I wonder if anyone experiences Autumn Sonata, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on the knotted relations of mothers and daughters, as intensely I do. Surely I am not so peculiar, so singular, in recognizing on the screen my life with my own mother, a portrait of blessings we craved from each other but could not give. There must be multitudes of mothers and daughters, of daughters become mothers, who watch Charlotte and Eva, the characters created by Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, and ask, will we ever stop our performance of this disturbing dyad? Watching the film on a recent winter night, more than thirty years after its release, I felt I could have written its script. I had spoken its lines a thousand times, posed in its tableaus of disappointment, chosen my role in spontaneous scenes, gestured with its hands, and smiled those very smiles of wry regret.
Ingrid Bergman, at the age of sixty-two, strikingly resembled my mother. (I put it that way naturally. Others would reverse the order: my mother resembled this famous actress.) They might have been twins except for the accent. Tall and imposing, standing very straight, they had a regal physical presence. In the opening scene, when Charlotte arrives at her daughter’s house for a visit, she’s wearing a camel-colored pants suit, just like the suits my mother favored. Camel-colored—her color. Tasteful, smart, becoming. Bergman wore her hair cut short, not too short, but chin-length, dyed brown with some gray showing through at the temples, and it curled away from her face, just like my mother’s.
In a key scene, Eva, an amateur pianist, plays Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in A Minor for her mother. The camera rests on her mother, a famous concert pianist, for the duration. Charlotte shows disappointment, looks pained, for her daughter plays with faulty technique and undisciplined emotion. While Charlotte doesn’t condemn the rendition outright, she undermines Eva’s confidence, doubting that she grasps the emotions of the music, and destroys her pleasure in playing. She manipulates Eva into insisting she show how the piece should be framed. Charlotte, who has spent a lifetime performing Chopin, interprets the music in a way that far surpasses Eva’s amateurish effort. This is a familiar pattern between the two, we feel, as the mother trumps the daughter. We see in Eva’s pained expression a lifetime of displeasing her mother, and it’s devastating.
Both Eva and her mother perform the entire Prelude. What an extraordinary risk for the director to take! Surely he worried that viewers would be bored hearing the same piece twice, back to back. But the music is merely the accompaniment to the play of emotions, and my attention was fixed on the question of why Eva chose the piano, given that her mother is an extraordinary pianist. Why not some other instrument, or some other pursuit altogether? How about painting? If she must play the piano, why pick Chopin? Her selection can only be understood as deliberate: She has made a martyr of herself, offering herself up to her mother’s withering gaze. But, one might ask, wouldn’t she have learned to protect herself from an inevitable and unflattering comparison? No, she would not have learned. Daughters have an interminable need for a mother’s approval and love, and go to any length to reach that illusive end.
The director’s notion, to show the mother watching her daughter play, and then the daughter watching her mother play, is a brilliant, excruciating representation of the trouble between mother and daughter. We see different kinds of pain percolate up to rearrange their faces, and neither can let what falls between them go. Charlotte must correct her daughter even at this late stage in life. This is a portrait of the mother as pitiless, empty of empathy for her daughter, the mother as competitive and selfish. And this is a daughter who must subject herself once again to judgment, hoping against all experience that the mother will consider her daughter’s happiness as important as her own. When Charlotte chooses herself, again, as we know she will, Eva can’t bear it.
The natural order of things, we assume, is for the daughter to supersede the mother, as the son takes over his father’s business, as the crown prince ascends to the throne—but not so here. The mother must have the last word, must outperform her daughter even though no audience is in attendance to cheer. And yet Charlotte’s performance is not definitive and does not entirely erase Eva’s. Like a ghost print, the daughter’s stumbling notes bleed through the mother’s version and ring in my ears.
