The Unconventional Christmas Classic That’s the Perfect Gift to Cinephiles.

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Fanny and Alexander is a film that captures the joy and wonder of Christmas celebrations in its first hour, showcasing beautifully detailed production design and a harmonious family bond.
  • The film challenges traditional religious beliefs, particularly through the character of the Bishop who represents a strict form of Christianity focused on suffering, contrasting with the Ekdahl family’s embrace of life’s pleasures and inclusivity.
  • Fanny and Alexander ultimately asks its audience to embrace the power of belief and the magic that can be found in everyday life..


You’d be forgiven for thinking that a film like Carol or Eyes Wide Shut would be considered among a list of hidden holiday gems, and while there’s nothing wrong with rewatching It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, this Christmas is the perfect opportunity to pop in something different. Let’s say, an Ingmar Bergman flick that should be on any cinephile’s list. The film is Fanny and Alexander, and while some may scoff at the idea of reducing one of the most lavish films ever produced to a seasonal holiday classic, Christmas is embroiled in the former miniseries’ DNA, both from a standpoint of production design and thematic significance. It might not be as clear of a Christmas parable as, say, Frosty the Snowman, but the remarkable density of Fanny and Alexander combined with the lack of definitive interpretations fundamentally make it a movie about beliefs within children. What defines Christmas better than that?

Fanny and Alexander follows the Ekdahls, an aristocratic family in a small Swedish town in 1907 whose patriarch runs an acclaimed theater. As a result, performance is at the heart of everything the Ekdahls do, from their uncle Carl’s (Börje Ahlstedt) entertainment of the children by blowing out candles with his farts to the obscene number of marionettes that dress the walls of the titular siblings’ eventual hiding place. As sprawling as Bergman’s portrayal of this family is, however, he primarily concerns himself with the observations of Alexander (Bertil Guve), with even Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) taking a backseat for the most part. The plot kicks off about an hour into the film after the death of the siblings’ father, Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), worsening when the newly-widowed Emilie (Ewa Fröling) takes a new lover in the form of Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö). This may seem complicated, but, like in the film itself, it’s absolutely necessary to construct the foundations of this mildly dysfunctional family before analyzing it, piece by piece.

Fanny and Alexander

Two young Swedish children in the 1900s experience the many comedies and tragedies of their lively and affectionate theatrical family, the Ekdahls.

Release Date
December 17, 1982

Director
Ingmar Bergman

Cast
Pernilla Allwin , Jan Malmsjö , Bertil Guve , Börje Ahlstedt , Anna Bergman , Gunn Wållgren , Kristina Adolphson

Rating
R

Runtime
188 minutes


The First Hour of ‘Fanny and Alexander’ Is All About Christmas Joy

The first hour of Fanny and Alexander concerns itself almost entirely with Christmas pageantry and celebrations. It takes about five shots to realize that Bergman is directing the hell out of this thing, with gorgeously detailed production design for even the briefest of scenes. As the Ekdahls finish putting on their annual Christmas nativity play, congratulating each other backstage for their accomplishment, a beautifully ornamented Christmas tree swallows the screen before diving into the family’s own unique celebrations. This is crucially contextualized with a shot early on in the film in which an over-imaginative Alexander sees one of the family’s classical statues inexplicably raise its hand to its chest, followed by a wicked noise that’s revealed to be Death himself dragging his scythe across the wooden floor. Alexander looks up and suddenly, individual crystals of a shimmering chandelier move out of sync with the rest.

No answer is explicitly given in regard to Alexander’s visions, but there’s some kind of invisible life here in the air. We just don’t know how to define it. As the festivities begin, exquisite meals are prepared, and bedtime stories are told, but not before the whole family gallivants through the house singing festive songs of Yuletide joy. There’s not a Grinch in sight as the Ekdahl family displays itself as a perfectly progressive utopia, with both Christians and Jews present in spite of the religious prejudices of the era. Even the servants join in on the fun, and while they overstep certain boundaries with the children, their treatment is indicative of the Ekdahls’ unpretentious and nonexclusive type of aristocracy. One that celebrates the affirmation of life in all its forms rather than the needless cultural barriers.

