Smultronstallet : Sweden 1957 : Ingmar Bergman : 90-94 mins
78-year-old Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) has been a doctor in a small Swedish town for half a century. To commemorate this landmark, he is awarded an honorary degree by his old university, and travels by car to the far-off college city. He’s accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who’s trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage with Isak’s son Evald (Bjornstrand). Along the way, they pick up a trio of teenagers on their way to Italy, and then a married couple who feud so viciously the Borgs ask them to leave the car. As he drives, the crotchety Isak recalls episodes from his distant younger years, and pays a visit to his family’s old summer-house, which still has its evocative patch of wild strawberries.
The basic existential-road-movie structure of Wild Strawberries was later pinched by Woody Allen for Deconstructing Harry – and Strawberries also employs a specific trick which Allen put to famous use in Annie Hall: as Isak remembers scenes from his past, he imagines himself actually there in the old rooms, able to observe and, occasionally, converse with these figures from previous decades. It’s a startlingly imaginative use of cinema, justified here by having Isak show some early signs of senility – we also have Isak as narrator, guiding us through the processes of his memory in a very literary, over-explicit style.
But while the flashback process is innovative and effective, Bergman struggles with the visualisation of Isak’s memories – especially in comparison with Tarkovsky’s Mirror, for instance. The episodes we see are presented in a distractingly stilted manner, full of forced bits of humour, heavy-handed sentimental muzak, and, worst of all, very confusing characterisation. It’s often tricky working out who’s who (Bibi Andersson plays both Isak’s fiancee and one of the hitch-hikers), what their relationships to Isak are, and the specific causes of his regrets are: pretty crucial stuff in a film about a man ruefully picking over the fragments of his past. The dream sequences aren’t much better: too long, occasionally to the point of tedium, with some very heavy-handed symbolism along the way. The handling of Isak’s present is also distractingly uneven – the back-projection when he’s driving is often woeful, and the trio of ‘children’ (they look about 25) he picks up rapidly outstay their welcome, with their relentless, guitar-strumming, spirit-of-youth perkiness and bad acting.
Things move into a different gear, however, when Isak finally arrives at the cathedral where the degree conferral takes place. The arrival on the scene of the forbiddingly intense Bjornstrand provides a welcome change of tone, which deepens and darkens even further when the ceremony begins. The precision of Bergman’s images, his control of sound and light, the placing of actors in the frame, the use of Latin dialogue, the weird hat Isak is given to wear. it’s a remarkable sequence, prefiguring the tight-focus geometry of Bergman’s much more coherent and consistent The Rite from 1961. Wild Strawberries is a necessary step along the path to the Swedish master’s finer later work, even if it doesn’t match up to its exalted critical status as a great work of art. And, if nothing else, veteran director Sjostrom (the ‘founding father of Swedish cinema’) makes for an outstandingly sympathetic protagonist.
21st May 2002
(seen 19th May, Cineside Newcastle)
by Neil Young
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