struck bride—more believable. There are also some sequences, particularly Alexander's dream inspired by Isak Jacobi's storytelling, that would have been amazing on the big screen. Perhaps the most important contribution of this longer cut is how Alexander's fantasies are reinforced.

The longer cut gives more opportunity for the performances to shine. Some of the performers here—Gunn Wållgren, Harriet Andersson, and Jarl Kulle in particular—have played significant roles in the history of Swedish cinema. Each of these veterans delivers in spades, bringing an authentic life to their respective characters that prevents them from being engulfed by the costumes and sets. Ewa Fröling's Emilie is a significant contribution to the success of the film; working off Fröling is Jan Malmsjö as Bishop Edvard—it would be easy for him to play the bishop as an unholy hypocrite, but thankfully he uses the material to create a well-intended man who happens to be severely flawed, and, in a way, deserving of the audience's sympathy. And, of course, the children's acting is some of the best in the history of the cinema. Bertil Guve's Alexander is a believable portrait of a young boy absorbed by these circumstances. Guve's use of facial expressions and delivery of dialogue embodies the rebellion, submission, stupidity, and keen resources of youth. Almost as impressive is his counterpart, Pernilla Allwin—what she does with her facial expression is reminiscent of Hélène Falconetti's in the title role of Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.

It is hard to argue that Fanny is not an important component in this film or in her brother's life, as she is shown as being closer to him than any other character. It is Fanny who first prompts Alexander to voice his disgust about Edvard to Emilie. It is Fanny who witness Edvard's caning of Alexander and defiantly refuses the Bishop's embrace afterwards. And it is Fanny who loves her brother so much that she sleeps in his bed after their father dies. What is Bergman's purpose with her? It seems obvious enough that the decision to begin the title with her name and her constant silent presence has a methodical purpose. The ambiguity of this subject is just one of the strengths of Fanny and Alexander. The viewer is left with tremendous opportunities to contemplate what has been seen and what it means. In this respect, the film is a rousingly successful conclusion to Bergman's magnificent career.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The RSDL 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is nothing short of breathtaking. Both versions of the film are fully restored with fantastic results, resulting in striking, bold colors, stunning detail, incredible depth, and solid contrast. Skintones are accurate and the colors (especially reds) are beautifully rendered without the slightest touch of bleeding. At times the image is slightly grainy and there are only about a half-dozen print defects, which are about the only flaws in this transfer that was approved by Bergman himself. The documentary, The Making of Fanny and Alexander, is also a newly remastered transfer, preserving its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It is a surprisingly clean and detailed picture. Excellent work by the craftsmen at Criterion!

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoSwedishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The original Swedish mono mix is preserved for this release, which makes for a solid presentation of the film's original premiere. The dialogue and music come across clearly and cleanly, but the highlight of the mix is the caning scene. Edvard's whacks echo clearly in the mix, having just as much effect as a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix would have. As far as monaural mixes go, this is as good as they get.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 95 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Cowie
Packaging: The Godfather-style box
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert—a 35-page booklet containing three essays, credits, and still photographs from the film.
  2. Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film-a 60-minute interview with Ingmar Bergman, originally aired on Swedish television.
  3. Stills Gallery—a collection of over 100 stills from the film and set.
  4. Costume Gallery—a collection of costume sketches and stills of the final product featured in the film.
  5. Introduction—a series of introductions, recorded for Swedish television, by Ingmar Berman on 11 of his films.
Extras Review: The Criterion Collection delivers a plethora of supplemental material for the five-disc special edition. The pleasing packaging is the same as employed for The Adventures of Antoine Doinel boxed set. In terms of extras, first up is an insert with three essays on the film, as well as the credits and still photographs from the film. The first essay is In the World of Childhood by Stig Björkman, a Swedish filmmaker and critic. It focuses on the television version of the film and gives a compelling analysis of Bergman's childhood as represented by Alexander. The next essay is Bergman's Bildungsroman by Rick Moody, an American author. His writing centers on the theatrical cut and its themes of childhood and religion. It isn't as finely written as Björkman's essay, though it is an elegant reflection on the film. The final essay is Just a Director: The Making of Fanny and Alexander by Paul Arthur, professor at Montclair State University. Much of what is present in this essay is Arthur's personal reaction to the footage of Bergman in the documentary, but it also contains some brief mentions about the film's reception and the story leading up to its production.

