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Lulu Wang (The Farewell)
Ritesh Batra (Photograph)
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The Furniture: Theatrical Magic in "Fanny and Alexander"

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, our weekly series on Production Design returns for Season 3! Kicking off with an episode of our Ingmar Bergman Centennial Mini-Series.

There is so much to say about Fanny and Alexander. It has the visual density of The Age of Innocence, the spiritual ascent of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Ingmar Bergman’s remarkable way with character. These elements gather together to form a benevolent and mystical dome, one which will define the young Alexander’s relationship to his family and his world. The film is built with a free sense of reality, leaping across time but lingering in resonant moments. Bergman casts the Ekdahl family as practitioners of a magical humanism, which which whisks the audience through these many hours as if in a dream.

Much of this atmosphere depends upon the film’s Oscar-winning production design. 

Its furniture magic takes center stage in the first act, late into the early morning hours of Christmas. Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), Fanny and Alexander’s father, spins a fantastical yarn about an otherwise unremarkable wooden chair. Its long history and hidden power, he says, make it the most valuable in the entire world. Between the flickering gas lights, the holiday atmosphere and the mood of childlike wonder, we are all taken in...

The entire Christmas sequence conjures a charmed, saturnine magic. There are so many candles, it seems a miracle the entire house doesn’t burst into flame. This wintry illumination warms and lulls both the Ekdahls and the audience into a state of calmed satisfaction.

But the house’s magical qualities emerge even before the Christmas sequence begins, in a short prologue. Alexander skitters around the house, flitting between the curtains and hiding under the tables. But this busy space isn’t simply an inanimate playground of landscape paintings and tasteful lamps. Its statues can come to life.

This prologue sets up the Ekdahl home as more than simply a place of wealth, though the family’s position is an important element. After all, these are theater people. While the walls are as packed as those of The Age of Innocence, they don’t have the same museum quality. Rather, they look forward into the 20th century, starting with the Art Nouveau of the floral window panes and Oscar’s own bed.

The light greens don’t suggest the dark finality of a death scene at all, though that is what occurs. And though Oscar dies, he remains present as the film moves forward, paying visits to both his son and his mother. This continuity is even more lushly presented by his funeral, a verdant wonderland of green ferns and white flowers.

Not too long after his death, however, Oscar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Fröling) remarries. Fanny and Alexander move into the home of Bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö), a sanctimonious bully who lives according to the stark principles of his religion. His home is appropriately spare, blank walls only occasionally decorated with the sombre and medieval face of a saint.

Fanny and Alexander share a bedroom fit for a monk. The only hint of childhood allowed inside is an old dollhouse left over from his two daughters, long drowned in the frozen river. The iconic element here is the window, from which Fanny and Alexander peer sadly, desperately into a world they have now been forbidden.
Alexander’s awareness of the otherwise unseen, nurtured by the theatrical magic of his former home, is anathema to this viciously monastic bishop’s palace. This gets him into trouble, and eventually he’s locked in the attic. The room is like a coffin for a more benevolent Christianity, banished by Bishop Vergerus. There are two crucifixes lurking in its shadows, one of which has been dismembered and tossed into the corner as a pile of limbs.
Despite the stiff Protestant rationalism of the bishop, however, there are ghosts in this attic. There are ghosts everywhere for this boy raised in a world of puppets, masks and all sorts god-producing machines. It is this world that will save him, whisking him off to the most densely decorated set in the entire film. And in the shop of family friend Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), packed with the shadows of furniture and crowned by a celestial canopy of chandeliers, he will meet his father one last time.
Of course, as I said at the top, one can never quite say enough about this film. There is an artistic flourish in every set, details worth inspecting even in the bishop’s palace. Each curtain seems to suggest another ghost. Each family meal is a new feast for the eyes. Each visit to the theater holds new magic, however simple it may seem at first. Fanny and Alexander is endlessly charming, its mysteries made richer by its beautiful and densely conceived production design.

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Reader Comments (2)

You make me want to see it

July 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Wonderful post that perfectly captures one of the reasons this is my favorite Bergman film. The design was a BIG part of what made it so accessible to me even as a young child watching with my parents; it really reinforced the feeling of a fairy tale. I longed to live in the Ekdahl household, especially around Christmas time, whereas the Bishop's house represented my worst nightmare, and Isak's shop something in between - half wonder house, half something more sinister.

I need to see it again.

July 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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