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Film / Fanny and Alexander

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"Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns."
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Fanny and Alexander is a 1982 film by Ingmar Bergman. The story centers around the filthy rich Ekhdahl family in Sweden, from 1907 to 1909. Matriarch Helena Ekhdahl is a widow, who has maintained a long term relationship with Jewish shopkeeper Isak Jacobi. Helena's son Carl is unhappily married and deeply in debt. Her son Gustav is in a happy open marriage with Alma and is also seeing Maj the maid. Helena's son Oscar has the simplest home life, married to the lovely Emelie, with two children, Fanny and Alexander (the film is from Alexander's point-of-view). Unfortunately Oscar and Emelie's happiness is cut short, when Oscar suddenly dies from a stroke. Emelie winds up marrying the local Protestant bishop, Edvard Vergerus — a marriage that both she and her children quickly regret.

Fanny and Alexander was the last theatrical film of Bergman's career, although he wrote and directed for television for another 20 years. In fact, it was originally conceived as a television mini series, and exists as both a 188 minute theatrical cut (the first to be released), and a 312 minute television cut. It is commonly regarded as one of his masterpieces and won 4 Oscars at the 1984 Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film.

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Tropes:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: When Alexander won't say "good night" to Edvard, he asks him why. Alexander says he doesn't want Edvard to have a good night. Edvard chastises him, but as he leaves he starts laughing.
  • All There in the Manual: Or rather, all there in the television cut. In the theatrical version, it's not clear if Alexander is making up the story of seeing the ghosts of Edvard's wife and children. The television version includes a scene where the ghosts of the mother and daughters appear, and yell at Alexander for making things up.
  • Armor-Piercing Slap: Alma is outwardly OK with her husband having an affair with Maj the maid... though when Maj plays with the children instead of putting them to bed for the night, she takes the opportunity to give her one of these.
  • Author Avatar: Alexander for the young Bergman, though he sometimes denied this:
    It has been suggested ... that 12-year-old Alexander is my alter-ego. But this is not quite true. Fanny and Alexander is a story, the chronicle of a middle-class, perhaps upper-middle-class family sticking closely together...There's a lot of me in the Bishop, rather than in Alexander. He is haunted by his own devils.
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  • Babies Ever After: For Emelie and Maj.
  • The Bard on Board: Contains multiple references to Hamlet, including having Oscar play the Ghost before his stroke and subsequently appearing as a ghost to his son after his wife remarries. Lampshaded.
    Emelie: Don't play Hamlet on me now, boy. I'm not Gertrude, your stepfather isn't king of Denmark, and this isn't Kronoborg castle no matter how dreary it may look.
  • Beta Couple: Several. The affair between Gustav and Maj is the primary subplot (played for laughs), while Carl and Lydia's marriage is the secondary (tragic) one. Helena and Isak is a background couple.
  • Big Bad: Edvard is the main antagonist of the film.
  • Big Fancy House: The Ekhdahls live in an absurdly ornate mansion filled with fancy furniture, art, and statuary. If Scenery Porn is possible in an indoor drama, this is it. Inverted with the bishop's house, which is deliberately kept as spartan as possible.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Bishop Vergerus, a pillar of his community — he's the bishop, for cripes's sake — is revealed to be a cruel, domineering sadist. He locks the kids up in their room, viciously canes Alexander, and apparently was indirectly responsible for the death of his first wife and children, when they drowned in the river while trying to escape his tyranny.
  • Call-Back: So many, especially in the TV version.
    • "God" appears behind a wallpaper, like in Through a Glass Darkly.
    • The flagellants and grim reaper from The Seventh Seal appear in Alexander's dreams.
    • Justina's hands are stigmatized, like Märta's in Winter Light.
    • Helena's grandchildren present her with a gift of Wild Strawberries.
    • Alexander pisses in a flowerpot while exploring an unknown building, like Johan in Tystnaden.
    • The film opens with a zoom-in on a fake theatre as the curtain rises, like in The Magic Flute.
    • A stage magician pulls off an act of actual magic to undo the villain, as in The Magician.
    • Red is a color that figures heavily in the Ekdahls' home, as well as Isak Jacobi's. Just like the sisters' house in Cries and Whispers.
  • Childish Pillow Fight: Played straight, with Fanny, Alexander, some other kids, and the maid engage in a standard pillow fight on Christmas, including feathers from exploding pillows.
  • Corporal Punishment: The Bishop flogs Alexander on the buttocks with a carpet beater—in front of the whole household.
  • Cross-Cast Role:
    • The role of Mr. Jacobi's disturbed nephew Ismael is played by a woman. Bergman said this was in order to make the role more androgynous, blur the lines between male and female, violence and sex, childhood and adulthood as Ismael appears to have Alexander murder the bishop.
    Ismael: Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits; perhaps we flow into each other, stream through each other, boundlessly and magnificently. (...) It is not I talking. It is yourself.
