A recurring issue with my approach to movies on the List, especially if they’re from amjor filmmakers, is that I start looking at them not just as self-contained stories but as installment sin the larger story of a director’s artistic development (and also ass little pearly reflections of their cultural milieu). Can’t imagine this phenomenon will happen with any filmmaker so pointedly as it’s happened with Alfred Hitchcock, whose career spans almost the entire first half of the Project, but Ingmar Bergman’s career would be a close follow-up, since I think he’ll be appearing on the List close to a dozen times, and since with Wild Strawberries, already, his fourth appearance on the List in less than a decade, we see what I think is Bergman’s turn from one style of filmmaking to another, one in which he tightens his focus and deepens the exploration of his themes.
So I’m gonna go ahead and say that I’m not a big fan of Wild Strawberries, but I dig what it’s doing.
Namely its punishing exploration of one’s shortcomings in life, one’s wrongs, which on the surface belong to our protagonist, the elderly intellectual Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom), but which we also know are Bergman’s appraisal of his own failings (note the initials I.B.), and those of his father (which I gleaned thanks to Peter Cowie’s commentary on the Criterion Channel).
The premise has Borg on a long drive to collect an award from his alma mater, at first just driving in the company of his daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin), who can be abrasive as he is and with whom he shares the kind of quiet smirking bond one shares with a strange reflection, but their road trip is interrupted with detours: this place where he had formative experiences, and here let’s pick up these hitchhikers—random things that make for the same episodic nature as The Seventh Seal, a great movie that I just didn’t enjoy for reasons I still can’t put my finger on (it might ultimately be something as crude and basic as my disdain for period films, as I’ve been complaining about since Peter Ibbetson and Queen Christina). All of these detours prompt a different angle’s exploration of the movie’s themes about family, time, death, mistakes; what I think marks its turn from the sweep of Seventh Seal, however, and steers it more toward the chamber dramas of Bergman’s later career is that we’re exploring these themes through the lens of this man, Isaac, and yes the movie has some powerful images and observations that underscore the universal issues of time and family and death—but Wild Strawberries is, at its core, a character study.
Maybe part of what sparked Bergman into focusing on this one figure is that he wrote the role of one of his heroes, Victor Sjostrom, the auteur behind 1921’s The Phantom Carriage (strange to realize, this far into the Project, that major stars from the early days are still around, working)—which is up there with Lost Weekend as a punishing portrait of drunkenness, and it made me check my own behavior at the time. Sjostrom came out of retirement for the role and you can watch Bergman talking about it on Dick Cavett and elsewhere: it was a turbulent shoot, managing Sjostrom’s mood, but it was also transcendent. And I think it helped Bergman to unlock something in his work, namely the strength with which he can explore a theme when he does it through a single character.