Ingmar Bergman’sFanny and Alexander is currently back in cinemas, forty years after its first release in Sweden. Both early and late on in the film, there is talk of a ‘little world’. On the first occasion, the world is the theatre; on the second, it is the family. There are plenty of links between them, and several subsets of each (magic lanterns, puppets; morally casual households, grimly puritanical ones). There is also a suggestion that the world of the family might be more theatrical than the theatre.

The big world is harsh and unmanageable, or at least that is how it appears to wealthy people in Uppsala in the early years of the 20th century. An actor says his little world is a place of order and love, and if it doesn’t reflect the big world it may at least offer us ‘the chance of forgetting [it] for a while’. A restaurant owner, so in love with his own joviality that he doesn’t understand what a bully he is, sees his little world as a zone of ‘security, wisdom and order’, where ‘the shadows of death have been routed, winter has been put to flight, and joy has returned to our hearts.’

Of course, in a way, these fantasies pay lyrical tribute to the big world, but Bergman is not simply mocking them, and there is a real delicacy in his filming of festivities, first Christmas and later a double christening. The fun is effective, even contagious, but there is always worry in the air, even if no one at the christening is talking about the death in a fire of the father of one of the babies, or the fact that the other is illegitimate, the fruit of the restaurant owner’s jovial interactions with a pretty maid.

Helena, the grandmother of the family that includes the two characters I have quoted, says she was very happy at Christmas last year, but now all she wants to do is cry – because she feels old, or has started to feel old. And, more broadly, because she has begun to distrust joy. Here she speaks for the whole movie, I think, but her distrust doesn’t prevent her from finding new joys here and there. The actress in the role (Gunn Wållgren) does all of this so discreetly that we really believe each tear will end all laughter, or that each laugh will end all tears. Needless to say, neither thing happens.

When one of her sons dies, Helena says that ‘reality has remained broken ever since – and oddly enough it feels more real this way.’ She also brings the two little worlds together, remarking that she ‘enjoyed being an actress but … preferred being a mother’. It comes as no surprise when she adds immediately, ‘For that matter, everything is acting.’ Right at the end of the film Helena is persuaded to return to the stage for a production of Strindberg’s Dream Play (1902), even if she does call him ‘that nasty misogynist’.

Helena has three sons: Oscar (played by Alan Edwall), the actor who loved his little world and father to the preteens Fanny and Alexander; Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), the noisy restaurant owner; and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt), who constantly has money troubles, and at one memorable moment wonders: ‘How is it that one becomes second-rate?’ The main plot revolves around Oscar’s death and legacy, the fate of his wife, Emilie (Ewa Fröling), and the two children of the title (Pernilla Allwin and Bertil Guve). It is also concerned more literally with Oscar’s afterlife, since he appears regularly to his son as a genteel ghost in a white three-piece suit, seeming to have no idea what it is a ghost is supposed to do. This is what Alexander himself says in the television version of the film (five hours rather than three): ‘I’m scared of ghosts, and you are actually dead.’

Many critics have wondered why Fanny has her place in the film’s title, since it seems devoted to Alexander. I’ve always been baffled, too, but I had an idea watching it again recently. It needs a little narrative framing. Emilie, the mother of Fanny and Alexander, is an actress who gives up the theatre a year or so after Oscar’s death, seeking to escape its falsities by embracing the stern authority of religion in the form of a local bishop, Edvard Vergérus, played with unforgettably sinister charm by Jan Malmsjö. The marriage and the situation of the children is associated from the start with Alexander’s tendency to invent fantastic lies (for instance that, before his mother married the bishop, Alexander was sold to a circus). Caught fantasising again, this time about how the bishop’s first wife and her daughters came to drown, Alexander is savagely punished by Vergérus. The punishment, ending in a caning and solitary confinement in an attic, is a show put on for all the family, especially Vergérus’s creepy sister, as a lesson in justice and truth. My idea came to me during the long close-up on Fanny’s face while Vergérus is beating Alexander. She is not physically harmed, but she is part of what Emilie later calls Alexander’s ‘humiliation’. In this sense she and Alexander are one, and she can’t be left out. Perhaps the real suggestion is that nothing ever happens to one person alone; there is always an ‘and’.

But was Alexander fantasising? Or when is he fantasising and when is he not? This is a version of the film’s greatest question, symbolised by the returning Oscar. What is a ghost? Unfinished business, let’s say, as in Hamlet, a key reference point. Oscar’s progress to death begins with a breakdown while he is rehearsing the part of Hamlet’s father’s ghost; Emilie tells Alexander that he is not to ‘play Hamlet’, meaning both ‘Don’t feel so sorry for yourself’ and ‘Don’t make up so many stories.’ Oscar’s ghost haunts Alexander not because the boy loved him so much but because he can’t get over his absence. This thought is intriguingly confirmed by Alexander’s reaction to his stepfather, or rather by the film’s reaction to his reaction. Alexander hates the bishop from the start, and constantly wishes for his death. And chance, in the form of the fire I mentioned, grants him his wish. In one of the most extraordinary moments in the film, the ghost of the bishop shows up to haunt him too. The father he can’t forget is now accompanied by the father whose death is on his conscience.

The subtext here – about fantasy and desire and some of the ways in which they invade and control our broken reality – contradicts the bishop’s sermons about virtue, as well as the family’s sense of their little worlds. The most extraordinary visual moment in the film occurs when Alexander gets lost among a crowd of puppets hanging from the ceiling of a darkened room, twirling in the heavy air. It is the puppeteer who expresses most eloquently what is otherwise mainly implied. His father and mother, he says, ‘ran a conjuror’s theatre in Petersburg … One evening, in the middle of the performance, a real ghost appeared, an aunt of my father’s. She had died two days earlier. The ghost lost her way among the machines and the projectors.’ The moral of the story is that people will ‘blame the apparatus and the mirrors and the projections’ rather than have to take account of an actual ghost.

Bergman himself conveys this story in such a way as to reinforce the moral, with an elaborate sequence of cross-cutting between the house where Alexander is speaking to the puppeteer and the house where an invalid knocks over a lamp and starts the fire that kills the bishop. There is no doubt about the difference and distance between these two spaces, but when a burning woman appears on the screen she seems to inhabit both scenes. Even if he can’t see her in reality, she is Alexander’s dream come true, and we are seeing her for him. Of course, a movie is only a movie, as Hitchcock used to say. But this movie, in its pointed editing, seems to endorse the idea that wishes can’t be relied on to stay safely in the mind.

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