To Be a Victim of Art? – No, To Be a Partner of Art. Love vs. Art? – No, Love As Lover of Art.

One must learn to live. I practice every day. My biggest obstacle is I don’t know who I am. I grope blindly. If anyone loves me as I am I may dare at last to look at myself. For me, that possibility is fairly remote.
Eva in “Autumn Sonata”

I remember very little of my childhood. I can’t recall my parents ever having touched me, either with caresses or punishments. I was quite ignorant of everything to do with love: tenderness, contact, intimacy, warmth. Only through music did I have a chance to show my feelings. Sometimes, when I lie awake, I wander whether I have lived at all… I have never grown up… I acquire memories and experiences, but inside… I haven’t even being born.
Charlotte (Eva’s mother) in “Autumn Sonata”

In the beginning of the film, Victor, Eva’s husband, shares with the viewers his experience of living with her, his feelings, and his doubts in Eva’s love for him. What he cannot elaborate is the particularity of his own love for his wife. Why? Is it because his love is as generalized as the language of a catechesis? Composition of the shot suggests a mild disjunction between the spouses (as if they belong to different rooms of their house).

After many years full of intense work, mother has agreed to visit her daughter. Seeing mother Eva is overwhelmed with unconditional joy but she doesn’t know how many problems in her unconscious (connected with her mother’s very existence) are waiting for their meeting to flood their relationships. Like in the previous picture, the composition here suggests that in spite of their sincere joy in seeing each other mother and daughter are separated by something symbolized by Charlotte’s blanket in between them. This detail problematizes their joy, makes it not completely real (although being completely sincere).

Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Victor (her husband) prepare to celebrate mother’s visit.

Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) has come down for dinner in her honor dressed up in her queenly gestures and intonations. Here the protagonists are together but, as if, on the stage – they’re framed in between rooms. Pay attention to Eva’s hairdo – her hair is parted indicating the presence of psychological split in her soul.

Does Charlotte look at Eva playing Chopin’s Prelude – with a motherly pride in her daughter or with a feeling of how much better she as a professional artist can play the piano and analyze serious music in comparison with her daughter, just an amateur?

Without any obvious criticism of Eva’s performance, Charlotte didactically explains to her, how this Chopin’s piece ought to be played and what is its meaning, style and the dominant feeling.

Charlotte is masterful, impeccable, incredible, irresistible and admirable.

While Eva understood that her mother just has a different interpretation of Chopin’s piece (based on the posture of control over emotional experience, not, like Eva’s, based on letting the emotional experience be opened to the otherness of the world, liberated, stand on itself, the pained little girl in her felt targeted and even smashed by the mother’s creative power. Eva loses her confidence and starts to sulk. She needed encouragement from her mother, not a lesson in professionalism. But Charlotte doesn’t differentiate between “truth” and interpretation; she mixes both as all authoritarian people do.

Eva quickly regresses into the condition of little girl she was when she acutely suffered from her mother’s neglect (when Charlotte “played the goddess” instead of attending her daughter’s psychological needs).

In this moment Eva became so traumatized that she, as if, psychologically incarnated back to her childhood.

With all his kindness and humility, Victor takes life a bit too easily. For him the basic coordinates of human life are well defined in advance and the basics of human destiny are wisely drawn by his God. He cannot understand the intensity of emotional problems between Eva and her mother. He underestimates the evil-producing power of childhood traumas because they are inflicted on children without parents’ “evil intentions”, because they are hidden in adults’ unconscious. Victor is patient enough to wait for Eva’s love, but his own love for her is passive and standardized.

After her Chopin triumph at dinner, Charlotte is pleased with herself and indulges in an imaginary dialogue with her recently deceased second husband and partner in dedication to art as a creativity and as a business.

After mother’s “piano lesson”, (is Chopin a pawn in coming mother-daughter titanic clash or a catalyst of this clash?) Eva cannot sleep and in the middle of the night comes to Charlotte only to find her not sleeping either.

