The name Ingmar Bergman carries an awful lot of weight in the film community. It feels even heavier when most of his work is unknown to you. Such is my predicament, which has led me to avoid watching his films for most of the last three years since Sight & Sound 2012. I started in that year with Persona, his highest-rated film, having already seen perhaps his most famous and iconic, The Seventh Seal. I found Persona to be highly cinematic, though chilly and distant. The Seventh Seal scratched my itch for allegories about good and evil, but I wasn't a fan of its goofy asides with the small folk. Oh, and I've also seen his directorial debut, Crisis, which felt melodramatic and sophomoric.
All of this is to say that I don't come to Wild Strawberries with quite the admiration that many folks have for Bergman. He was quite prolific, so I admit that I am missing out on a huge chunk of his filmography, so I was more than willing to give this film a shot once I worked up the guts to do it. I can easily say that Wild Strawberries is my favoirte film of Bergman's thus far. There is an emotional clarity to the film-making that was absent in his other films, as well as a sense of humanity that I was not expecting. The film is revered for its innovative flashback structure and striking dream sequences, but I connected the most with the performance by Victor Sjostrom, whose own film, the silent horror,The Phantom Carriage, I have actually seen and quite enjoyed.
Sjostrom plays Isak Borg, a retired doctor who takes a road trip from Stockholm to Lund to receive what amounts to a lifetime achievement award. With him rides his daughter-in-law, Marianne, who has become estranged from her husband and Borg's only son, Evald. Along the way, they encounter several different groups of hitchhikers, including a twenty-something menage a trois, as well as an extremely contentious and unhappy married couple.
Like many road films, there is a lot of incident in Wild Strawberries, but not much plot. I enjoyed this aspect of the film because it gave the film an organic feeling, despite the continuous arrival of new and interesting characters. The film also has Borg go into reveries about decades past, in which he dreams about the young woman whom his rapscallion brother married instead of him, because Borg was too emotionally distant to make the woman feel sufficiently loved. In a risky but successful bit of casting, Bergman has the ethereal Bibi Andersson play both Borg's long-lost love, Sara, as well as the lovely young lady he picks up on the trip, whose name is also Sara. Andersson gives the film a shot in the arm whenever she is onscreen, in the same way that she electrifies Borg, who goes through life in a state of semi-hibernation.
Before Bergman began his enormously fruitful career with ace cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, he made this film, among others, with the equally talented Gunnar Fischer. The use of black and white in the film verges on the spectacular, from the first, sun-blasted nightmare sequence to the gorgeous pastoral scenes of Borg's memories. Bergman and Fischer give each mental space its own visual aesthetic in a way that truly sets Wild Strawberries at the top of films about memory and death. It would have been successful enough just focusing on its story and lovely characterization, but its the collaboration between Bergman and Fischer that makes this film one of the great pieces of cinema.