Wild Strawberries concerns one of the prevailing themes of director Ingmar Bergman’s long, storied career, which is also, in turn, the classic theme of many a great male artists’ output: the ongoing warfare between the mind, heart, and penis. The film is the work of a great self-conscious artist who was continually struggling to rationalize his hungers and solve the riddle of his inability to connect to others with an intensity of intimacy that, he may suspect, eludes only him. What does the heart want? Well, as a song goes, probably to be wanted. The penis? A variety of things depending on the proclivities of its owner. But the mind of a Bergman hero often must ensure that the heart and the penis file daily metaphorical reports and conform to certain symbolic and social conventions to ease its suffering. That’s where Bergman’s heroes, as well as the heroes of countless other works of art, get themselves in trouble.
Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is a distinguished medical professor who, at 78, has obviously already experienced the majority of his life, though “seen” is probably a better word. Lonely, haunted by regrets that manifest themselves as overtly symbolic dreams, Borg is called on by the institution that once employed him to receive what’s essentially a lifetime achievement award. Though he has a flight scheduled for later in the day, Borg chooses to drive the 15 hours to the academy, giving him a chance to reflect on personal roads never taken. This quiet cry for help is answered by a presumed higher power, who informs Borg’s journey with a series of encounters and adventures that are rich in figurative doppelgangers, parallels, allusions, and foreshadowing.
Initially, Wild Strawberries appears to be an almost pointedly unsubtle coming-of-age story that’s been goosed with dime-store surrealism and male handwringing masked as intellectual engagement with humankind. But the bluntness is a misdirection that underlines the depth of Bergman’s empathy with his hero as well as his dedication to his real subject, which is the process of mentally freeing oneself from an insidiously limiting self-mythology. Throughout his life, Borg’s chosen to largely inhabit the role of the austere intellectual as a way of fencing himself off from messier emotional entanglements, particularly after a woman he loved, Sara (Bibi Andersson), left him for his sexier devil-may-care brother decades ago.
There’s a moment early on in the film that emphasizes the extent of Bergman’s subtlety and the acuteness of his observation. Marianne has asked to ride with Borg out of what we initially assume is a mixture of pity and generosity, though her motivations are eventually revealed to be more complicated. Marianne discloses to her father-in-law, with shocking bluntness, what a cold bastard she finds him to be, blaming him for the potential dissolution of her marriage. This sequence is wonderful, but Borg’s reaction to Marianne is its boldest stroke of originality: Instead of lashing out with an offended prissiness we’d expect from a lesser film about an aging old coot, Borg, instead, regards her with pity and bemusement in a moment of graceful character revelation that recalls Akira Kurosawa’s best films. Marianne can’t yet rattle Borg out of his chosen role of benign fuddy-duddy, and besides, she’s confirming his vision of himself as the intellectual forever on the emotional sidelines.
This film could’ve been suffocatingly formal and self-congratulatory: a rigged debate designed to ultimately praise Borg—and, by explicit extension, Bergman—for his devotion to the ideal, the aesthetic, etc. (see: almost any of Woody Allen’s Bergman impressions, which usually captured only the superficial qualities of the latter’s work). But Bergman is actively wrestling with his torments and desires; he isn’t working toward a preconceived conclusion. Wild Strawberries’s supporting characters aren’t chided as impulsive bubble-heads readymade for Borg’s scorn, as Bergman dramatizes, with aching precision, the forcefully erotic beauty of life that Borg is missing due to what’s essentially buried self-loathing. One of the reasons Bergman was such an art-house juggernaut was simple: He made suffering sexy.
The third act builds to a surprisingly pure wallop. By that point, you’re not expecting conventional emotional catharsis, as it would violate Borg’s (and Bergman’s) forlorn sense of life as a maddening puzzle with little solution. That, of course, is the point, as the filmmaker’s eventual indulgence of conventionality reflects Borg’s tentative willingness to reach out and ask, without guise or apology, for unqualified love and forgiveness. And that simple request, in one of the most poignant moments in all of cinema, is finally granted near the end by Sara’s literal doppelganger in a brief proclamation, really an acquittal, that feels like an authentic miracle.
Wild Strawberries greatly benefits from another of the Criterion Collection’s detailed, gorgeous A/V updates. The image is cleaner and crisper than ever (without looking too scrubbed) and preserves, with impressive delicacy, Ingmar Bergman’s use of intentionally glaring whites in the dream sequences. The blacks are velvety and grain levels are also appropriate. The monaural track, remarkably lacking in audible flaws, is every bit as rich and lush as the image transfer.
The major get here is "Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work," a 90-minute documentary by filmmaker and author Jörn Donner. It’s clear that Bergman and Donner are peers, and their resulting interview is a bracing tonic compared to the banal puff pieces that the Internet has forced us to accustom ourselves to. Bergman somehow manages to play to the mythology of the mysterious major artist while also discussing, with disconcerting frankness, his personal insecurities and past heartbreaks, the most wrenching of which is his abusive childhood. It’s gratifying, simply, to see an artist this successful still wrestling this visibly with his torment and still so open to self-exploration. This supplement goes a long way toward contextualizing Bergman’s work without growing too literal-minded. Similarly evocative is the 15-minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage the director shot during production on Wild Strawberries. The audio commentary with film scholar Peter Cowie is awfully dry, having been too obviously written ahead of recording, but it still packs a wealth of relevant information. A director’s introduction and a booklet featuring a fine essay by Mark Le Fanu round out the package.
This superb Criterion edition of Wild Strawberries is lacking only a commentary by legendary Ingmar Bergman fanboy Woody Allen, but let’s get real.