Wild Strawberries

Old Isak and young Sara

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.

Isak and daughter in law Marianne
Isak and daughter-in-law Marianne



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.







Wild Strawberries – Watch it/buy it at Amazon








© Steve Morrissey 2022









Persona

Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson

 

Ingmar Bergman beat Mr Spock to the mind meld. Persona, Bergman’s masterwork about one person’s identity merging with another’s, debuted in August 1966. The Vulcan psychic control technique first saw light of cathode ray in November of the same year in the Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind. We’ve heard plenty from Mr Spock in the intervening decades, increasingly less from the once intensely voguish Bergman. But for anyone wondering where to go to get the full Bergman hit in one short, sharp dose, Persona is that place.

The film follows a famous actress Elisabet (played by Liv Ullmann), suddenly an elective mute, and her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) on a journey from a spartan hospital to a stark summer isle, where the disturbed actress is supposed to recuperate. But instead of the sick woman getting better, the well woman goes into decline.

Things start well, if bizarrely (what with one woman not speaking), with Alma chatting away in a relentless, friendly way, chirupping away about this and that to the silent Elisabet.

Met with nothing in return, Alma runs out of chit-chat and turns to her own memories for subject matter. On and on she goes, her prattle becoming a kind of self-psychiatry. Elisabet’s mute kindly smile, meanwhile, is becoming pained. Eventually, the silent woman’s failure to respond drives Alma into blurting out a story about some sexual shenanigans on a beach. Suddenly aware that she has failed to live up to her own ideals, Alma realises that she, too, has been an actor in her own life, loses her grip and seems to become the other woman.

Written down baldly like that, yes, it does all look a bit histrionic, and simplistically literal minded – she’s been an actor in her own life and so becomes the other woman, an actor? Bollocks, you might say.

 

Alma and Elisabet's faces merge
Alma and Elisabet group shot

 

But no one ever said Persona was subtle. Bergman wrote the film for the simplest of reasons: the two women look very similar. He’d also had an affair with Andersson and now fancied his chances with Ullmann. If I have one, why can’t I have the other?

In what is basically a one-hander, it’s a proper tour de force performance by Andersson, who rages from cool to hot, adult to child, smart to dumb. Ullmann is in essence playing the cold, unresponsive but interrogatory lens of a camera – Bergman makes this absolutley explicit at one point (again, no one ever said Persona was subtle). Though still impressive, the distant Ullmann just doesn’t have that much to do except react (and for those in the “acting is reacting” school, Persona is the counter-argument).

Shot in black and white influenced by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Saint Joan – you can watch it for Sven Nykvist’s almost infinitely graded cinematography alone – it’s a film full of formal trickery, experimentation, meta-referencing and fourth-wall pushing. And while most of it is justified, that erect penis in the opening credits (subliminally fast) is just one of a few moments that now in retrospect suggest Bergman was chucking loads of stuff at the canvas and seeing what stuck – he was writing the film as he went.

Andersson’s performance to one side, what’s really impressive is the way Bergman takes what is essentially a stage play and cinematises it, through the use of stark lighting, extreme close-ups, geometric framing (Persona is where Abba got the idea for that full-face/profile two-person shot). Bergman’s actors’ changing relationship to the camera is interesting too. In early scenes they almost acknowledge it, looking so nearly into the camera as they speak that the effect is spooky, like being addressed by someone who’s cross-eyed. By the film’s climax, as nurse Alma and actress Elisabet’s personas seem to swap/combine, each woman is staring right down the lens.

This sort of thing does not make for naturalistic acting, you’d have thought. But juxtaposed with Bergman’s rejection of cinematic “realism” – in 1966 the kitchen-sinker was still going strong in the UK, the New Wave still vibrant in France – is a direct acting style that’s one of a good five reasons why the film has endured. Not every classic of the era has fared as well as Persona, an arthouse horror movie (psy-fi?) with the usual mind-swapping phantasmagoria replaced by protestant minimalism and Nordic cool.

 

 

Persona – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020