I think the first section – the Christmas celebrations – are up there with the beginning of The Deer Hunter for absorbingly sprawling, festive spectacle. It’s a world of chiming clocks, moving statues, glittering decoration. Houseplants and baroque furniture block the blood-red backgrounds; this chamber-dream is a lavish and embellished reimagining of the interiors of Cries and Whispers. We get 12 hours (from the Christmas dinner, at 4.30 every year, till preparations for breakfast at 4.50am) of engorgement, exploration of the “little world” which ailing central father Oscar labels his theatre; a Mannian miniature which can either mimetically reflect the “large” world outside or provide escape from it (“not for pleasure alone” reads the inscription on the toy stage in the opening shot). There’s a bawdy array of characters: Uncle Isaak who complains of “worse people, worse machines, worse wars… worse weather”, the wastrel Carl who lights his farts to entertain the grandkids and breaks down over his failures in the bedroom, the knowingly pessimistic grandmother Helena, mischievous maids, rapacious brothers, and wide-eyed children. Eyes Wide Shut in the sexual side-plots, the seasonal mall opulence; I was also thinking of Wes Anderson’s nostalgia (the facade of the castle is very Grand Budapest). At the centre is Alexander, who seems to produce much of the ostentation through his quiet imagination like Danny from The Shining. Before the credits he is seen with his hand pressed against a frosted window, surely a reference to the beginning of Persona. He seems to will the Hamlet plot into existence through his midnight slideshow of Arabella’s ghostly parent (he will eventually will it out of existence, too).
There’s a second section which initiates the central plot, and in which A begins to learn about death and suffering. There’s an apocalyptic ring to his father’s collapse onstage as Hamlet’s ghost, as the image of him being carried through thick snow on a wagon while friends, in costume as soldiers, push and shout recalls Isaak’s prophecy of war. A is reluctant to witness the suffering on O’s face but is completely transfixed with F by the absolutely nightmarish vision of a cracked door, O behind as if in a mausoleum, mother Emelie pacing between letting out animalistic screams (very CaW). I found this to be absolutely terrifying, a limited perspective that maintains a child’s completely alien experience of grief. A swears profusely at the funeral procession but his father continues to haunt him in peripheral apparitions.
His propensity to make stories out of his situations is thrown back at him by his mother after she marries a spiteful bishop, warning A to “stop playing Hamlet” in this most sentimental section, which takes a distinctly Dickensian turn as it introduces the Bishop as an analogue for IB’s own father. “Love cannot be commanded,” he says, hypocritically attempting to seduce F and A while instructing them to accept God as their real father. This austere middle-section feels the most personal (introducing the atmosphere and themes of Winter Light etc.) while also the most fantastical: there’s an obese aunt that we mustn’t look at like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Harriet Andersson puts in another amazing turn, this time as a snitching maid who encourages A to take centre-stage with his Hamletian schemes (“I don’t want to frighten anyone…” he whispers). His mother claims she married to truly feel pain but it is A who ends up on the floor of the attic, beaten and bruised beneath a statue of Christ on the cross.
There’s basically an escape through magic and the imagination. Another terrifying moment where God threatens to show his face to A in a darkened shop full of puppets and staircases. “The unknown makes people angry” – Fellini-esque detour into fantasy, maybe even Lynchian. Eventually a retreat to the “little world”, though not without continual haunting of A, disquietingly hinting at a Knausgaardian creative impetus for IB to outrun his demons. But it’s all justified, as in the lesson of the final Strindbergian line: “On a flimsy framework of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.”
If there’s one blemish I think its the fact that the almost accelerating plot-development does abandon some particularly appealing side-characters – Carl and Isaak, especially (the latter plays a central role liberating the kids from the bishop, suffering antisemitic abuse for his troubles, before being dumped altogether). This only makes me want to watch the TV cut even more.
Knocks the spots off Wild Strawberries as an exploration of personal memory; rubs shoulders with Summer With Monika on youthful, escapist imagination. I think CaW is the real precursor, though from what glimpses I’ve seen of the early comedies it seems like they’re important reference points too.
At one point Helena talks about old people being like kids, with a lost excursion in between. At the end of his career, Ingmar Bergman made another grand, personal, idiosyncratic masterpiece, situating his imagistic creativity at the heart of his difficult childhood.