Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978) is a powerful portrait of the relationship between a mother and her daughter. It’s as simple as that. Well, almost. What begins as a friendly visit between two long-separated women soon becomes a long day’s journey into night, mutating into a vicious psychological bloodletting (ala’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) the likes of which neither of them could’ve anticipated – or will soon forget.
Eva (Liv Ullmann) unleashes a vicious verbal assault on her long all-but-absent mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar-nominated performance), leaving her emotionally eviscerated. It’s really quite something – which, of course, cannot do the sequence justice. Eva blames just about everything in her life on Charlotte, from her childhood to her current state of being. Some of this is, perhaps, legitimate (at least from Eva’s perspective), but some of it is downright unfair.
If much of the strength of Bergman’s film appears to be found in Eva’s tirade in the final forty-or-so minutes of its running time, perhaps its soul is found in the closing scenes.
Eva, having cruelly driven her mother away, finds herself deeply regretting the pain she has caused. She writes a letter to Charlotte and has her husband Viktor look at it before it is sent. In the letter, Eva asks for forgiveness, hoping against hope that her mother can at least find it in her heart to accept a heartfelt apology, even if she doesn’t completely comprehend where such venomous words could come from.
I can relate to this. In the waning days of my father’s recovery from his many long stays in and out of the psych wards in the Seattle area in summer 2008, I found that I was resenting the fact that I was constantly expected to watch my little half-brothers while my stepbrother was allowed to sleep till 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon every day simply because he chose to go out at night and “help out” his friend on a paper route – for which he wasn’t paid – just as an excuse to hang out with his friend and not have to watch our little brothers the following morning. I was frequently left alone to watch the young children, who could be overwhelmingly energetic and sometimes plain mean – a remarkable feat for kids aged 6 and 8.
One fateful day – in fact, the day before my little brothers were to go back to school – I was left alone with them yet again. They were driving me crazy, no doubt themselves under a great deal of stress from our father’s difficult condition, and so I sought refuge in my room, barricading the door. I soon found this wasn’t enough and I actually, embarrassed as I am to admit this now, climbed out the window and got as far away as I could on foot. I figured perhaps they’d wake up my stepbrother if they noticed I was gone, and I was sure I was going to get yelled at or into some form of trouble for abandoning two young boys for the afternoon. Curiously, in retrospect, the abandonment of my little half-brothers was a moot point at the end of the day.
You see, I had this blog on MySpace. In my cowardly fleeing of the scene, which was bad enough, I felt compelled to purge myself of all the frustration I was feeling at the situation – the anger and the hatred and everything – and pour it all into this public blog. Forgetting for the moment that my stepmother and stepbrother are friends on MySpace, inevitably, they read what turned out to be my second-to-last blog entry. They responded in, shall we say, similar fashion (with online comments).
I can remember reading them for the first time that afternoon. It still hurts my heart to this day to look at it (I originally pasted them here but they have no place in this paper), even though all has been forgiven – thanks to a letter of apology that it took all the nerve and sincerity I had left in my being to write. I understand so clearly what Eva is going through here. On some level, she has a legitimate issue to solve between her and her mother. On another level, she hasn’t really grown up – from the pigtails to the pajamas to the things that she hasn’t let go of since she was a kid. Then, we all still have some growing up to do…
Note: Written for Thomas Birney’s Ingmar Bergman course in Fall 2009 at Portland State.