Ingmar Bergman’s family drama, “Fanny and Alexander,” is one of the most unique stories I’ve seen. It’s so atmospheric and eerie but whimsical at the same time. It honestly feels like “Hugo” meets “The Shining.” Or maybe that’s a comparison that just makes sense in my head.
Portraying a child’s perspective
The protagonist, a young boy named Alexander, acts as our focal point into this unusual world. The cinematography and production design seem to mimic the hyperactive imagination of a child. Everything feels a little bit unreal. It reminded me of how I used to look at my own house when I was younger, where everything felt strange, mysterious, and a little spooky. That might just mean I was a giant wuss when I was a kid, but I think Bergman’s really on to something here in how he portrays a child’s perspective.
While the sections of the episode that focus on the drama between adults always intrigues, “Fanny and Alexander“ really comes to life when focusing on Alexander’s perspective. The opening scene of the film: where Alexander sees The Grim Reaper slinking around his house is a wonderfully realized vision of the darkness of a child’s imagination and brings a Gothic edge to the story. This tone is further expanded upon when Alexander and his siblings are listening to their father tell them this fantastical story about a chair in their room. In some ways, these scenes kind of remind me of Steven Spielberg’s movies that contrast a child’s coming of age story with something fantastical.
Cinematography and production design
The production design of the film is pretty far from realistic. Ever since Bergman stopped shooting in black and white, he’s been obsessed with the color red. Here, the walls are red, the furniture is red, the paintings and costumes are red, pretty much anything in sight is painted crimson. There might be some symbolic meaning to this, but right now, I’ll just take this choice as being an extension of Alexander’s imagination. When you’re a kid, the big primary colors stand out to you the most, and you tend to ignore the greys and browns. The cinematography accentuates this sense of mystery: there’s an emphasis on dark shadows and low lighting, especially by candlelight. All of this turns the setting into this atmospheric place that you can imagine living in.
Setting up the Ekdahl Family
This first episode of Bergman’s four -part miniseries feels like the first act of a play. There isn’t really anything major in regards to plot development. Instead, it works to set the scene as thoroughly as possible. We’re given insight into this family, who their members are, and how they interact with each other. The acting has this great sense of naturalism that contrasts with the visually spectacular filmmaking. It makes this unusual setting feel lived in and believable.
Whenever the story focuses on the adults, the drama is always compelling. I found Gustav Adolf Ekdahl, played by Jarl Kulle, to be particularly interesting. Here’s a guy who always seems to be quick to make a joke and whose mood is always upbeat. Yet, we can see his ego suddenly turn on him, revealing him to be someone who’s fragile and self-obsessed.
Carl Ekdahl is another fascinating portrait of an egotistical man. Here we have a character that is at once self-pitying, pathetic, and outright abusive. His big argument with his wife, who he completely mistreats, can be difficult to watch. Börje Ahlstedt brings in one of the best performances of the episode, bringing forth his character’s inner demons with a great sense of humor.
Setting up Episode 2
Episode 1 is ultimately pretty uneventful. This leads me to believe that the purpose is just to establish the tone and some of the character conflicts. Hopefully, we’ll see these conflicts further explored in episode 2. I really hope Bergman tries to place a stronger emphasis on Alexander’s perspective, as his magical realist view of the world was easily the most interesting part of this episode.