Friday, March 04, 2016

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Smultronstället, Sweden, 91 minutes
Director/writer: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Gunnar Fischer
Music: Erik Nordgren, Gute Loven
Editor: Oscar Rosander
Cast: Victor Sjostrom, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, Naima Wifstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gertrud Fridh, Gunnel Brostrom, Gunnar Sjoberg

Wild Strawberries was one of the first art films I saw and thus remains one I still like, as it has many impressive tricks and stunts for the novice. Truthfully, since then, I have been around the block a couple of times about it. The bold, high-contrast black and white simplicity of the look, the general dour cast of mind, and the overbearing symbolism in the dream sequences were exciting as signifiers of high A - R - T. Later they seemed pretentious and trite for the same reasons. Now it all has a nostalgic glow—quaint, out of touch, overdone, perhaps, but very charming in places and often searing in its insights. And if it seems hackneyed, well, that might just be an indication of its influence.

Even if you've never seen it, it probably feels familiar within minutes. It has been parodied nearly as much as director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman's other film of that year, The Seventh Seal. Victor Sjostrom plays Isak Borg, an accomplished doctor and researcher who has reached the age of 78. The film mostly takes place on a single day, a June 1—a day of long light in Sweden, as spring slips into summer—when Isak is scheduled to receive an honorary degree from a prestigious university for his life's work. The night before, he can't sleep. He has a dream that looks to us now like an epitome of art film dream clichés—clocks with no hands, his own body spilling out of a coffin, etc. But it sets a mood, almost first thing in the movie, and begins to soften us for the strange, deliberate, Brechtian way that fantasies, dreams, and memories mix and comingle in this picture, existing side by side across time and space. See also Woody Allen's Another Woman, which lifts the stream of consciousness device whole and recontextualizes it nicely.

Isak finally rises before 3 a.m., when it is already light out, and decides to drive to the ceremony rather than fly, as previously planned. His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, who is outstanding as always), is wakened by the commotion of Isak's discussion with his housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl) about the change in plans. Marianne has been staying with them for some time, a matter of days or weeks, under murky circumstances. Isak and Agda do not know if she is leaving her husband, Isak's son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), and they have been afraid to ask her about it. Marianne asks Isak if she can ride along with him to the ceremony, which is taking place in the city where she lives with Evald. Isak and Agda exchange glances. What does it mean?

The movie follows them on their day-long road trip. First they have a bitter recriminating exchange when Isak probes for information. Then they stop at Isak's former summer home along the way, where Isak naps. His dream of childhood scenes fleshes out more of his story. He was betrayed by an early love, Sara (Bibi Andersson), who left him for his ne'er-do-well brother. Over the course of the picture we learn how wounded he was by this. We also find out what a terrible marriage he had. For all its accomplishments, his life is a tremendously sad and painful one.

They begin to pick up traveling companions, who fill various symbolic roles. At the summer house, they meet a trio of college-age kids looking for a lift. The girl, Sara (Bibi Andersson again), is flirtatious but says she is allowed because she is a virgin. One of the boys, Anders, wants to be a minister. The other, Viktor, is a rationalist, studying to become a doctor. They both love Sara and quarrel about philosophy. One of the best sequences in the movie happens when this group of five almost has an auto accident by way of meeting an acrimonious couple. These two constantly bicker and belittle one another. Even now, they are not old-fashioned at all—as Bergman wrote it, they are everything in a bad relationship distilled down to elements. Marianne finally has to kick them out of the car, "for the sake of the children." The woman (Gunnel Brostrom), as she leaves, murmurs, "Forgive us, if you can."

Perhaps the most heavy-handed dream sequence in Wild Strawberries is saved for last, but it's not without its effect. Bergman was often good with surprising pivots to horror (The Magician, The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf) and there's some of that here. Some very nice moods and tones are found in Gunnar Fischer's cinematography, even as the narrative tilts toward points of Freudian obviousness. Isak finds himself in a classroom examination nightmare, unprepared for the bewildering test, judged silently by the people he has encountered that day, hectored and humiliated by the proctor (Gunnar Sjoberg, who was also the husband in the bad relationship). "A doctor's first duty is to ask forgiveness," he mocks Isak. "You've been accused of guilt," he tells him. Found guilty, Isak swiftly receives his sentence: loneliness.

Well, all right, "yes we see," as the Shangri-La's said in other circumstances. Isak Borg's moment of truth has come 'round at last. If I tell you Wild Strawberries has a happy ending in spite of all that—to the point where its final shots are positively maudlin—I also have to tell you that the details of how it gets there are worked out well. The change in Isak's relationship with Marianne from one of wariness and hostility to one marked by an easy trust and intimacy is remarkable, but the steps to getting there are true. It's an honest reassessment that is made for readily understandable reasons, and so heartening and believable. The rest of the movie with all its copied and parodied points and strategies is a bit rickety now but the narrative that it's built to house remains the most solid part, and ultimately redeems it still. Plus it's an old favorite of mine anyway for reasons that are beside the point. Hey, it's at least worth a look.


  1. Your first paragraph could be used in any number of films, depending on which ones we have seen.

  2. Now I really want to know these other reasons why it's such an 'old favorite'? I'm pretty sure an Ex of mine was in a band in high school called The Seventh Seal. She played drums. Not sure exactly why but I find this endlessly amusing.