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Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)

* * * *

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Anderson, Ingrid Thulin

For a film that is ostensibly concerned with emptiness, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a deep and enthralling film experience. Unfolding in a dreamy, lyrical fashion, the film follows Isak Borg, a professor of medicine who realizes that his life has been meaningless and tries to create some meaning for it before it’s too late. Chances are that this is a film that you’ll either love or be utterly bored by, but if you’re looking to make your first foray into Bergman’s work, this one is pretty easily accessible.

Dr. Borg, played by Victor Sjostrom, is an old man, a widower with one son who is about to receive an award to celebrate his 50 years of medical practice. Forced to acknowledge that he’s closer to the end than he is to the beginning, he starts to reflect on his life and the reason for the loneliness he feels at his core. His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) joins him on the drive to the ceremony, during which they discuss his son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand). Marianne insists that Evald is a lot like Isak, which has created problems in the marriage, particularly where the subject of children is concerned. Much is made by others of the fact that Marianne and Evald have been married for some time and have no children and Marianne reveals to Isak that she’s pregnant. It’s the worst possible news for Evald, who wants no children because he doesn’t want them to have to endure the pattern of coldness and meaninglessness that has been established by his family. Marianne is determined that this time she will have a baby, even though it means she may have to choose between it and Evald, a concept which she finds impossible.

Isak and Marianne stop briefly at a house where his family spent summers during his childhood. While there Isak imagines the day of his uncle’s anniversary celebration, when his cousin Sara (Bibi Anderson) gathered wild strawberries for him as a gift. Isak and Sara were secretly engaged - though in fact the engagement was common knowledge thanks to family gossip - but Isak’s brother, Sigfrid (Per Sjostrand), also had designs on her. Though she knows that Isak is the good brother and Sigfrid a scoundrel, Sara is nevertheless attracted to Sigfrid and eventually he is the one she will marry. What is interesting about these memories is that they aren’t really memories at all, given that what unfolds are scenes at which Isak was never present. During the day of the anniversary celebration, Isak was out in the boat with his father and so these scenes are constructions based on second-hand knowledge and hindsight. Later Isak will remember a scene to which he was a witness – his wife’s tryst with another man – but once again the younger version of Isak does not figure into the scene. Even in his own memories, Isak is a distant figure who does not actively participate.

As a director, Bergman is well-known for symbolism, for the almost relentless way in which each shot tries to impart meaning. This film certainly relies on symbolism – particularly in a dream sequence towards the beginning – but I found it less symbolically aggressive than the other Bergman films I’ve seen (The Seventh Seal and Persona), and while it starts off a little slow, it quickly becomes an absorbing meditation on the meaning, or lack thereof, of life. The film aspires to be high-brow art with a capital "A" but it manages to do so with minimal pretensiousness.

While the film is, for the most part, quite dark in its subject matter, it is told with a lightness of touch that is appropriate to its dreamy structure. It also, surprisingly, ends on something of a light note. Isak, having realized that his coldness makes him not only stand out but stand apart from all those around him, tries to forge a connection with his long-suffering housekeeper. He suggests to her that they begin calling each other by their first names, a suggestion which she immediately turns down. What would people think if they suddenly started speaking to each other with such familiarity? Besides which, in their shared routines, the gentle way in which they bicker and depend on one another, they have already gained a level of intimacy that he has never before shared with anyone. Coming from a director best known for exploring existential crises, this is a surprisingly optimistic ending and, in its way, quite sweet. I certainly didn't expect that, but it was definitely a nice surprise.

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