1983 / Best Director

Film #560: Fanny and Alexander (1983)

Our round-the-world trip returns to Sweden now for a double bill from arguably that country’s greatest director Ingmar Bergman. Although only of Bergman’s films was nominated for Best Picture, in the form of 1973’s Cries and Whispers, he was recognised another couple of times in the Best Director category. We firstly come to the last of his Best Director nods for what at the time was considered to be Bergman’s last movie in the form of Fanny and Alexander.

Fanny and Alexander was an odd film to hunt down primarily because there are two versions that exist; a five-plus hour copy that was released as a TV series and a more manageable three hour cinematic cut which would’ve been the version that the academy watched before showering the film with nominations. I honestly I believed that I was watching the cinematic cut in two parts until I realised that the copy I’d originally found was two thirds of the longer version. After that I then tracked down the cinematic cut and watched the last hour or so of that so I feel I’ve got more than a good feeling about the film itself. Even if I’d just watched the cinematic cut I could see exactly why this started life as a TV series as Fanny and Alexander feels almost like an episodic period soap opera as it focuses on the sprawling eccentric Ekdhal family. As the title would suggest the events of the film are mainly seen through the eyes of Fanny and Alexander, the children of quirky theatre manager Oscar and his pretty wife Emilie. Alexander is presented as the main protagonist throughout and the first part of the story sees us simply follow the Ekdhals during their Christmas dinner and meeting Oscar’s more emotionally damaged brothers as well as their mother the matriarchal Helena.

I felt the film’s plot didn’t really kick in until the second hour in which we Oscar dies from a stroke and Emilie waits a year before remarrying the cold and unloving bishop Edvard. Alexander’s relationship with Edvard is particularly strained as his new stepfather doesn’t like the way that the youngster makes up stories and has his head in the clouds. As time goes on, Emilie tries to make a break for freedom but is thwarted by Edvard’s icy staff as well as his unfeeling mother and sister. Eventually Fanny and Alexander are freed by Helena’s friend Isak who takes the children to live with him and his nephews in his colourful toy store. I personally liked the fantastical elements of the story which occurred when Alexander encountered Isak’s mysterious nephew Ismael who informed him that his fantasies about Edvard’s death may well come true. The film’s final act sees Edvard finally killed thanks to an accident involving sleeping pills, his overweight aunt and a gas lamp. To an extent Bergman ends Fanny and Alexander on a high note as the children find themselves back in the Ekdhal family home alongside their mother. However the director also wants us to know that Alexander’s life isn’t perfect as he encounters Edvard’s ghost who informs him that he’ll never be free of him. This small scene leaves the audience uneasy, which I’m sure was Bergman’s intention, but I feel it was better than a simple Hollywood happy ending.

As previously stated I found Fanny and Alexander a slog due to the fact that I was watching the unedited version which I felt had a lot of scenes that didn’t really fit into the plot. However once I got to the cinematic cut I whizzed through thanks to a prior understanding of the characters and the fact that the story moved a lot quicker. Just like the previous Bergman film I’ve encountered on the list, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander also was full of lush exteriors with the film’s settings almost becoming characters in their own right. The Ekdhal family house was a warm, slightly over-the-top house where you could understand why the children felt safe while conversely Edvard’s home was bare and cold just like the family who occupied it. Furthermore Isak’s toy shop was seen as a wondrous place to escape to for the children and Oscar’s theatre represented a fun side in Fanny and Alexander’s life which was lacking in their life with Edvard. I’m not surprised that Fanny and Alexander won Oscars for both its costume and art direction as they were some of the best I’ve seen on screen. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist was also rewarded for his work in making us believe that the majority of events were being seen through the eyes of Alexander. A fourth award, for Best Foreign Film, was almost a compensation for the fact that Fanny and Alexander didn’t appear in that year’s main category but again I will now look at whether it deserved it.

Fanny and Alexander was one of two films in 1983 that was honoured in the Best Director category, the other being Silkwood but in my eyes only one of these probably would work as a Best Picture nominee too. As much as I enjoyed Fanny and Alexander it joins The Last Temptation of Christ and Ran as two films whose Best Director nods I could understand but who didn’t really work for me as Best Picture nominees. Like those two films Fanny and Alexander had brilliant direction throughout but the story and characters were a little too obscure for a mainstream audience. I also couldn’t see it replacing either The Big Chill or The Right Stuff, the two films that year that weren’t nominated for Best Director and which were arguably two of the better Best Picture contenders. That being said both Silkwood and Fanny and Alexander were overall better films than that year’s winner Terms of Endearment a film whose popularity I still don’t understand. Ultimately, while Silkwood could easily have slotted into the Best Picture line-up I think Fanny and Alexander’s success in other categories suggest that the Academy had great respect for it but they thought like I did that it just didn’t feel like a Best Picture nominee.

Next time we conclude our Bergman double bill with a 1976 nominee which also saw its lead actress garner a nomination as well.

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