In one scene, midway through the movie, Charlotte has woken up from a bad dream and comes into the living room, where her daughter is sitting. It’s the middle of the night. She wears no makeup and she’s in the grip of unhappy emotions—fear, self-pity, yearning. She begins a monologue: her parents neglected her when she was a child, they never touched her, and she knew nothing of warmth or intimacy. She’s feeling sorry for herself, in full daughter mode, without awareness of the damage her own coldness has caused, a legacy of distance she has passed on. Bergman in this scene could have been my mother—she said these same words about her early life, in the same tone, with the same facial expression, with a look of sadness that made me want to protect her, even when I was a young girl. Eva sits, listens for a long time; then her pent-up hurt and anger emerge and she speaks truths that make her mother cry like a child. Instead of the mother mothering, she wants to be mothered. (How rich, I thought, after the struggle over Chopin!) The director gives us the mother in close-up and holds the camera on her face for several minutes. The long take on her nearly killed me. Her eyes, hazel-gray and lonely, were my mother’s eyes, weakened over time, cloudy with rage and fear. Her high cheekbones, broad forehead, strong mouth with full lips and perfect teeth: it was like looking at my mother.
Autumn Sonata is a relatively short, economical movie, about ninety minutes, and yet I couldn’t watch to the end. I couldn’t make myself look at the screen. I turned away, as if from the slaughter of animals, and I stopped the DVD. I decided to clean the house instead. I hadn’t planned to clean; it wasn’t on my list of tasks. But I tend to tidy up when I am low—there’s nothing like sorrow or regret to get me waving the dust cloth.
I chose the living room, the most heavily trafficked room in the house, where in winter heated air from registers blows dirt from the floor to settle on every surface, like the sediment from a river of dust. I began with the mantel, outfitted with photos of my children, then moved in a circle throughout the room, ending with the sideboard, always reserved for last because of its difficulty. You ask, what is the difficulty with this sideboard? Well, for starters, it’s laden with bowls of shells my mother collected from a beach in Florida, where she lived the last years of her life. The fragile ruffled flutes are fine repositories for thick dust. Painstaking business, this dusting of the shells, and productive of thought. I thought of my mother’s brow, brain, and breast turned to soot in an urn the size of a telephone book.
I moved on from the shells to the bowl of glass balls, also passed on from my mother. She cleaned the same glass balls, I mused, as I lifted each one from the display, polished it with a cloth soft enough for silver, and placed it back in its spot. She was meticulous about such cleanliness. Our house was never dirty—not even water spots on the bathroom counters or smudges on the mirrors. Beds were made with hospital corners. The horse figurines were well dusted on my bookshelf. My little desk stationed in front of the window was bare, the wood highly polished. If someone were to wander to my room and open the door, she would not think a little girl lived there. She would think my mother was childless. My mother would be disappointed in my housekeeping, as she was disappointed with most facets of my life. Animals have the run of the house, sleep on beds and couches at their pleasure. And the kitchen—well, let’s just say you should be careful not to rub a clean white sweater against the appliances.
The last item on the sideboard was a photograph of my mother, housed in a tarnished sterling frame. I carried the photograph into the kitchen, where I keep the silver polish under the sink. I could barely see the silver for all the tarnish, though I had polished it before my father’s Christmas visit. I thought my usual chain of thoughts, of how lovely my mother was, especially in this portrait, taken when she was a college student full of dark beauty and emotional intensity, of how there has never been anyone so influential in my life as my mother. That she was so gigantic I spent my youth trying to get away from her. To no avail, of course, for she had carved out a place deep inside. That though I ventured far and wide, she ventured with me—I’ve carried my mother inside me, and we have traveled a far distance from where we began. That even after her death, her image appears before me, her voice saying my name, ringing its sound. That whenever I look down at my hands, I see her hands over mine. That all I write is covered with her fingerprints.
I squeezed the tarnish remover onto the cloth and rubbed the frame, starting with the outer rims and making my way inside toward the photo itself as the silver began to emerge. Of course, the tarnish begins its stealthy return the minute I put the photo back in its spot on the sideboard. And I can never remove the smudges my fingers make on the frame.
A few days later, I returned to see the rest of Autumn Sonata. I’ve never been willing to abandon a book at the midpoint or walk out of a movie, even if I dislike it. No matter how difficult the viewing experience may prove, I have to see it through to the end. Just before the credits rolled, mother and daughter parted, making their good-byes in a moment of fragile resolution that I knew would never last.