    • Likewise, the bishop's aunt is played by a man.
  • December–December Romance: Helena and Isak, though they did have an affair when they were younger as well.
  • Demoted to Extra: Several characters in the cinematic cut, including Gunnar Björnstrand as the stage manager. Björnstrand, who'd worked with Bergman since 1941, was suffering from Alzheimer's and this was his final cinematic role.
  • Divorce Requires Death: Once Emelie realises what kind of man she's married, he tells her that he will never agree to a divorce, and if she leaves him anyway, the courts will grant him custody of her children to raise as he sees fit. Truth in Television; this was 1909, and married women were legally the wards of their husbands.
  • Domestic Abuse: One of the main themes and conflicts of the film.
  • Due to the Dead: Deconstructed. On his deathbed, Oscar asks Emilie to promise to give him "A simple funeral...Nothing majestic in the cathedral with the band playing Chopin's "Funeral March" and the bishop giving a pompous oration by the bier. Promise me!", adding "I rely on you but not on Mama. She'll want all the theatrical trimmings." Emilie promises and says that she will speak to Helena. But after he dies, one thing leads to another; everyone who's anyone in town wants to pay their respects and Oscar is given a funeral precisely opposite to that which he requested - a cathedral service officiated at by Edvard the bishop followed by a large procession, with respects paid by soldiers from the local regiment and many others, and a military band playing the "Funeral March". While walking in the procession, Alexander mutters swear words, as if to critique the situation.
  • Evil Old Folks: Edvard.
  • Evil Wears Black: Edvard is almost always seen wearing a black cassock in contrast to Oskar Ekdahl who, in Alexander’s hallucinaions, is wearing a light-colored suit which represents good.
  • Family Theme Naming: The Ekdahl brothers are named after Swedish kings (which was a common naming practice).
  • Farts on Fire: Averted. All Carl does when he farts at a candelabra is put out the candles.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Edvard Vergérus often appears as very polite and sophisticated, but it becomes clear that his politeness is only a facade that masks the true abuser that he is.
  • Freudian Trio: The Ekdahl brothers. Loud, "overly erotic" Gustav is the id, depressive Carl is the ego, and dreamer Oscar is the superego. Unsurprisingly, Oscar's death sets the whole dynamic reeling.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Carl and Gustav when negotiating with the bishop. It doesn't work.
  • Grand Finale: It's Bergman's last "proper" film, and he makes it count, with numerous subtle Call Backs to previous movies, actors from his entire career in both film and theatre returning, and for once an almost completely unambiguous happy ending.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Opens the second part, as Emilie and her children are trapped in the grim Vergerus home, while Helena sits at home alone, depressed.
  • Greedy Jew: Deconstructed with Isak, to the point of being a Stereotype Flip. Though outwardly he has all of the classical attributes, he is not portrayed as greedy or selfish, however it is clear that most of the other characters see him this way. The sequence where he saves the children from the bishop's house shows, that he usually plays along with it to confuse his opponents.
  • Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Bishop Vergerus practically radiates "evil" from his first scene, in which he grills Alexander about the fanciful stories Alexander tells at school. This trope is played with, however, in that their mother realizes pretty quickly what a monster she married, and the kids do not save themselves (they are spirited out in a trunk by Mr. Jacobi).
  • Hate Sink: Edvard is hated by almost all characters in-universe and for very good reasons. He is a remorseless abuser who has no problems with subjecting his step-children to near-torture (both physically and psychologically), and barely receives any real punishment for it until the very end of the film.
  • Heel Realization: A version which may make the villain even less sympathetic; in his last discussion with Emelie, Edvard admits that he was shocked that Alexander hated him since it never even occurred to him that anyone could hate him. To be clear, this comes after he's confined his pregnant wife to her room, abused her children, and all but threatened to kill them if she leaves him.
  • Hollywood Atheist: The children suffer quite a bit in Bishop Vergerus's prison like home. After they finally escape, Alexander muses: "If there is a God, then he's a shit, and I'd like to kick him in the butt." Isak's nephew Aron justifies his atheism with "as a magician, I abhor outside meddling."
  • Howl of Sorrow: Emelie following Oscar's death.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Gustav trying to get ready for Christmas morning.
    Alma: What would you like to drink with your breakfast?
    Gustav: Beer.
    Alma: How are you feeling?
    Gustav: Brandy.
  • Intermission: "Fanny and Alexander will continue in a moment."
  • Karmic Death: The police makes sure to note that Bishop Vergerus' death was very painful.
  • Knight of Cerebus: The film takes a notably dark tone in contrasts to the first arc once Edvard appears on screen.
