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Fanny and Alexander DVD Collection: The Criterion Collection

It is the opening shot panning over a gurgling brook, flowing then quite effortlessly into the layers of artifice projected by a child's miniature tableaux, scored liltingly to Schumann's "Piano Quintet in E flat Major," that immediately signals how Ingmar Bergman's original five-hour television version of Fanny and Alexander (1982) will differ from the more widely seen three-hour truncation which, despite violating his original vision, nevertheless won him the warmest accolades of his already plaudit-laden career. Indeed, just as one steels themselves for a more rigorously austere rendering of perhaps the liveliest work in the filmmaker's canon, a heretofore unseen lyricism enchants the viewer. Astonishingly, the only difference between the openings of the televised and theatrical versions is that gurgling brook, but the aesthetic transformation is unmistakable; Bergman's farewell to the medium is finally flowing sans interruption by the commercial requirements of exhibitors or awards-craving distributors. What emerges is obviously a fuller work, but, aside from two static, attention-span-testing pieces of staged Shakespeare, the most surprising additions are a number of hauntingly magical passages more indelible than any single moment in the theatrical version — and this is shocking. Though it has always been known that Fanny and Alexander was a pared-down film, it never felt compromised. What a difference two restored hours makes.

Unlike its theatrical runt of a brother, the complete epic is less a bildungsroman (as author Rick Moody categorizes it in one of three essays included in this set) than a family portrait. Alexander (Bertil Guve) is still the petulantly indignant center of the tale, alternately winning and repelling one's affections throughout, but other family members are now more vibrantly drawn than before. The narrative still proceeds roughly along the same arc, except that it is now explicitly a five-act melodrama rather than an ersatz three-act collision of soaring Shakespearean sentiment and dour Ibsenian trimmings. The first three acts establish the rowdy warmth of the Ekdahl clan as they celebrate Christmas with a gluttonous feast enlivened by innumerable shots of cognac. Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander's parents, Oscar (Allan Edwall) and Emilie (Ewa Fröling), are theatrical animals presiding over a mediocre company that appears to subsist only by the members' fierce loyalty to each other. Their grandmother, Helena (Gun Wållgren), is a no-nonsense, but hardly domineering matriarch spared a somber widow's existence through her enduring friendship with longtime family friend (and her former paramour) Isak (Erland Josephson). The most colorful characters in the extended family are the uncles, Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt), the former a good-hearted but helpless emotional bully of a husband to his long-suffering wife, and the latter a philandering boob who winds up impregnating Alexander's nubile young nanny, Maj (Pernilla August). The story begins to darken with the Oscar's death, leading Emilie to inexplicably renounce the stewardship of the theater company, against her husband's deathbed wishes, in favor of a doomed marriage to the stern Lutheran bishop Edward Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö), whose Calvin-bred sternness mutates into a parental cruelty inflicted on Fanny and, in particular, the defiant Alexander. The final two acts, then, concern Alexander's grotesque physical punishments, Emilie's descent into near-madness, and the Ekdahl family's touchingly incompetent scheme to extricate their loved ones from Vergerus's suffocating grasp.

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It's that latter element that is largely absent in the theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander, and its inclusion in the television version whisks the film to a joyous conclusion more emotionally satisfying than any evinced in Bergman's previous efforts. What once seemed shockingly sentimental is now a wholly earned curtain call for Bergman's beautifully drawn characters, many of whom have been brought to life by members of his recurring company. It may seem strange that the director's cinematic summation would fail include his most famous players — Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann or Bibi Andersson — but their being cast might have overwhelmed and even confused the drama. Better then to stick with the less identifiable, or, in perhaps his most poignant touch, appeal to Swedish theatrical history with the legendary Wållgren, who would die shortly after production ceased. Bergman's adroit casting goes a long way toward making Fanny and Alexander the monumental ode to family it becomes in its uncut presentation, but he closes the remaining distance simply by lightening up a little (this may be his least oppressive work since Smiles of a Summer Night). In the past, Bergman's bringing together of, as he refers to them, his "wife" (the theater) and his "mistress" (film) has been anything but harmonious (reaching a soporific nadir with The Magic Flute), but this time the ladies get on famously. No longer telescoped, Fanny and Alexander lights off in fantastical directions both terrifying (Alexander, stunned by his own imagination, watching Death drag his scythe across Helena's wood floor) and wondrous (Isak's spoken parable spinning off into a flame-lit pageant of religious symbolism, heightened once again by Schumann), all of which is tied lovingly together with Helena reading from Strindberg's A Dream Play, thus marking the end of Bergman's final and finest triumph.

The Criterion Collection presents the televised and theatrical versions of Fanny and Alexander in excellent anamorphic transfers (1.66:1) with fine Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. At five discs, the set offers a pretty exhaustive document of the director's last full-fledged film production, which is captured in revealing, fly-on-the-wall detail by the 110-minute documentary, The Making of Fanny and Alexander. Also included are two substantive featurettes: the 1994 interview "Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film" (59 min.), and the brand-new "A Bergman Tapestry" (39 min.), which boasts illuminating recollections from surviving cast and crew. Also on board is an informative Peter Cowie commentary for the theatrical version, a collection of the video introductions by the director taped for 11 of Criterion's other Bergman releases (for whatever reason, there isn't one for Fanny and Alexander), footage of the models for the sets, costume sketches, theatrical trailers and a 35-page booklet with essays by Rick Moody, Stig Björkman, and Paul Arthur. Individual digipaks with paperboard slipcase.
—Clarence Beaks

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