Toward the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, a beautiful young boy wanders into a beautiful room. The room is located in a rambling Uppsala apartment belonging to the boy’s widowed grandmother, Helena Ekdahl, once a famous actress and now the matriarch of a spirited and noisy theater family. As the camera follows the boy, Alexander, we note the elaborate fin-de-siècle decor, the draperies with their elaborate swags, the rich upholstery and carpets, the pictures crowding the walls, all imbued with the warm colors that, throughout the first part of the film, symbolize the Ekdahls’ warm (when not overheated) emotional lives. Later, after the death of Alexander’s kind-hearted father, Oscar, who is the lead actor of the family troupe, his widow rather inexplicably marries a stern bishop into whose bleak residence she and her children must move. At this point, the film’s visual palette will be leached of color and life; everything will be gray, black, coldly white.
But for now, vivacity and sensuality and even fantasy reign. On a mantelpiece, an elaborate gilt clock ticks, its golden cherubs preparing their mechanized dance. Nearby, a life-sized white marble statue of a nude woman catches the boy’s eye. When he blinks, she seems, Galatea-like, to come to life, one arm moving as if to beckon him to pleasures he has not yet even imagined; he blinks again, and the statue is just a statue once more. At that moment a violent rattling wakes him from his reverie: the maid is pouring coal into a stove.
The tension between the fantastical and the mundane, imagination and reality—symbolized above all by the difference between the aesthetically and emotionally extravagant Ekdahls and the tight-lipped bishop and his dour household—is one with which Bergman’s film is deeply preoccupied, from its opening shot of Alexander staring into a toy theater, to the scene a few moments later with the magically animated statue, to its final seconds, during which the grandmother recites the first lines of Strindberg’s A Dream Play: “On a flimsy framework of reality, imagination spins, weaving new patterns.”
To those familiar with Bergman’s life as well as his work, the opening of Fanny and Alexander is likely to provoke musings on the patterns that the imagination weaves on the framework of reality. For the room we see in the film is a version of a room that Bergman knew as a boy, which he describes in his 1987 autobiography, The Magic Lantern:
I can see the shimmering green of the drawing room, green walls, rugs, furniture, curtains, ferns in green pots. I can see the naked white lady with her arms chopped off. She is leaning slightly forward,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.