  • Magic Realism: Mostly a realistic setting, but with fairy tale aspects. Alexander sees a statue move, and sees ghosts. A mummy somehow breathes. Mr. Jacobi casts a spell to make images of Fanny and Alexander appear, when smuggling them out of the Vergerus home. Mr. Jacobi's disturbed nephew Ismael seems to bring about the death of Edvard and his aunt, by some sort of psychic link, with the events transpiring in Real Life, just as Ismael describes them to Alexander.
  • Man on Fire: Edvard's aunt after she knocks over an oil lamp.
  • Middle Name Basis: At their wedding, Edvard and Emilie state their full names while exchanging vows. They are "Olof Hendrik Edvard Vergérus" and "Elisabeth Emilie Josephine Ekdahl".
  • Match Cut: From a shot of the weird breathing mummy in Aron Jacobi's puppet show, turning his head, to Edvard's creepy bedridden aunt, turning her head in the exact same way.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Alexander tries this when being grilled by Bishop Vergerus.
    Edvard: Can you explain to me why one lies?
    Alexander: Because you don't want to tell the truth.
  • The Mistress: Maj is this to Gustav. Alma is mostly OK with it, even going so far as to have a pleasant conversation with Gustav and Helena about what to do with Maj after Gustav knocks her up.
  • Name and Name: Although somewhat of an odd example of this trope, since the whole film is from Alexander's point of view, and his sister Fanny is mostly insignificant.
  • One-Book Author: After playing Alexander, Bertil Guve decided not to pursue a career in acting. He is now a doctor of economics.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: They seem content to just hang around. Oscar's ghost appears periodically in the Ekhdahl mansion, and talks to both his mother and his son. Edvard's ghost appears at the end, knocks Alexander down, and promises to haunt him.
    Ghost!Oscar: I can't leave you. I lived a whole life with you and your mother. Death makes no difference.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Because he's just a kid, Alexander (and Fanny, insofar as she counts as a protagonist) doesn't have much agency, being at the mercy of the adults in his life and how they react to events.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Just in case you didn't dislike the Vergeruses enough, they're also the only characters who are openly antisemitic towards Isak.
  • Polyamory: Gustav's wife Alma is aware that Gustav is having regular sex with Maj the maid, and is mostly OK with it, though see Armor-Piercing Slap.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Gustav Adolf delivers one to Vergerus while explaining why they will not return the children to him. Subverted in that it only makes Vergerus more determined to get them back.
    Carl: ...Idiot.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Why the bishop's wife and children died. We hear several different explanations, including from their own ghosts... though that may just be Alexander's imagination.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: When Vergerus refuses to let Emelie and the children go, and points out that as her husband he has the law on his side, Gustav buys up all his debts and threatens to bankrupt him. Subverted in that between being a man of God and threatening Emelie's life, Vergerus isn't remotely impressed.
  • Shout-Out: The film ends with Helena reading the page quote from August Strindberg's A Dream Play to a sleepy Alexander.
  • Show Within a Show: The plays put on by Oscar's theatre company. As per usual with Bergman, they're chock full of Stylistic Suck.
  • Sinister Minister: Emilie's alarm bells do not go off when Edvard demands that she and the children rid themselves of all their possessions before coming to his household. Sure enough, Edvard is a monstrous sadist whose home is very much like a prison, complete with bars on the windows, and solitary confinement in the attic for Alexander after Edvard beats him.
  • Sir Swearsalot: Alexander swears constantly after his father's death.
  • Slipping a Mickey: How Emilie escapes Edvard's house, by dumping some sleeping pills in his drink.
  • Society Marches On: In 1979, some seventy years after this film is set and three before it was released, Sweden banned corporal punishment of children (the first country to do so), as well as other humiliating treatment of them. Take that, Bishop Vergérus.
  • The Sociopath: Guess who??
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Gustav Adolf, constantly, especially when he gets angry.
    Gustav Adolf: Imagine a man like me, at almost 100 kilograms, of fully grown beard and mind, having to sit on this ridiculous uncomfortable chair and listen to this full-feathered hypocrite! "The brokenness of our lives?" KISS ME WHERE MY BACK CHANGES NAME! Shut up, Carl, let me tell this incommensurable soulwanker what I have lined up for him!
  • Table Space: Used for a gag. As the extended Ekhdahl clan is having dinner, Helena beckons to a maid and says: "Tell the children they may leave the table." The maid then walks down the long, long table to a second maid, and delivers the message. That maid then walks down to a third maid, who goes to the other end of the table (which may be in Finland), and tells Fanny and Alexander they may leave. Doubles as a Tear Jerker since it's their father's funeral.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Edvard canes Alexander after Alexander (maybe) makes up that story about seeing the ghosts of Edvard's first family.
  • Thicker Than Water: The Ekdahls may be a Big, Screwed-Up Family, but they will not stand by while Vergerus torments their brother's widow and children.
  • Third-Person Person: Alexander when talking to the bishop.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The cruel and abusive Edvard Vergerus is Alexander and Fanny's wicked stepfather.

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