Fanny and Alexander: a Scene Analysis

The film Fanny and Alexander (1982) was made when Bergman had passed his sixties.   It was intended to be his last feature, and is partially autobiographical.  The scene I choose to do a close analysis is to the middle of the film, when Alexander confronts his stepfather.  But first let me explain briefly what happens before this scene.

The story starts from Christmas 1907 in a small town in Sweden (Bergman was born in 1918).   It is largely told from an 11-year-old boy Alexander’s point of view.   He is from a rich, luxury, warm, chaotic and artistic Ekdahl’s family – where drama and reality are likely to be merged.  Alex seems to have a tendency to fantasize or it is as if he has some magic supernatural powers.  Alexander’s father, a small theater director died of stroke during rehearsing Hamlet.  His young mother Emile worshipped the local bishop who looks handsome.  Emile marries the bishop and together with her children, she goes to live at the bishop’s.  But the bishop doesn’t allow her or her children to bring anything from the past to their ‘new’ life, not even the children’s toys or clothes.

Alex seems to have an instinct dislike of his stepfather right from the beginning.  We know both men are jealous and hostile to each other, and one is repressive and the other is constantly revolting.   Bishop’s house is a direct opposite of the Ekdahl’s.  It is stark, sparse, and all the windows are barred, and glass panes are opaque.  Alex and his younger sister Fanny feel like living in a prison.  The bishop is looking for opportunities to punish Alex.  Although this is what we anticipate but we have seen so far only small conflicts.   The confrontation comes when Alex’s mother is away.   Emile now realizes that she has made a mistake marrying the bishop and secretly goes to visit Alex’s grandmother Helena’s in her summerhouse.   While Emile is away, out of fantasy Alex tells the maid Justina that the bishop’s dead wife has visited him and told him that the bishop had locked her and her two daughters up for five days without food and water.  To escape, they climbed up the window and jumped to the river and got drowned.  Justina of course reports to the bishop right away and thus leads to the confrontation of the two characters.

The direct confrontation lasts in film-time ten full minutes and there are totally 54 cuts.  It comprises shots that are largely two-person shots.  I think it is a great example for anyone who wants to learn how to achieve the effect by camera positions.  In the slide show, I have given a detail analysis on the camera positions and the picture compositions.  I have also tried to analyze the camera set-ups and it seems that although there are 54 cuts, about 10 camera positions would have achieved the 10-minute scene.

Story-wise in this scene, we see both Alexander and his stepfather’s strategies to win, the shifting of power between the two, and the final twist.  It is through this process of confrontation, both characters reveal themselves clearly.   To start the scene, we see that the bishop’s mother drags Fanny and Alexander up from their beds to the bishop’s study.   The bishop sits right across the table facing Alexander and asking about his story.  Alexander denies it and claims that the maid could have dreamt of it.  Fanny supports his lie by denying ever heard of the story.   The bishop asks Alexander to swear under the oath to God and informs Alexander it will be a perjury and a mortal sin and will be severely punished if he lies.  Nonetheless, Alexander is determined to rebel and lies unblinkingly under oath.  This frustrates the bishop.  While the bishop tries to make Alexander to recognize that he is morally wrong, Alexander turns the situation by stating, “Alexander thinks the Bishop hates Alexander.”  The bishop then has to explain that he doesn’t hate Alexander but loves him although his love is not sloppy but harsh and strong.   Alexander refuses to see or listen to while the bishop is talking.  Seeing that Alexander is hardening his heart, the bishop now changes his strategy by stating that Alexander misjudges the situation where he is much stronger than Alexander.  Alexander responded by saying that he has no doubt.  The bishop explains that he is much stronger spiritually because he has truth and justice (we hear thunder).   After this hint of threat, the bishop tries to coax Alexander into confession yet he fails again.  This drives the bishop to his last resorts – the physical punishment.  Now the power is starting to shift.  To gain time, Alexander asks why he has to be punished.  And bishop explains that life will punish liars ruthlessly and indiscriminately, and the punishment is to teach Alexander to love truth.  Now Alexander confesses and gets punished physically.   The bishop now has the power and wins.  Yet he can not stop here.  Instead, he has to ask Alexander to confess on perjury, to acknowledge verbally that the punishment is out the bishop’s love, to ask for his forgiveness and to kiss his hand.  On top of all these, the bishop sends Alexander to sleep in the attic alone for the night.   A final twist is that when we see that the bishop wins the battle completely, he totally loses Fanny.

While most of the shots in this scene are medium to close-ups, there are two wide shots.  One wide shot particularly set it up like a trail court, where the bishop is the judge.  It may have borrowed from Fellini’s 8 ½.  The bishop’s study is closed and the windows are opaque.  We only see rain drops dripping on the windows and we hear twice the thunder outside, reminding us that there may be a being beyond this confined and enclosed, prison-like reality.  From reading Bergman’s autobiographical work Magic Lantern, we know that Bergman does not believe in God but yet he believes there may exist something higher.

Later in the movie, through this higher magic power, Alexander causes his stepfather’s brutal death – burned to death.  For readers who have read Bergman’s Magic Lantern, we know in his real life, this stepfather is his father.  And the physical punishment and asking for forgiveness in the scene happened in real life.  How do we interpret the scene beyond?  It seems to me that art is Bergman’s way to let out his demons and his creative energy.  The ‘little world’ that is referred at the beginning of the film by Alexander’s father Oscar, and at the end by Alexander’s uncle Adolf, represents the ‘theater’/’artistic family’.  It seems to me that Bergman through his life find a shield in theater and drama.  It is through drama, he revolts, rebels and revenges his father.  Yet, he knows that he can never escape his father’s influence.  At the very end of the film, when Alexander finally relaxes in his grandmother’s warm house, his father’s ghost appears “you can never escape me.”

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