On Disc 2 of the theatrical cut is the new documentary, A Bergman Tapestry (39m:18s), featuring interviews with executive producer Jörn Donner, production manager Katinka Farago, production designer Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Shildt, and actors Pernilla August, Ewa Fršling, Bertil Guve, and Erland Josephson. With the exception of Josephson, all of the interviews are in English (there is a subtitle option for Josephson's comments). The documentary is presented in anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, and featuresÑin addition to the new interviewsÑclips from the film as well as the "making-of" documentary (which are letterboxed). The crew and cast talk about the excitement of working with Bergman on his first film upon his return to Sweden after being exiled for tax fraud (the charges were later dropped). Fršling talks about Bergman's relationship with the children on the set who did not see him as a legend, for which he apparently loved them. The crew, especially Anna Asp, explains Bergman's involvement in directing their process and the challenges that arose in terms of conceiving and realizing the film.

The theatrical version has an audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. His pleasant voice makes it an easy listen, complete with a thorough analysis of the film's themes in addition to anecdotes about his visiting the set. There is also an anamorphic presentation of the original theatrical trailer (2m:41s) with optional subtitles, which is an almost three-minute synopsis that ruins certain elements of surprise.

The final two discs are reserved exclusively for supplemental material. The highlight of the extra features is the documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander (01h:49m:44s), which is one of the best documentaries about the process of filmmaking. The footage was shot on the set and made into a documentary by Bergman in 1984 after the release of the film. It portrays the monotony and hard work of filmmaking, showing the struggle for the actors and camera operator to time everything correctly in addition to lighting and performing the scene correctly. There is an interesting sequence involving Sven Nykvist's role as the cinematographer that gives a nice sense of the working relationship between Bergman and his longtime collaborator. The ultimate joy of this documentary, however, is being able to see Bergman at work and in peak form.

Disc 4 also contains Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film (59m:08s), a 1984 interview for Swedish television. Conducted by Swedish film critic Nils Petter Sundgren, the majority of the interview pertains to how Bergman came up with the idea for the story. This appears to be a very candid interview in which Bergman reveals a lot about his life and dispels certain false notions about his childhood. The interview can be viewed with or without English subtitles.

A Stills Gallery with over 100 photos from the set and the final film includes some of the behind-the-scenes photos used in the documentary, but a significant number are not featured anywhere else on this release. There also is a Costume Gallery, which shows the evolution of the designs. The final extra on the disc is the featurette, Set Models (7m:15s). The video footage of Anna Asp's models is inter-cut with footage from the film, helping to give some idea as to how much effort went into her work.

On Disc 5 is a collection of brief introductions to 11 of Bergman's films that he recorded for Swedish television in 2003. Shown in nonanamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, these can be played together for a combined running time of 45m:04s. The films are Summer with Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel, A Lesson in Love, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Cries and Whispers, and Autumn Sonata.

This set's extras are some of the best of any release this year.

Extras Grade: A+

 

Final Comments

The Criterion Collection has once again delivered a magnificent set. This five-disc special edition of Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) is a beautiful presentation of one of Bergman's best works and includes, for the first time on American home video, the full five-hour television version of the film. The image is a fantastic restoration of the Academy Award-winning cinematography and sets, with an elegant monaural sound mix that preserves the film's original audio. As if this wasn't enough, the two discs of supplemental material and audio commentary on the theatrical version make this one of the best DVD sets of the entire year.

 


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