Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin
We are forced to confront ourselves and our pasts only when they are placed directly in front of us and we are told, “Look!” More than anything, I find this message at the heart of Wild Strawberries, and it is a heart that is alternately warm and cold, rapid and slow. Isak Borg (Sjostrom), a successful doctor being honored for his fifty years in the profession by his university, has lived isolated from seemingly everyone for goodness knows how many years. His only real bond of affection appears to be with his housekeeper, who won’t let him call her by her name without “Miss” in front of it, for fear of people talking. His daughter-in-law (Thulin) is cold to him, blaming him for making her husband the spitting image of Isak’s pompousness and fussiness. His son is distant. His mother is dangerously close to one hundred years old. The rest of his immediate family has died. He has been widowed for decades. And so it appears that although it is his doctoral jubilee, it could hardly have come at a time when he is less pleased with his own life.
I found myself interested by Isak’s dreams. He has two long dream sequences. The first takes place in an old, abandoned town square. The clocks have no hands, a clear gesture as to the meaningless or the impending peril of time. A carriage comes along, loses one of its wheels, and the horses run off and leave behind the coffin. Amazingly, Isak finds that the man in the coffin is him, with his eyes closed and his arms rising up as his dead face fills the screen down to the slightest blurry pore. It’s a shocking piece, probably more effective on the whole than the longer, more plot-driven dream that he has later, but not quite as affecting as the bassinet under a dark sky in the middle of seemingly haunted woods. Neither dream really qualifies as engrossing. I found myself not wondering what would come next, or reacting to the possibilities of such a dream, but wondering when he might wake up. It is an interesting, sometimes even fascinating thought experiment, but it fails to be captivating because the stakes of those moments feel relatively low.
Perhaps it’s because his memories are thrilling. The best part of any Christmas Carol is undoubtedly the part when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his memories of Belle, the fiancee he won and lost when he came to care more for business and his own stockpile of gold than for her. It is, to me, the place where you can best see Scrooge’s character turn from relatively likable to loathsome, and it is profoundly sad. Isak has no single moment as dramatic as that; in fact, unlike Scrooge, his memories (which might perhaps be better termed “visions” or “assumptions”) take place in scenes where he is not strictly involved. How striking that, to borrow a term that’s already been borrowed a whole bunch, Isak is his own Geist, the Spirit who can transport himself to a place within, primarily, his own imagination, and witness the ghosts who still inhabit that forbidden country. Late in the film he can see his wife carrying on an affair with another man in the woods. Early in the film, his cousin Sara (Andersson) is picking wild strawberries as an emergency birthday gift for an uncle and is set upon by Isak’s amorous “good-for-nothing” brother, Sigfrid. Isak watches, silently, as Sara tries to hold out but is obviously smitten with Sigfrid’s fin-de-siecle mustache and his boldness. They share a kiss for just moments before Sara tears herself away and weeps for what she perceives as her total culpability. And Isak, her beloved, he is so good and now she has betrayed him and what shall she do? It turns out that Sara appears to have married the good-for-nothing brother and had several children with him, while Isak married another, a woman less beautiful and even less faithful and had just one faraway child. Sara’s turmoil is painful to watch, but while we watch it it’s hard not to think, Did it really happen this way? Isak is closer to the scene as he (re?)creates it when he revisits the ground. Perhaps it’s a salve to believe that Sara tossed him aside as carelessly and accidentally as she did the wild strawberries she picked for their uncle. Perhaps he never really had a chance at her at all; Sigfrid may always have been her first choice. It is not likely – the film doesn’t make any sort of move to entertain those hypotheses – but it is at least possible. More than his dreams, which are nightmarish and symbolic and introduce to us Isak’s fear of death and his abiding guilt, his assumptions show us the life of his mind. Bad situations can be smoothed over. The truth can be altered even with slight touches to make everything a little more palatable.
I’ve come to really like Bergman’s affinity for double-casting characters who appear in memories by disguising them with wigs in real life. In Cries and Whispers, Liv Ullmann plays the sisters’ mother as well as one of the sisters. In Wild Strawberries, there are two Saras to contend with, both played by Andersson. They are, of course, terribly similar in appearance, and more interestingly both are a little flighty, between two similar men. The contemporary Sara is a hitchhiker, more or less, traveling with two equivalently handsome men who are even about the same height. One is a future doctor, a sneering atheist; the other, who is Sara’s flavor of the moment, is a future minister carrying around a guitar. Why are they both with her? It was her father’s idea, she tells us; there’s no way one man will let the other get away with doing anything to her. Just like her predecessor, Isak is charmed by Sara’s gaeity and capriciousness; she is the paragon of a person who is funny and delightful on screen but in real life would make us want to scream. And unlike her predecessor, who left Isak’s reach just when he felt her closest to him, Sara seems as taken with Isak as he is by her. At the end of the film, with her two would-be husbands with her, Sara tells him that he’s the one she really loves. It’s not sexual or creepy, obviously; Sara can’t stop putting her foot in her mouth about how old Isak is. But it’s a joyful statement nonetheless, one that Isak clearly takes to heart.
Wild Strawberries is not what I would usually classify as a bold film; on its face it is a very personal drama about a man whose time, despite real successes, has been marred by total failure in his personal life. There are scores of films before and after Wild Strawberries which take much the same tack with their protagonists. But so many of those films misstep or merely step in predictable ways; the man dies, or he makes a change in who he is, or he throws off ceremony to live a more spontaneous and enriching life. Isak doesn’t do any of those things. The marvelous thing, the most realistic thing of all about the film is that it’s not really, in the end, all about Isak. It’s about his placement and his setting, and how those make him new instead of the other way around.