An aged doctor reflects on his past regrets and failures, in Bergman’s strangely optimistic masterpiece
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Victor Sjöström (Professor Isak Borg), Bibi Andersson (Sara/Sara Borg), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne Borg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald Borg), Jullan Kindahl (Mrs Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), Naima Wifstrand (Isak’s Mother), Gunnel Broström (Berit Alman), Gunnar Sjöberg (Sten Alman/Examiner), Max von Sydow (Henrik Åkerman), Ann-Marie Wiman (Eva Åkerman), Gertrud Fridh (Karin Borg), Åke Fridell (Karin’s lover), Per Sjöstrand (Sigfrid Borg)
Is anything in life more painful than regret? When we look back at our past mistakes, the things we wish had played out differently, the roads not taken, it’s difficult to accept there is nothing we can do about it. It’s the theme of Bergman’s beautiful, strangely optimistic Wild Strawberries (his third consecutive masterpiece, cementing him as one of the most distinctive, visionary directors in the world). Wild Strawberries is filmed with a virtuoso assurance, that still finds a genuine sense of optimism, despite the pain of the past.
It’s about a long, single-day, road trip taken by famed, retired, medic Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström, Sweden’s legendary father of cinema and Bergman’s idol) and his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). Isak is receiving an honorary doctorate in Lund but, after a bad dream, spontaneously decides to drive there. They drop by places with huge personal significance: the country chalet where he loved and lost his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson) and the home of his mother (Naima Wifstand), who perhaps never really wanted him. Along they way they pick up a trio of young hitchhikers, one of whom, Sara (Bibi Andersson again), reminds him of his lost love. Will Isak come to terms with his regrets and failures?
The Wild Strawberries were collected by Sara on the birthday of her and Isak’s uncle. They are touch points in Isak’s memories, a reminder of the summer when Sara broke off her engagement with him to marry his more fun brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand). Did that moment set Isak on the path of distant, judgmental coolness that defined his whole life? Or was he always bound to become who was, especially since his mother matches him for chilly distance? Is the cycle destined to continue, as Isak’s son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand, full of cold nihilism) is just as austere as his father?
Bergman‘s radiant memory piece, explores all this without casting judgment. Wild Strawberries profoundly studies the regrets that come with facing your mortality. Isak becomes so lost in his memories, he literally becomes a silent witness in them. Sjöström’s beautifully expressive face lights up with a mixture of powerless pleasure, sadness and longing as he sees Sara once more – its implied the only woman (or indeed person) he has allowed himself to purely love.
What’s striking though, is that Isak’s memory of her – flirting with Sigfrid and then tearfully telling another cousin that Isak is so nice but… – is not a memory he can possibly have. He was never there: it can only be his supposition. It’s the same with the birthday party of his uncle (Bergman fills this with some great comedy, not least two gossipy pre-teens who talk simultaneously), an event he was not present at. Isak clings to these as memories, but they are imaginings. It’s not a card the film plays heavily: but Isak is, essentially, an unreliable narrator showing us his version of the past. It makes you wonder: are we all unreliable narrators of our own memories?
Is Wild Strawberries actually a dream piece? These recollections are daydreams, helping Isak accept his choices, and begin to find peace. The film opens with a striking surreal – and chillingly horror tinged – dream sequence that inspired hundreds of imitators: Isak walks an abandoned street, clocks lack hands, a faceless man collapses into water, a hearse overturns and when Isak investigates his own hand emerges to pull him in. (The unsettling artifice of this sequence is so masterful, it makes you realise Bergman could have become the king of terror if he’s wanted to).
A series of sequences take place halfway between dream and memory. In one he’s challenged by a cold and formal Examiner (a mirror of Isak himself?) with unanswerable questions, diagnosed with guilt and loneliness and then taken to witness his most vivid memory – watching his wife in the throws of passion with another man. The memory changes from reality to dream as Isak’s wife (an unsettling Gertrud Fridh) – who loathes him – sits up and dispassionately recounts their conversation later when she confessed/rubbed-his-face-in her infidelity. These aren’t straight memories.
Isak’s reminiscences creep up on him. It’s started by his daughter-in-law Marianne flatly telling him she can’t stand his aloofness and self-satisfied smugness. He seems unmoved: but does it prompt him to take her to the chalet of his childhood, to try and prove her wrong? Surely it can’t be a complete coincidence he awakes from a dream of Sara, by another Sara (Bibi Andersson brilliantly distinguishes between these two very different women, who both speak to repressed romantic yearnings in Isak) or asks for a lift? My private theory: I think Bergman is implying only Isak sees these two people as identical in appearance, like he plops past-Sara’s face on hitch-hiker-Sara’s body. It’s another walking semi-memory-dream.
Sara is one of several people prompting Isak’s reflection and changing our perceptions. Why did he become a man so detached he barely bats an eyelid when his daughter-in-law rubbishes him? A feuding couple the group pick up after a road accident – whose abuse of each other gets so personal and cruel, Marianne throws them out of the car – could almost be past versions of Isak and his wife. How miserable must his marriage have been? When Isak is feted as a doctor at a small village (a neat Max von Sydow cameo), how much does his sad observation that perhaps he should never have left further trigger his softening character? As hiker-Sara talks about romance and opportunity, how much does this make Isak think about the staid, loveless respectability of his own life?
Our understanding of Isak is also partly filtered through Marianne’s perception of him. Ingrid Thulin is glorious as a woman whose marriage (to a knock-off prototype of his father) is on the rocks due to her husband’s callous loathing of the world. When she meets Isak’s mother, Thulin’s face radiates understanding of how this woman shaped Isak, who in turn shaped his son. As Isak begins to talk about his past and his fears, it prompts her own willingness to confide in him – something she would never have considered at the film’s start. As Marianne changes her perceptions, so do we.
Wild Strawberries benefits most of all from the wonderfully valedictory performance of Victor Sjöström. Bergman begged his mentor to take the role on, and it produces a cinematic wonder. Sjöström is in every scene and his face fills with such powerful emotion – from distraught regret to wistfulness to confusion to a peaceful radiance – that Bergman allows it to dominate the frame at key points. Its an unforced, gentle and underplayed performance with real emotional force.
Not least because, at heart, this is an optimistic film that tells us its never too late. Sure, we can regret mistakes and lost opportunities: but it shouldn’t close our hearts. Isak learns he has been wrong in closing his heart: there is life, warmth and happiness out there for the taking. It comes together in a final dream/memory, as Isak rediscovers a happy memory of his parents (all the more powerful for how few and far these must be) and Bergman’s camera (shot with majesty by Gunnar Fischer) trains one final time on Sjöström’s face and we understand that he has, at last, come to terms with his life. For a director famed as the master of misery, Wild Strawberries shows he could also frame a story of optimism, growth and understanding, making Wild Strawberries one of his most affecting movies.