“A mother and a daughter — what a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction. Everything is possible and is done in the name of love and solicitude. The mother’s injuries are handed down to the daughter. The mother’s failures are paid for by the daughter. The mother’s unhappiness will be the daughter’s unhappiness. It’s as if the umbilical cord had never been cut.”
Even before concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) makes her first appearance in Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 film Autumn Sonata, it’s evident that her relationship with her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) is less than ideal. For example, Eva doesn’t learn of the recent death of her mother’s longtime lover, Leonardo (Georg Løkkeberg), from Charlotte herself; she only finds out about it during a chance encounter with a mutual acquaintance. Upon receiving this news, she writes her mother a letter, inviting her to visit the country parsonage where she lives with her clergyman husband, Viktor (Halvar Björk). The letter has a touch of desperation about it, with lines such as “Please don’t say no right away.” It reveals, too, that she hasn’t seen her mother in nearly seven years, and although Eva is a journalist and the author of two books, she anxiously asks Viktor if he’s certain that it sounds all right.
When Charlotte arrives, it seems that Eva’s worries were unfounded, as mother and daughter greet each other with joy. However, it’s not long before Charlotte’s vanity and self-absorption put a damper on Eva’s mood. If Eva says that she hosted a musical evening for her husband’s parishioners, Charlotte has to talk about the series of concerts she performed for thousands of Los Angeles schoolchildren; if Eva plays a Chopin prelude on the piano, Charlotte has to play the same piece more skillfully, critiquing her daughter’s interpretation all the while; she can’t even discuss Leonardo’s death without noting that he was happy about her success. Eva thought things would be different between them now that she’s an adult, but her mother is as overwhelming as ever.
Charlotte also comes to regret her visit almost immediately. Much to her surprise — “alarm” might be a more accurate word — she discovers that her other daughter, Helena (Lena Nyman), has been living with Eva and Viktor for the past two years. (Eva wrote to her about it at the time, but Charlotte says that she never received the letter. “Or else you never bothered to read it,” Eva replies.) Helena suffers from a degenerative disease that leaves her confined to a bed or wheelchair and scarcely able to speak. Before moving in with her sister and brother-in-law, she lived in a home where Charlotte had placed her, and Charlotte, who can’t bear to look at her suffering child, clearly wishes that she had stayed there. Once the initial shock has passed, she collects herself and goes to see Helena in her room (“I have no choice,” she declares to Eva), where she plays the doting mother and gives her daughter her wristwatch — “a gift from an admirer who said I was always late.” Still, she can’t hide her discomfort completely, and what’s more, she resents Helena’s presence because it makes her feel guilty. “I’m to be put to shame. That’s the idea,” she says to herself afterwards. “A guilty conscience. Always a guilty conscience! I was in such a hurry to get here. What was I expecting?” Eva has the same question.
And so, bit by bit, what was supposed to be a happy reunion devolves into a bitter confrontation between the two women, cathartic and cataclysmic at once. Like so many characters in Ingmar Bergman’s films, Eva has been damaged, perhaps irrevocably, by the events of her childhood and adolescence, by the emotional distress that she experienced in her complicated relationship with her mother. It’s not just that Charlotte was often absent for long stretches of time while she went on tour, which was hard enough on young Eva. Having her at home was no better: sometimes she was kind but distant, exhibiting little interest in her daughter; at other times, to make up for past neglect and her own unhappiness, she micromanaged every aspect of the girl’s life, trying to improve her and making crucial decisions on her behalf. Either way, Eva came to feel that she was never talented enough, never pretty enough, never good enough for the mother she worshiped from afar and was afraid to defy. Even now, decades later, she can’t completely accept herself or Viktor’s deep love for her.
Eva has endured other difficulties as well: tuberculosis, a broken engagement. Undoubtedly, the most significant was the death of her only child, Erik, who drowned the day before his fourth birthday, yet she’s more at peace with this loss than might be expected. “I grieved a lot, outwardly,” she explains to Charlotte. “Deep inside, I felt like he was still alive, that we were living close to each other. All I have to do is concentrate, and he’s there. Sometimes, as I’m falling asleep, I can feel him breathing on my face and touching me with his hand. He’s living another life, but we can reach one another. There’s no dividing line, no insurmountable wall.” This mother and child relationship, unshakeable even in death, stands in stark contrast to the one she experienced growing up. She’s sure of her son, irrational though it may seem, but she says that when Charlotte used to take breaks from practicing her piano, “I’d go in to see if you really existed.” Charlotte, perhaps not surprisingly, is unmoved by Eva’s musings about Erik. “I’m appalled when I hear her rambling on. It’s so neurotic,” she tells Viktor while Eva is still within earshot.
Although it’s easy enough to condemn Charlotte, she’s not a wholly unsympathetic figure. She, like Eva, is a product of her upbringing. “I can’t recall my parents ever touching me, either to caress me or to punish me,” she explains. “I didn’t know anything about love, tenderness, contact, intimacy, warmth.” For her, music took the place of these human feelings. It became both her sole outlet for self-expression and a means of obtaining the love and admiration she craved; in fact, it appears that she’s lived her real life at the piano, not in everyday interactions with her family and other people. She confesses that she can’t remember her mother’s face or anything about giving birth beyond the fact that it hurt, yet all of the details of her career remain vivid. “At the time time of Erik’s birth, I was recording all the Mozart sonatas. I couldn’t get one day off,” she says of the grandson whom she never got around to meeting. During a telling conversation with her agent, Paul (Gunnar Björnstrand), she cites her music in a kind of desperate attempt to prove that she has good qualities, qualities that she seems to lack away from the piano. “The critics always say that I’m a generous musician,” she insists, though a moment later she wants further validation: “I am not stingy with myself. Or am I?” Considering all of this, it’s no surprise that when back pain prevented her from practicing and forced her to cancel engagements, her life “seemed meaningless.”
After Eva plays her hesitant, error-riddled rendition of the Chopin prelude, Charlotte informs her that the piece should be performed with feeling but not sentimentality. “Total restraint the whole time,” she says. In a way, it suggests something of her own approach to life, with her dislike of sick people and her unwillingness to deal with anything messy or unpleasant. It could also describe the film’s flashbacks: to Leonardo’s death, to Eva’s childhood, to an Easter gathering a number of years earlier. (For the record, the young Eva is played by Linn Ullmann, daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.) These tableau-like sequences are shot from a distance, creating a certain sense of detachment; they belong to the past, to the characters’ memories. The emotions tied up with them, however, have not faded, and the often intense present-day scenes make use of equally intense close-ups. One of the most powerful is the final shot of Charlotte, gazing tearfully but directly into the camera while Eva reads aloud a letter expressing hope that their relationship can be salvaged. Beyond its significance to Autumn Sonata itself, the image is especially striking because it marks the end of Ingrid Bergman’s feature film career. She would appear in just one more movie, the made-for-television Golda Meir biopic A Woman Called Golda, before her death in 1982 at age sixty-seven.
Knowing this adds poignancy to the question at the heart of Autumn Sonata: Can a mother and a daughter, fundamentally different people with years of painful experiences between them, learn to understand each other, to accept each other, to love each other before it’s too late? The film doesn’t offer any easy answers, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a reconciliation either. “We never give up hope, do we?” Eva says to Viktor. Perhaps that’s the most important question of all.
This post is part of The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.