"A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction," says Eva (Liv Ullmann) to her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), at one point in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978). That statement just about sums up the view of relations between parents and children that Bergman expresses in the third of his 1970s trilogy on family dynamics, following Cries and Whispers (1972), which examined sibling relations, and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), which examined the relations between husband and wife.
A brief synopsis of Autumn Sonata makes the film sound like a fairly straightforward mother-daughter psychodrama. The movie opens with Eva sitting at her desk writing a letter to her mother, Charlotte, a famous concert pianist who has just lost her lover of many years, another professional musician, after a long illness. Feeling that her mother may be in need of comfort, Eva, who has had no contact with her mother for several years (some sort of estrangement is implied), invites her to visit the isolated home in the Norwegian countryside where she lives with her husband, a minister.
When Charlotte arrives, things are understandably awkward between them at first, but as they catch up and get reacquainted with other, they seem to grow more comfortable in each other's presence. The only real problem is that Eva has not told her mother beforehand that she has removed her sister, Helena, from the institution where she had been living and is now caring for her at the house. Helena is in the advanced stages of a degenerative disease and is entirely dependent on Eva for care and can communicate only with Eva.
As Charlotte begins to accept this situation, mother and daughter appear to be relaxing and opening up to each other. This newfound intimacy, however, suddenly lurches out of control when the normally reserved Eva confronts her mother during a late night conversation, spilling out all her lifelong resentments toward Charlotte in an unexpectedly harsh and bitter diatribe. Charlotte is hurt by these accusations and defends herself as best she can. Eventually the two seem to reach a state of emotional equilibrium and at least to have aired their concerns even if they haven't completely resolved them. Charlotte soon leaves and is last seen on a train blithely discussing her upcoming concert tour with her manager, while Eva is shown sitting at a desk writing another letter to her mother expressing hopes for a better relationship in the future.
Yet as one might expect from a film directed by the magisterial Bergman, there is a great deal more going on here than meets the eye. Like Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata is basically a two-character movie (the two characters are brilliantly inhabited by the great actresses Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann), and it is the incredible complexity of those characters that is responsible for the depth, subtlety, and surprise wrung from such a seemingly simple premise.
With her wire-rimmed eyeglasses, hair braided and fastened tightly on top of her head, prominent teeth, and frumpy clothing, Liv Ullmann's Eva appears shy, plain-looking, and innocuous. But from the beginning, there are hints that all is not right with her. In the opening and closing scenes, in which she is writing to her mother, she is actually in the background as her husband directly addresses the viewer, talking about Eva and explaining what she is doing. But significantly, he refrains from commenting on why she is doing this, and something in his manner conveys unease about the decision to write her mother. We also learn later that Eva is not a happy woman, that she has lost a child and been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital.
Eva's unexpected behavior during the late-night confrontation with her mother seems shockingly out of character. As the scene proceeds, it makes us question all the assumptions about Eva we have held until this climactic moment. We realize clearly for the first time that the timid and seemingly benign Eva is in fact deeply troubled, a passive-aggressive woman who may not even be fully aware of the true motivation behind her actions, and we understand the reason for her husband's air of unease during the opening scenes of the movie.
The percipient viewer might even have begun to wonder about Eva earlier in the movie, when she plays a piano piece for her mother, then shyly begs the reluctant Charlotte to critique her playing and perform the piece herself. This is like one of those moments in a horror movie when a character is about to open a mysterious door behind which some kind of threat is almost certainly lurking and the viewer wants to shout, "No! Don't open that door, you fool!" Yet Eva does open the door, compulsively pressing her mother into re-enacting with her a primal situation, with predictable results: humiliation for both.
After Eva's nearly hysterical confrontation with her mother, we begin to wonder about many of her actions that before seemed so forthright. Why did she contact her mother at such a vulnerable moment in Charlotte's life? Was it really, as she professed at the time, to offer comfort, or did she unconsciously sense an opportunity to attack while her opponent's defenses were weakened? Are her actions in regard to her sister Helena really as altruistic as they seem? Did she intend to use her as a pawn in a confrontation with Charlotte, an intention unacknowledged even to herself? She knew that Helena's presence in the house would unsettle Charlotte, yet she gave her no forewarning. A cynical viewer might wonder if this was to further throw Charlotte off her guard and make an unspoken accusation about Charlotte's neglect of her disabled child. After all, Eva's specific resentments about Charlotte's treatment of her as a child can be reduced to a combination of Charlotte's neglect of her family in favor of her career and her preoccupation with Eva's imperfections.
