Creating conflict in film is an extremely hard task to carry out. The characters must be believable, their actions must be motivated and triggered by something, the dialogue and the action cannot fall flat and the whole story must end with some kind of development. Conflict cannot be stagnant. Many writers have failed in delivering an honest depiction of conflict, they usually get caught up in their words, they fall in love with them, and end up writing a very robotic screenplay.
Take August: Osage County, the 2013 Oscar nominated movie about a shattered family getting back together after the death of a family member, based on a play by the same title. What it tried to achieve was a violent portrayal of a family falling to pieces, mothers, daughters and sons turning their backs on each other. What it failed to do was to make the conflict feel human. The characters, mainly the ones played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, are incredibly artificial in the way they function. There is nothing human about them and the way they act. Everything seems make-belive for the screen and in fact, it is. And that’s why it failed so miserably at telling a story that could have been otherwise special and significant in terms of its underlying themes.
Glengarry Glen Ross, on the other hand, also based on Mamet’s play (who also wrote the script for the movie) succeeds in creating conflict because of the setting it uses. The characters act like robots because of the environment they find themselves operating in. Their world has no mercy. A real estate firm that is struggling to stay afloat. It is the reason for their hostility towards each other, it keeps them going; their mission is to make it until the end of the day. Dog eat dog, and it works.
However, today I want to go over a film that perhaps initiated this whole verbal war of two or more parties. A film that was directed by a masterful artist who knew how the human mind worked but wanted to know more, wanted to get to the core of it. This man, Ingmar Bergman, was intrigued by relationships and life in general, and there is no finer example for this than his drama made in 1978, Autumn Sonata.
Ingrid Bergman’s finest hour right before her death couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the theme this particular movie tackles. Ingrid Bergman (in no way related to the director of this film) was the star of the 1940s and 1950s. She was hailed as the greatest actress of the decade after her performance in the legendary Casablanca. She was the foreign movie star that made it big on the silver screen. Later on in the late 1940s she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian neo realist, and they began making movies together (Stromboli, Journey to Italy, Europe ’51) and that sealed her legacy as one of the very best actresses of world cinema. That is why her performance in Autumn Sonata is so fitting. In the movie, Bergman plays Charlotte Andergast, a successful classical pianist, who sacrificed her responsibilities as a mother of two for the sake of her career. Bergman herself admitted that this was the most personal screenplay she had ever worked on as she felt responsible for abandoning her home and her family in order to chase fame, glory and romance. But I’m not here to gossip, I’m here to talk about the on-going conflict presented in this picture.
The two characters, mother and daughter, Charlotte and Eva, haven’t seen each other in almost seven years. Charlotte is invited to stay over for a few days after the death of her companion, Leonard. Mother and daughter come together. The pain that comes with the insecurity of looking at each other is unbearable for both of them. What is remarkable about this conflict is that at first it is not open. It is kept shut, suppressed by excitement and fear. Eva smiles, stares down at her feet or straight at the walls of her house located in the Norwegian countryside. Charlotte, on the other hand, laughs it off, makes herself comfortable and when she finds herself alone in the guest room she starts talking to herself. She talks because it is her only method of making sure there is still a heart beating inside of her. We get two sides for each of these two women. Charlotte seems tough, successful and well respected but it turns out it’s the other way around. She suffers like every other mortal, she is haunted by bad decisions and countless regrets. Eva is the child that suffered the most, along with her younger sister who is victim of a paralyzing illness.
Ingmar Bergman builds the story bit by bit and that is the key to Autumn Sonata’s effectiveness. He takes his time but lays out the clues early on when Eva’s husband speaks directly to the camera in the opening scene telling us about Eva’s disturbed past and her quest to make amends with her mother. Right from the start we get a glimpse of the tragedy that has loomed over Eva’s family. Charlotte is her biggest enemy and at the same time the person who was supposed to be her closest friend. The drama between these two works like clockwork, with Eva battling her insecurities and slowly opening up and letting out her frustrations in an extremely emotional confrontation, where she ends up stuttering, breaking into a maniacal, uncontrollable cry.
And right here, Ingmar Bergman’s brilliance in handling emotions on screen comes into play. As I sat watching this scene unfold with my jaw dropped I could not help but think to myself how unfair Eva is being toward her own mother. Why? After all, Eva had her reasons, Charlotte was always cold toward her own child, she did nothing but escape difficult situations, she cheated on her husband and took pleasure in spending most of her time far away from home. And yet… somehow I managed to understand her. I did not sympathize but I could understand both perspectives. Charlotte’s life was struck by a wave of success and glory while Eva’s was haunted by the lack of motherly love and appreciation.
There is a certain balance in the suffering of the two women. Both are very different, age-wise but also character-wise. Charlotte acts tough. Eva, on the other hand, is the vulnerable little girl. But both are wearing masks and both are afraid to reveal their true identities. Like in his earlier, most famous work, Persona, Bergman plays with the idea of identity and the weight it carries. In Persona the women suddenly merge into one, they become one unit. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is too thick and sets mother and daughter apart. There is a feeling of frustration when watching the scenes unfold. The viewer seeks truth and yet there are lies in each point of view. Charlotte’s vague memory is not enough to make us believe her, and Eva’s raw, emotional account of her childhood is perhaps too honest to believe.
What stands out in this conflict is the fact that there is no mention of a tragic event that initiated the whole affair. In most movies there is always that one incident of violence that sets the tone for a relationship (think Rain Man and the hot water accident that became the reason for Dustin Hoffman character’s institutionalization) and becomes the main theme of the movie. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is genuine because of its slow creation. It’s a matter of years of emotional struggle rather than one moment of carelessness or evil. Both characters have grown over the years, their paths have gone different ways but what ties them is the past built on countless moments of miscommunication and emotional absence. Bergman stages this film like a play, where characters’ thoughts are expressed aloud almost as if the actors were reading the script to an audience. The action is present, the viewer is in the moment along with the cast of characters. Bergman doesn’t believe in distance, his camera is always intimate, at times too intimate and it can lead to being almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch. Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman play off each other like normal humans would do. There is an honest reflection in their delivery but there is also a hidden hostility toward the characters they play. It is as if they were forced to be there, to play those parts, and they want to get rid of the burden because it is too much to handle. It is, after all, a beautiful tragedy that spares no one. It is a conflict of words rather than action. It is a conflict that still speaks to us. And rightly so.