In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman describes the apprehension with which he approached a certain delicate scene in Fanny and Alexander (1982) with his young star, Bertil Guve. It is primarily through the eyes of Guve’s ten-year-old character, Alexander Ekdahl—imaginative, angry, stubborn, credulous—that the film, with all its mysteries and terrors, unfolds. The scene takes place near the end, in the junk and curio shop of the antiques dealer and moneylender Isak, an Ekdahl family friend played by Erland Josephson. Isak lives in a dark, seductively cluttered hive with two grown nephews, the puppet master and magician Aron (Mats Bergman) and the “mad” Ismael, supposedly harmless but nevertheless confined to his room. Alexander and his sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), are also prisoners here, but happily so, having been abducted by Isak in a daring rescue mission from the house of the wicked and abusive bishop who is their stepfather, and they are soon to be restored to the bosom of their family.
In the impenetrable darkness, Alexander stumbles upon Aron’s puppets, then the man himself, who shows him a glistening mummy and talks to him of ghosts—a subject to which Alexander himself brings a certain expertise. They then enter Ismael’s room, and it is here that the weird and fateful encounter occurs. For Ismael, both sensuous and ethereal, is clearly played by a woman (Stina Ekblad), yet no mention of that fact is made. The character who will embrace Alexander and help him realize his fantasy of destroying the bishop remains tantalizingly fluid, his androgyny the very emblem of the liminal space between dream and reality where so much of this film, or at least the mental wanderings of its characters, takes place.
To Bergman’s relief, the brave little actor accepted the situation, reacting with “curiosity and fear.” Curiosity and fear might also describe Bergman’s own driving creative forces, not just singly but together, in the way that a child looks at the world and its strangeness with anxiety as well as acceptance—as a place that contains both the worldly and the otherworldly, and in which ghosts, spirits, and the palpably, sensually physical all coexist.
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