‘Fanny and Alexander’ Has a Bone To Pick With Religion

You might be wondering where the conflict in this premise is, given the blissful familial interactions that define the first act. Struggles within the family are present in the film. This can be seen in certain members owing a debt to some of the older generations, resulting in their inability to pay for firewood, but the real conflict comes when the Bishop enters the picture. Alexander’s father, Oscar, dies while rehearsing for a production of Hamlet, in which he plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father. In his dying moments, he absolutely sees the irony of this as, though wildly unsightly, he pleads for his boy to look upon him once more. After, Alexander begins to see visions of his father around the house, playing haunting piano tunes or just lingering in a terrified and disapproving manner as Emilie announces that the children will soon have a new stepfather.

Turns out he was absolutely right to be concerned, as after Emilie announces that she’ll be marrying the Bishop, he asks Emilie to give up all of her family’s possessions before coming into his home. Home is putting it nicely. As compared to the ornamental decorations found scattered throughout the Ekdahl estate, the Bishop’s home is devoid of… pretty much everything. It’s a glorified dungeon with starkly gray walls, hardly any furniture and prison-like bars blocking the windows. Not to mention, there’s not a single Christmas toy in sight! To top it off, Alexander’s hyperactive imagination (which is implied to be related to his communication with the former spirits of the house) is punished with methods that’ll even have Miss Trunchbull taking notes. Things get bleak, fast, but that’s because, in Bergman’s cinematic symbolism, the Bishop represents a different kind of religion that he himself cannot condone.

The Bishop’s version of Christianity is one based on suffering above all, where the desire for material things or even something nice to eat is seen as the root of the soul’s corruption. The Bishop’s strict measures soon leave the children hungry and Emilie in horrendous torment because of the pain she’s brought to her family. Later on in the film, Alexander declares “If there is a God, he’s a shit, and I’d like to kick him in the ass,” as the version of God that’s being enforced within him is in direct odds with the human pleasures of the soul. That’s why, in his closing sermon, uncle Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) announces that “It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.” While Fanny and Alexander approaches organized religion in a manner that any person can appreciate, its philosophy embraces the power of belief in all its forms.

‘Fanny and Alexander’ Asks Its Viewers To Believe in Magic

Pernilla Allwin as Fanny Ekdahl sleeping next to Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl in Fanny and Alexander
Image via MoviestillsDB

Fanny and Alexander is by no means a supernatural thriller but by the end of its expansive runtime, it certainly comes close. Alexander’s visions increase in scope and frequency after the death of his father, which doesn’t have to do so much with the mysterious powers of grief as it does with the eerie similarities between his father’s death and the stage works that he was raised on. When Alexander watches his father rehearse to play Hamlet’s father’s ghost, only to become a disapproving ghost himself as his mother takes another ill-intentioned lover, his real life and the world of theater become so indistinguishable that reality slips from under him.

The barriers that separate the physical world from intangible concepts are shattered and thus, a new Alexander is born. Theater, after all, doesn’t take place on stage, but within the mind. It’s a medium that forces its viewers to suspend their disbelief that a 2-D backdrop can represent all of Romeo and Juliet’s fair Verona, or that those humans singing and dancing while drowning in makeup actually are Cats. Like the best things in life, they are only as real as you believe them to be. The most genuine sense of magic comes into play when the family’s friend Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), who is largely implied to be a mystic of sorts, helps smuggle the children out of the Bishop’s home through various deceptive illusions. It’s the closest this movie gets to sorcerous heroics, but it handles it with grounded subtlety and the pointed commentary of a Luis Buñuel picture.

The ending of Fanny and Alexander offers that heartwarming cozy Christmas feeling even if it takes a journey through Hell and back to get there. The Ekdahl family is reunited and the theater is ready to reopen. Their first production? August Strindberg’s 1902 A Dream Play. As Alex curls up on the lap of his grandmother Helena (Gunn Wållgren), she reads him the opening prose, which is perfectly in accordance with the Christmas spirit: “Anything can happen, all is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns.” Putting the message simply: all that it takes to manifest that magic we all crave in our daily lives is for one to believe.

Fanny and Alexander is currently streaming on Max in the U.S.

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