Ingmar Bergman died last July, just hours before his fellow art house giant Michelangelo Antonioni. The obituaries at the time focused more on Bergman’s status and legacy than on his work, so I thought that, a year on, it would be interesting to take a fresh look at the movies themselves, without the intimidating shadow of their author. Over the next couple of months we’ll be looking at a selection of his films. Have they become irrevocably dated? Are they actually any fun to watch? And are they as pessimistic as Bergman’s public image might suggest?
First up is Wild Strawberries, the story of a retired doctor (Victor Sjostrom) who travels to Lund to receive an award for his fifty years of medicine. Which is pretty much the plot. But the journey, as so often in Bergman, is more spiritual than physical, as Dr Borg, through a series of dreams, conversations and encounters, is forced to face up to the emptiness in his soul. The film opens with one of the most successful dream sequences in cinema. I’ve written before about why movie dreams don’t feel like real dreams; this one does, because Bergman shoots it absolutely realistically:
Fifty years later it’s still shocking in its brutal confrontation of mortality, and Borg’s sense that time is running out. He wakes disturbed and shaken, and sets off for Lund with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who further disarms him by telling him bluntly not just that she doesn’t like him, but that he has passed his coldness and inability to connect with people to his son — and that they are separating. This turns out to be no surprise when we meet the doctor’s mother, now in her nineties but chilly and formal, unable to speak openly with her seventy-year old child; and when we flashback to a memory of his dead wife’s confession of adultery, on the basis of his unresponsiveness to her. Add in the cruelly bickering couple to whom Borg gives a lift and this might have been a film of irredeemable bleakness —
But it’s not. Because amid the dreams, the memories and confrontations, there’s also hope: a sense that redemption, however late it comes, is still redemption. As well as the bickering couple, Borg and Marianne pick up three hitch-hikers, two boys and a girl (Bibi Andersson), whose teasing first annoys but then engages and amuses Borg. His conversations with them remind him of his own youth, before the betrayal of his first love (also played by Andersson) and his determination to protect himself from harm; and by the end of the film he is beginning to recapture some of his former, better self. Memory, in other words, is not just a prompt of who we were, but of who we can become.
Optimism in Bergman must be earned: there are no panaceas, no shying from the brute realities of life. But it’s all the more refreshing for it, and the end of Wild Strawberries is curiously uplifting. Hope, it seems, is hard to find, but it’s no less worth the looking for.