Then there is the question of why Eva decided to care for Helena in the first place. She made this decision soon after losing her own child, and Helena is as helpless as an infant. Could Eva be using her own sister as a substitute for the child she lost, not only to satisfy a psychological need to replace her dead child, but also to have another creature whose dependence on her will give her life meaning? At one point in the film, Eva says wistfully that she could be happy if only one person in the world loved her for herself. Yet this already seems true of Helena and of Eva's unbelievably patient and tolerant husband. Is she so unable to let go of the past, an adult still controlled by childhood grudges and perceived injustices centering on her mother, that she can't see what is so apparent to us, that she is already loved unconditionally by at least two people in her own household? So many things about Eva that seemed clear and simple earlier now seem opaque and ambiguous.
After that confrontation, we begin to see Charlotte in a different light too. If at first Eva was entirely sympathetic, appearing to be a victim, then Charlotte came off as comparatively unsympathetic. Under her soignée, poised exterior, she seemed a cool, aloof, and self-centered woman immersed in her career and avoiding true intimacy, a woman capable of superficial affection but not of any kind of deeper love, even for her own daughters. She treats Eva politely but is rather formal and distant with her. Something of a perfectionist, she is obviously repelled by Helena's disability.
As with Eva, after that midnight confrontation, a significant change occurs in our perceptions of Charlotte, a change that begins when we start to see Charlotte as the victim of Eva's hostile aggression. Charlotte does not react to this aggression with anger, but with mild and unresisting patience as she explains herself. She tells Eva how people of her generation are not by nature openly affectionate but that even if she did not express her love for her children, this did not mean they were unloved. She tells Eva of the personal difficulties in her marriage and of how the importance to her of her art often created conflict between the demands of her career and the needs of her family. She abashedly acknowledges that even though she tried to balance these things, in the end she invariably chose art over family. The viewer gets the impression that this is certainly the most intimate and self-revealing conversation Charlotte has ever had with her daughter, and possibly with anyone. We begin to see Charlotte as a more complex and sensitive woman than we did before—not simply a selfish person, but one defined by her own emotional limitations.
This dropping of masks and reversal of personalities hearkens back yet again to Bergman's Persona (1966). More and more, it seems to me that Persona is the seminal film in Bergman's later body of work, for so much in his later films seems to flow directly from that movie. For one thing, in Charlotte Autumn Sonata has as one of its main characters an artist. By the end of the movie, we see that Eva and Charlotte, far from being opposites in personality as they appeared at the beginning, are actually more alike than they believe. Both mother and daughter are self-absorbed almost to the point of narcissism. They are both overly sensitive to their own moods and feelings yet find it difficult to express their emotions.
The crucial difference between the two, though—the thing that allows Charlotte to move forward while Eva remains trapped nursing childhood grievances that have become a permanent part of her adult personality—is Charlotte's art. Artists may be no less selfish than the rest of us, but they have the expressive means of externalizing their inner lives. As Charlotte tells Eva, "Only through my music did I have the chance to show my feelings." It is significant that at the end of the movie Charlotte is seen traveling in a train to her next concert, while Eva is shown sitting at the same desk as at the beginning of the movie, doing the same thing—writing a letter to Charlotte as her husband looks on in resignation. In that letter she expresses sentiments of forgiveness and hope for a better relationship with her mother in the future that, in view of all that has happened in the film, simply do not seem realistic.
The other key element Autumn Sonata shares with Persona is the concept of the fundamental subjectivity of the individual human experience, what David Thomson calls Bergman's belief in "the harrowing separateness of people." In Bergman's later work, we see illustrated again and again the idea that we are each of us trapped inside ourselves, and that ordinary human attempts at communication are by their nature imperfect and fraught with emotional danger. This is the world view from which the later films grow.
Autumn Sonata, like its companion films on the family, shows that the emotional demands, both explicit and implicit, that we make on those we love temper love's sustaining qualities with an equally powerful ability to harm. In Autumn Sonata Bergman tells yet again a story of individuals that gives the viewer an intensive, microcosmic picture of all human relationships. That Eva and Charlotte can love each other only from a distance merely emphasizes the larger concept of the universal and unbridgeable distance between all human beings, even when they are related by blood, and when they share the emotional bond of love.