Under the influence of resurfaced emotional trauma of being abused by being neglected as a child, Eva finds the courage to confront her mother with her old memories of Charlotte’s behavior.

Daughter accuses her mother. The new generation accuses the previous one of inadequate parenting. Isn’t this encounter, as painful as it may be for both generations, necessary for us all who were children once in order to be able to become responsible adults and for the historical development to take place?

The more Eva confronts mother with the facts of her actions and their influence on her daughters, the more compassion she feels for her. The more Eva shares with Charlotte her agony and sees her mother’s grief the more we understand how important it is to be able to confess our sufferings to one another.

Among Eva’s “revelations” to Charlotte there is the real story of Lena’s illness which includes the traumatizing influence of mother’s lover and later husband Leonardo.

Tormented by the sounds of Eva/Charlotte‘s turbulent exchanges, Lena tries to get out of her bed of illness to mediate between sister and mother, to pacify their disagreements and to help them reach peace and unity.

Eva’s final critical words to the mother are still accusative but already not cathartic. They are already empathic, even compassionate. They are more and more verdict of a mind than that of a vulnerable heart.

Charlotte is tremendously hurt – her imaginary self-image as a “great mother of all times” is shattered. But, may be, she will be capable of accepting the truth. If she will, it can make her even a greater pianist than she is (art needs to be injected by life in order to be able to grow beyond its level of artistry).

Eva just sent to her mother a letter of reconciliation where she is asking for her forgiveness for the ordeal she put her through, for being so accusative and cruel. While it seems necessary “to sort things out” between parents and children, there are no children without parents, not only physically, but psychologically. Our parents continue to live inside us and influence us for the rest of our lives. They will continue to be perceived by us as traumatizing power if we’ll not do what Eva was able to do – to heal the very emotional organism of our relations with our parents by deconstructing our childhood as the object of their influence in their presence and with their participation.


Is “Autumn Sonata” about child neglect, about a mother “forgetting” her daughters‘emotional needs for the sake of her own career (forgetting about her children’s little souls stretching towards the mother in vain), not taking into consideration that identification with parental adulthood is for a child a ladder to her future (a broken ladder will be the reason for the broken adulthood)? Or is this film, while undeniably being about the emotional solitude of a child alienated from the parental participation in her maturing into the emotional adulthood, larger, and ultimately about the inevitable “despotism” of serious art and its difficult relationships with life? Charlotte’s very profession of a performer of very demanding music puts her in a very difficult situation of the necessity to balance art and life: the two jealous and capricious monarchs in a permanent competition with one another. Serious music is not about self-expression and is not about emotional and aesthetic rapport with the audience – it is an attempt to express spirituality of music – to grasp its soul that is always something else, always other, a teasingly or even frustratingly a-symbiotic. May be, it’s possible to joke that serious music is as neglectful to the aspiration of the musician and the audience as Charlotte was with her two daughters. Before music can help you to become more human it’s necessary to be ready to feel in a company of music less human. This dissonance between the spirit of musical art and spirit of life can be very tormenting.

It is symptomatic that Bergman makes no references to Eva’s childhood relations with her peers that could partially alleviate her suffering for being psychologically kept at the distance from her famous and successful mother (and her father although always in proximity to his daughter was rather sharing with her his own sadness of feeling abandoned by his wife’s prolonged absences instead of being for little Eva a source of consolation and inspiration). So, Bergman describes Eva’s psychological situation as an all or nothing: either mother or nobody. While that’s a bit not realistic in a world full of friends and including some mentors, but it helps Bergman to sharpen his points about relations between parents and children, and between art and life (and helps us to concentrate on these points). Bergman emphasizes two psycho-socio-cultural problems – the importance of mother-child psychological rapport as a nucleus of children’ future healthy adulthood (rooted in psychological wholeness), in a world where human psyche splits/shatters into psychological fragments, and the importance of creative/artistic mothers who can transfer their talents to their children in order to enhance their artistic sensibility necessary for keeping existential health of human culture. Ultimately, Bergman’s interest is the amorous relationships between human life and serious art without which human life deteriorates in the direction that we observe around us today when culture becomes more and more alienated from human life(like Charlotte from Eva) and people lose the ability to live with others graciously (lose empathy, compassion and mutual responsiveness and interest to care about each others), and then become materialistically and socio-morphically oriented. Material comfort and consumerism become the main orientation and it means that the proclivity for hate grows more and more, together with competition, rivalry and wars.

