“Fanny & Alexander” won four Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It was also nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay as well.
Ingmar Bergman's great cinematic swan song is given the ultimate DVD release with a treasure trove of archival materials that should satisfy even diehard fans. Perhaps his most accessible work, both the feature film - honored by an Oscar win - and the longer TV version are distinct works, with respective strengths and minor weaknesses.
Bergman agreed to make the film, provided he could create a longer version for Swedish television, and while the feature is also available in a separate Criterion release, it's unimaginable that a viewer already transfixed by Bergman's semi-autobiographical work would deny him or herself the pleasure of learning more about the Ekdahl family. Unfolding like a richly textured novel, Bergman's TV version - divided into four irregular-length episodes - is only disappointing when the journey between viewer and filmmaker has ended; one is genuinely struck with a peculiar wave of loss, as there are no more chapters to devour.
The reasons behind such schadenfreude are somewhat explained through Criterion's extras; the only way to explain the film's impact lies in separating Bergman fact from fiction; in interviews with surviving personnel; via archival footage and stills of their finely crafted world; and through the director's own intimate discussions.
One could argue Bergman's ego demanded that his final work be captured by a documentary crew, yet the director's decision to shoot behind-the-scenes material and construct a separate, feature-length "Making Of" work was a means to preserve a journey taken by the huge cast and crew, and a testament to the working methods that many actors have found both challenging and rewarding. Seeing Bergman at work isn't that novel; but seeing the pleasure that drove the filmmaker to create such a moving, multi-character work is rare.
From a production analysis, the documentary also reveals the technical aspects of what was then a costly venture within the Swedish film industry. The décor, set design, costumes, and cinematography remain high benchmarks; Bergman's measured pacing guarantees viewers are given time to enjoy the density of these aspects, some of which earned Oscars.
Perhaps the most vital components within this 5-disc set are the Bergman interviews from 1984 and 2003, and Peter Cowie's commentary track.
Cowie actually visited the set during filming, and like his prior track for Bergman's "Wild Strawberries," he comes prepared with plenty of relevant facts and pointed observations. From prior conversations with Bergman and an existing familiarity with his life and work, "Fanny & Alexander" is more of a memory trip with Cowie, and the noted author uses the film to extract biographical facts, ties to other films and exploited themes, and he describes key differences between the feature and TV versions of the film.
An important point made by Cowie is that, while Bergman retired from filmmaking in 1982, he continued to direct several TV productions, and many theatre performances of his own work, and classic plays. Perhaps the ultimate creative workaholic, the director's 1984 interview captures him in a calm, reflective state, and much of the conversation hovers around the fact/fiction hurdles; career highs and lows; and what the future holds for the prolific writer/director after such a complex production.
The 2003 interviews are more for curio value, as they're straightforward introductions for a film retrospective that aired on Swedish TV. Bergman - already in his eighties - drives up in his Jeep, and offers brief highlights before he signals the projectionist to start each respective film. (Criterion's indexed each intro, so we have a chronological continuity to the segments taped at Bergman's personal screening room.)
A handsome set celebrating Bergman's final theatrical film, and a DVD release no fan should pass up.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan