Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wild Strawberries (1957): Re-Evaluating a Film About Re-Evaluation

Wild Strawberries is all about a man re-evaluating his life so it's an appropriate subject for re-evaluation itself. Whenever I’ve seen it before it seemed to me a masterpiece, but I must say that when I re-watched it this time - my fifth or sixth viewing - there were some scenes that really didn’t work for me. These included most of those where Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) journeys back to his childhood in some sense. We see his boyhood sweetheart, played by Bibi Andersson, sitting in the forest, and Borg as he is now, an old man, observing her or talking to her, and these episodes left me cold. Also, the dinner-table scene with the noisy twins and the large family arguing amongst themselves seemed to have no point and, perhaps sacrilegiously, I preferred the variation Woody Allen did on this idea when in Annie Hall he goes back as an adult and observes himself as a child. Another section, one much praised by critics, has Borg and his companions getting into a road-accident with a vehicle carrying a dysfunctional couple, whom they then have to give a lift to. I liked this little interlude but it seemed a bit underdeveloped, and I wanted and expected more. The husband gets five minutes to show that he’s a monster and that the marriage is hellish, and then they’re gone. And Max Von Sydow is in this film too, but he’s wasted in a tiny cameo as a gas-station attendant.

Then there’s the scene where Borg and his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) have an alfresco meal by the coast with three young hitch-hikers they’ve met: Sara (Bibi Andersson again) and two young men she’s with. The men, one of them training to be a doctor, the other a minister (science vs. religion, geddit?) have an argument over the place of God in modern society, and the dialogue at first seemed awfully clunky, almost like a parody of Bergman films. However, this scene was redeemed by the fact that later the argument develops into a full-on fist-fight and when they’re finished Sara asks them ’So, does God exist?’ as if they alone could decide this question. That really made me laugh and showed Bergman could make fun of his own pretensions.

But in general the overall arc of Professor Borg’s storyline didn’t move me as much as it had on previous occasions, and I think this was for two reasons. The first is that Bergman was born in 1918, making him about 39 in 1957, and I’m 45 now: this was the first time I’d seen Wild Strawberries as someone older than he was when he made it. It’s the first time it occurred to me that it’s a young man’s film. In this review, I launched right into discussing minor details of the plot without giving a general overview - that it’s about a 78-year-old doctor making a day-long road trip to receive an honorary degree and reflecting back over his life - because Wild Strawberries is one of the most famous foreign films ever made, and I imagine anyone who’s going to read this will already know this outline. I know I saw it first when I was 16 or 17, and it seems to me that it’s one of the very first films you watch if you want to start discovering foreign classics. It’s full of dream-like elements that make it easier for adolescents to appreciate than, say, The Leopard or Les Enfants Du Paradis. But when you’re 45 your reaction is inevitably different.

The second reason I was less awed is that Bergman himself has conditioned me to expect better things. By which I mean this time round I came to Wild Strawberries after a year of discovering or re-discovering many of his more meatier works from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s: Persona, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, From the Life of the Marionettes, After the Rehearsal, etc (all of them made when he was older than I am now). They now seem to have greater depths by comparison. I recently heard an older critic say how he loved The Graduate when he was in his twenties but now it doesn’t seem like the same film. I’ve had similar reactions to things like Kind Hearts and Coronets, Shoot the Piano Player and Blue Velvet; I still like them but now they don’t much resemble the ‘brilliant’ films I thought they were when I was younger. And Wild Strawberries perhaps falls into that same category for me.

And yet…and yet…if you’ve never seen this film, you’re in for a treat, there’s no doubt about it. The famous opening dream-sequence where Professor Borg sees himself in a coffin - which was copied in The Empire Strikes Back - is still a stunner. The way the watch with no hands later re-appears in the story is also nicely done. And another dream sequence where Borg has to pass an exam administered by a strange hostile man played by Gunnar Sjoberg (who is also the awful husband seen earlier on) is almost as good. I still have a soft spot for the very last shot of the film, where Borg sees his young parents. I found it moving. And I noticed and appreciated Ingrid Thulin’s character and performance a lot more this time. The short scene in the car where she and her husband, Evald Borg (Gunnar Bjornstrand), argue about keeping the child she’s pregnant with is very good. And I liked her role in making Isak understand how Evald is like him, and how he himself is like his 96 year-old mother, and how all three of them are characterised by a cold-heartedness which makes others around them suffer.

And whilst films often seem to lose something after multiple viewings, if they’re as rich as this one they can also reveal other elements you’ve never noticed before. On this occasion I saw for the first time how this is really one of the best-looking black and white films ever made, up there with Citizen Kane, The Trial, Wings of Desire and a few others. Part of it is the framing, which I presume Bergman had something to do with. But at other times it’s more technical effects that strike you and Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s regular DP until Sven Nykvist took over in 1960, should be given credit for this. The way the light in the coffin dream-sequence is over-exposed, giving it a strange and unsettling aura, is brilliant. The way the faces - sometimes up to seven of them - are arranged in the travelling car, is superb. The ‘classroom’, and the corridor leading up to it, in the ‘exam’ dream sequence look spookily wonderful. The lighting is also exquisite in the night-scenes set in a forest involving a baby and its cradle. And there are some breath-taking close-ups of Victor Sjostrom's face throughout the film; you could put them all together and hang them in a gallery as an interesting series of portraits. Stanley Kubrick was a great admirer of Bergman’s films (see here for his fan-letter to Bergman) and if you’ve ever wondered why Kubrick’s films, beginning this very same year, 1957, with Paths of Glory, nearly always have a distinctive visual brilliance, part of the answer may well lie in Wild Strawberries.  

Click here for 98 screenshots from the film

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