Bergman tries to imagine the way to correct this impossible deterioration of human cultural values when technology operates as a servant and instigator of greed and a tool of hate instead of being a helper of human life. The film is about the necessity to help people to overcome the childhood trauma of emotional and mental separation from the benign mother of our childhood which results in loss of existential contact with the world and of “organic” emotional life oriented not on social and financial success but on loving the very vibrancy of life. For all of us the process of becoming older is never completely benign, but those among us who try not to think about their psychological trauma or who are unable to become conscious about it are especially in psychological danger of falling victims of primitive grief and irrational fears that accumulate and multiply by later experiences.

It is from those who consciously or unconsciously repress the truth about their feelings or are cognitively unable to grasp it – grow people with sensitivity threshold as low as the sensitivity of a birch leaf to the breeze or as high and thick as the stone walls of a prison or military fort, people with sociopathic tendencies and psychopathic pockets in their personalities – dogmatic believers prone to project their beliefs (made of metal) to other people as projectiles, those who are unconsciously so aggrandized (hiding from the uncertainty of life) that they believe that the absolute truth is their private property, those who are obsessed with wealth and with power (because of the internal insecurity and irrational fears), etc. Such people are doomed to be appendixes to their complexes, which they are not able to grasp. “Autumn Sonata” is a film for universal viewing but it is dedicated to people who like Charlotte have built around themselves overprotective walls of psychological defenses that suffocate their existential potentials. This film is about the hidden suffering inside everybody’s soul even if it hides itself and then is metastasized into toxic feelings and behaviors poisoning our relationships with one another.

Bergman shows us a rare form of psychotherapy when the therapist is absent, when we have two (or more) people who through personal confessions to each others are capable to open their psychological wounds from the past and heal them with the help of one another. The film accents what can be called Existential Confession Therapy, emotional catharsis and its analysis by the persons involved in the relationship, when real people with their real problems become their own self’s and one-another’s existential psycho-therapists. By observing Eva traumatized by her mother, we are amazed with her psychological strength and her… psychological health that made it possible for her to formulate in front of her mother the points of her bitter criticism and not to retreat to polite and “mother-loving” avoidance of truth. Her ability to become a psychotherapist of herself and her mother is a rare and an impressive existentially spiritual accomplishment. Eva is spiritual power itself in her ability to welcome her mother for tormenting but reassuring personal contact. But Charlotte is also impressive in her ability to understand of her own condition in her confession to Eva following Eva’s confession to her.

Of course, the serious physical illness of Charlotte’s younger daughter wasn’t a result of Charlotte’s alienation from her family, but it certainly didn’t help Lena’s organism to resist it. Before Eva’s invitation and Charlotte’s visit Lena was already living with Eva and her husband for several years, but Eva was afraid to tell Charlotte about it – she knew that mother cannot accept having a crippled child. Why Charlotte, a talented and a highly successful person couldn’t even visit Lena in the hospital? Because for her, an artist dedicated not only to building her success, but to growing as a performer in rapport with great music, it was, it felt necessary to sculpt her narcissism together with her self-image. This unconscious need to have a self-image which can match the greatness of music she played, made her disavow the truth about Lena, pretend that her daughter, as if, never existed, “sacrifice” Lena to feel that she doesn’t have a crippled offspring, that she is almost as perfect as greatest composers-her ideals. In other words, Charlotte is not just morally indifferent; her indifference has something to do with her psychological need to believe in her grandeur as an artist in an area where her work must correspond to a very high level of human talent and artistic achievements. Of course, Charlotte’s profession cannot be taken as an excuse for abandoning her daughters, but the psychological context of her behavior reflects a basic rivalry between art and life which Charlotte never tried to pacify. She never developed the ability to take to herself more psychological contradictions, to tolerate the presence of conflictual motivations without rushing to take sides. She, not only as a mother, but as an artist, is drastically an underdeveloped human being, incapable of bearing the presence of cognitive dissonances and emotional contradictions.

