Ingmar Bergman released both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in 1957. So not one but two classics for the ages in one year from the same guy, who wasn’t very well at the time and in fact wrote the screenplay for this film in his hospital bed. Not bad going.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that decay and death are the big idea, the story of a lonely old doctor on the way to pick up an honour whose ardently held and rather severe ideas about the way to live his life are challenged, even as he sits in the waiting room to Death.
As he travels by car, and prompted by a stop at the patch where he picked wild strawberries as a youth, the good doctor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöstrom), starts to recall snatches of his gilded youth. Glimpses, moments, extended Proustian reveries, full-blown almost-hallucinogenic recreations of that time long ago, all idealised like crazy – so many pretty blonde young women, everyone dressed in white, the summer light sparkling off the water on the island where the family lived in a bright, gorgeous house and where young Isak had his heart broken by one of those pretty blondes, Sara (Bibi Andersson, aged 22, at her most heartbreakingly gorgeous).
Isak is accompanied on his trip by his icy, disapproving daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), wife of his similarly principled, cool and estranged son, Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). Along the way they pick up a trio of hitch-hikers, a pretty blonde also called Sara (played again by Bibi Andersson), whose girlish lightheartedness and resemblance to the Sara of Isak’s youth throw him into reverie overdrive, while the rivalry for the fair maiden’s hand between her laddish companions, Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam) and Anders (Folke Sundquist), echoes that between the young Isak and his own brother, who got the gal.
On they travel, this motley crew, Marianne often driving while Isak repeatedly slips his mental moorings to live again in the past. At infrequent stops, they discuss subjects like the existence of god, the cosmic futulity of life and so on.
The transformational reverie/fantasy aspect of this film might come as a surprise if you only know the film from its reputation. They slightly recall It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, though the intellectual references make this obviously a Bergman work and locate it most obviously in the late 1950s. A Dali-esque dream sequence early on, the Camus-like musings on Sisyphean struggle and the existential pointlessness of “it all”, a later fantasy in which Isak is subjected to an interrogation by An Authority Figure that’s straight out of Kafka. This is Beatnik 101.
It’s all beautifully played, in a style you might call heightened reality. Bergman wanted Sjöstrom for the lead and had to work hard to get him to agree to play it. A Swedish movie legend, actor and silent-movie auteur Sjöstrom was 78, unwell and wanted to live out what remained of his life (two years, as it turned out) quietly. But here he is, in the last role of his career, and probably the one he’ll be most remembered for. Thulin, Andersson, Björnstrand and Sundquist seem to understand the importance of his being there and raise their game. Meanwhile, in what are the film’s most touching scenes, Jullan Kindahl, as the doctor’s old housekeeper, Agda, outdoes them all in a few brief scenes shared with Sjöstrom, in which neither the employer nor the housekeeper admit that they have deep feelings for each other. Kindahl gives us volumes of backstory in a look.
Age meets youth and youth wins is the headline. Old dog learns new tricks. Stiff old stick lightens up. Bergman almost magically whisks sentiment into what’s really a simple story, and in the final scenes particularly the whole thing becomes entirely captivating. The film finishes with a shot by DP Gunnar Fischer (who’d also shot The Seventh Seal) of a picturesqueness so staggering it suggests that while life might, who knows?, be pointless it’s also beautiful. And that, Bergman seems to be suggesting, is plenty to be going on with.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022