Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Memory lane to Lund

Coming after Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (also ’57) was the product of someone who’d fully arrived as an internationally acclaimed auteur. In terms of gravity it splits the difference between Smiles, a sex comedy of the highest order, and Seal, a medieval existential ensemble drama about futility and death; like the latter, it’s a road movie through which numerous supporting characters pass while our protagonist, septuagenarian professor Isak Borg (legendary Swedish director Victor Sjöström), travels to Lund for an honorary degree and along the way reviews his life’s regrets. The film, appearing not too long after Akira Kurosawa’s beloved and not dissimilarly themed Ikiru (1952), instantly became one of Bergman’s most beloved works.

I’ve been a Bergmaniac since my teens and must confess that Strawberries has never even cracked my top ten (bearing in mind that Bergman directed over 60 films). There are memorable dream sequences—the sun-blasted houses with their butcher paper curtains; the carriage carrying the coffin carrying the professor; the professor’s wife being ravished in the woods—but none as memorable or imaginative as dream sequences in several other Bergmans. The long flashback section at the summer house is a little boring (or anyway as boring as any sequence featuring both the delicious Bibi Andersson and the delectable Gunnel Lindblom can be). And those two self-serious young men in ultra-short shorts that the professor picks up are more annoying than anything else.

On the other hand, there’s the ingenious notion of having Marianne, the professor’s daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin, of the incredibly sensual mouth and quiet, captivating intelligence), tag along for the ride after having temporarily left her husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). One of the film’s strongest sequences is the flashback to the moment Marianne confesses to Evald that she’s pregnant and intends to keep the baby; Evald tells her if she does they’re through; the last cut is brilliantly, brutally timed. There’s that endearing rural gas jockey (Max Von Sydow) who reveres the professor so much he won’t accept remittance for topping up his tank. “There are things that can’t be paid back,” he says. “Not even with gas.” And there is, of course, Sjöström, so relaxed yet so vulnerable, so elegant and somehow chilly. His performance is reason enough to see Wild Strawberries. That and those final two close-ups (courtesy of Gunnar Fischer in one of his last Bergmans) of Sjöström's tired, pale face, which, seemingly effortlessly, convey the sense of a whole life having passed before it, and the possibility of finding peace with that life’s drawing to a close.


Feminema said...

How strange! Smiles leaves me cold, but Wild Strawberries hits some kind of pleasure sensor that makes it one of my favorite films.

But then, I suppose that's the thing about one's favorite films -- it's ultimately such an eccentric, subjective matter of discernment that there's no possibility of coming up with a persuasive explanation that'll convince someone who feels otherwise.

And don't worry, I won't hold your irrational distaste for Wild Strawberries against you.

JB said...

I certainly didn't mean to give the impression that the film is anything less than pretty great, but it feels healthy to take a swift kick or two at the canon now and then, especially when the author of the film in question is among your most beloved filmmakers. I've seen Wild Strawberries at least five times now, and there are scenes I always enjoy (and others that I kind find of dull, like the stuff at the summer house, no? Or the Catholic guy who cries when his wife hits him?), but I just can't get the film propped up anywhere near Persona or Scenes From a Marriage or Passion of Anna or Winter Light or Hour of the Wolf or Seventh Seal or Through a Glass Darkly or... you get the idea.