There is an interesting reference in the film on Charlotte’s concert in Linz (Austrian city) in 1934, when she played Beethoven’s “First“. Her description of the public’s exceptional enthusiasm (everybody stood up and the orchestra gave fanfares) can refer to extra-aesthetic reasons for this extraordinary reception. Of course, during this time Austria wasn’t yet annexed by Germany, but Hitler lived in Linz as a teenager and refereed to this city as his “hometown”, and we can easily imagine during those times the ecstasy of Austrians after hearing Beethoven regardless of Charlotte’s and the orchestra’s performance as such. Why was it important for Bergman to make this association between Charlotte’s biggest success as a pianist and the public’s Nazi sentiments? Because any professionalism not balanced by existential concerns of the professionals, any love for their profession and orientation on professional competence and success as more important than what’s happening in the world around, can make people indifferent towards life. Can Charlotte imagine any extra-aesthetic reasons for the reception she got in Linz and then just hide it in her story to Eva, or does she simplemindedly attributes her success only to her talent?

One of the aesthetic innovations Bergman widely uses in the film is what can be called “puppets pantomime episodes” when protagonists are reduced to, as if, marionettes unable to talk and capable only of illustrating Eva’s voice-over when she was explaining to Charlotte the painful experiences of her childhood and youth. Why to use such an expressively strong tool of aesthetic comment – to transform people into robots without their own will? The reason, it seems, is that in the presence of a majestic person (Charlotte), an authoritarian figure, the people who depend on her become creatures without their own will and voice. So, Eva of early adolescent age, her father, her uncles, and even her mother’s lover and Charlotte herself in certain existential situations, become in flashes backs (corresponding to Eva’s stories to Charlotte) like dummies. They have lost their humanity, the freedom to be themselves. The master herself becomes a puppet among her puppets. We can learn from Bergman that “formal device” is never purely formal – it has to be “organic”, it has to be rooted in the truth of the reality characterized in the work of art.

One of the important characteristics of Charlotte Bergman provides, is her manner of talking to herself or with persons important to her as if they are present in front of her. This naïve dramatization gives her a chance not to internalize others and life in general (just to transform what could normally be part of her internal world into a pseudo-sociality). By this spontaneous and unintentional psychological trick Charlotte avoids the burdensome contact with deep experiences and emotions – she externalizes them, transforms them into belonging to external reality and by this keeps them at the distance (as if, her internal world completely belongs to her work, and all the human “stuff” is the matter of reacting on external signals). Charlotte permanently evacuate what could be her existential personality into the external objects and by this cleaning, anesthetizing her soul for sublime demands of her work. At this point Bergman sometimes models Charlotte’s flat monologues as pseudo-dialogues in a style of Hollywood films of 30s – 50s. These Charlotte’s monologues/dialogues (fake sociality of sheer cheer and the silly sale of socio-morphic sentimentality) are amazingly (but not surprisingly) banal and often in a bad taste. But this is what is left in Charlotte after complete and total dedication to the demands of her professionalism, as it is happens today, when scientists work for a corporate leadership that solely decides how to apply the results of scientific research without asking scientists’ opinion.

Will Charlotte be able to balance her professional aspirations with her love for her daughters and care about life in general? Will she be able to use the bitter lesson Eva gave her into a fresh existential project that can combine art and life, enrich art with life and life with art? Will she be strong enough to unite the two in the unity of artistic life and existential art?

Posted on – Nov 4, 2014 –   “Autumn Sonata” (1978) By Ingmar Bergman  by Acting-Out Politics