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.







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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander won four Academy Awards at the Oscars in 1984 and was the first foreign movie to have done so. No foreign movie has ever won more and Ingmar Bergman’s film has only been matched twice in the years since – by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Parasite (2019). At the time it was the most expensive film ever to come out of Sweden and was designed by Bergman to be his last, a grand autobiographical flourish to explain the man behind a remarkable run of astonishing movies as the director started to look back at his accomplishments.

With that autobiographical aspect in mind, and armed with the knowledge that Bergman’s films tend towards a certain austere, protestant severity, welcome to the most lavishly dressed sets you’re ever likely to see (that’s one Oscar, right there, to Anna Asp and Susanne Lingheim), and some of the most ravishingly sumptuous cinematography ever committed to celluloid (another Oscar, to DP Sven Nykvist) in the opening scenes of this three-hour-plus epic tracing a couple of traumatic years in the life of Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), though to all intents and purposes we can forget Fanny, who is barely in it, and switch out the first name Alexander for Ingmar. There’s no real doubt what’s going on here and who it’s really about.

The film divides neatly into two parts, Before and After, with a kind of happy ending coda tacked on at the end, the watershed being the death of the father of Alexander (and Fanny). Before then we’ve been introduced to the whole massive Ekdahl clan, a well-to-do, liberal theatrical family just preparing for the Christmas festivities in the first years of the 20th century – candles are lit, tables are laid, servants are harried, children are chivvied and the family assembles for one of those upstairs/downstairs events where everyone behaves much as you expect from having watched many things like this before. One of the servants ends up in bed with one of the men from upstairs, one family member has money worries, a longterm “secret” relationship bubbles along in the semi-open as the family pretends it isn’t happening. And so on.

Bergman reassures to deceive, laying on the colour red – carpets, walls, whole rooms – and the lush interiors, the sense of hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie to this degree the better to contrast with what is to follow, when Fanny and Alexander’s father, theatrical old buffer Oscar (Allan Edwall) dies, and in short order their mother marries again, to a bishop, only realising afterwards that she’s made a terrible, unalterable mistake.

The mother and the bishop were meant to have been played by Bergman old hands Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow but instead Ewa Fröling and Jan Malmsjö take the roles. Both rise to the challenge, Fröling helped by the fact that she resembles Ullmann a touch, whereas Malmsjö, a song and dance man, is remarkable as the bishop whose sanctimonious brand of pious Christianity may or may not be just the surface decoration on top of something even more unyielding and cold beneath.

The bishop and Emilie framed by a window
After: the bishop and his new wife



The source of Bergman’s complex relationship with religion and Christianity is revealed in increasingly unpleasant/abusive scenes set in the bishop’s home, where the cleric sets about “fixing” Alexander’s vivid imagination (a tendency to tell tall stories). Here, the cleric’s mother and sister dress in sober clothes and the house is decorated in whitewashed walls and furnished with simple wooden tables and chairs – all very nice if you bought them in a moment of Shaker-inspired interior-design frenzy, less so if that’s all there is and the temperatures outside (and inside) are sub zero.

That’s all there is to this film. He (sorry, they, the kids) live in the lap of loveliness, dad dies, then they don’t, and what was once all diamonds is now rust. Love is replaced by tough love. Plenty with austerity. Colour with monochrome. Kindness with strictness. It would all seem too simplisitic except that Bergman lays on the surface detail, interior and exterior decoration to a level that is boggling. Similarly, the acting is rich and vivid, occasionally shading deliberately into pantomime, while Bergman gives the lie to the idea that he’s somehow all about naturalism with moments straight from the melodrama playbook – a thunderbolt and flash of lightning at the key encounter between the bishop and Alexander which is so cliched it’s (deliberately?) amusing.

Neither Pernilla Allwin or Bertil Guve, who play the titular kids, made a career in acting, but both are excellent, Bergman carefully never exposing them to direct comparison with the likes of Jarl Kulle (who plays their fun-loving uncle, and who you might remember from Babette’s Feast, another winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar) or Gunn Wållgren, the real star of the show, playing the ageing materfamilias around whom the massive clan constellates.

The film wasn’t even designed as a film. Instead Bergman conceived it as a TV series, which was meant to have been released first (and would have probably ruined the film’s Oscar chances if that had happened) but in the end came a year later and clocks in at five hours plus change. The TV series itself was also eventually edited together, so if Bergman-to-the-max is what you’re after, then that’s the way to go. Bergman himself preferred the long-long version (and there is an even longer cut somewhere, approaching six hours, which was his absolute favourite).

As for “final film”, Bergman continued working for another 20 fruitful years. He always was a tricky customer.


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© 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.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020