Wild Strawberries is about a septuagenarian doctor (Victor Sjöström) being awarded an honorary degree. Sjöström’s narration sets it up in the first scene, before the opening titles. Director Bergman’s script, through the narration, lays out the entire ground situation before the titles, in fact. Sjöström is a widower, he has an adult son, he has ninety-five year-old mother, he has a housekeeper (Jullan Kindahl) who takes good care of him.
Then the titles roll and Bergman starts the film proper, though he immediately goes into a foreboding dream sequence. Mortality has come knocking for Sjöström and he can’t shake it. Sjöström’s performance and his narration are two different things. Whereas his performance has some moments of levity–along with the despondency–his narration is from somewhere else entirely. Bergman doesn’t draw attention to it, just lets Sjöström’s voice inhabit the frame.
Following the dream sequence, Sjöström–who’s already been narrating–annouces to Kindahl he wants to drive to the award ceremony, not fly. Before Bergman even gets to the flashbacks–set forty and fifty years earlier–Wild Strawberries already feels detached from present reality. The roads Sjöström drives are usually empty, the trip itself a further detachment from modernity. Only Sjöström isn’t on the trip alone, he’s got daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) along for the ride.
Thulin comes into the film after Sjöström’s done his domestic banter Kindahl and without any warning. Bergman continuously wakes the audience throughout the film, beating two rhythms, one for Sjöström, one for the film itself. Because even though he’s on trip journey through his memories, everyone else is moving forward. Thulin’s got this entirely different, almost joyous story arc–though nothing’s too joyous in Wild Strawberries, as too much warmth would shatter Sjöström. The film’s about Sjöström’s confrontation with that past, spurred in some ways by Thulin’s presence and disinterested hostility, sure, but… once Thulin sets Sjöström spinning, the road trip bringing things up is inevitable.
Most of the straight flashbacks–the ones untinged with dream–are about events Sjöström didn’t witness firsthand. He’s being haunted by the reality of the past, which he’s spent his life avoiding. Bergman doesn’t even try to be subtle about it–if Wild Strawberries has a eureka moment, it’s when memory forces Sjöström to acknowledge his emotional detachment. Bergman’s been showing it throughout the film, particularly with the first flashback. The star of the first flashback is also Bibi Andersson, playing Sjöström’s childhood sweetheart.
Then Andersson reappears in the present, like she’s stepping out of the dream, but she’s really just in need of a ride. She brings along Folke Sundquist and Björn Bjelfvenstam; they’re “kids” (the guys are in their thirties, Andersson is twenty-two, but lets say late teens). Sjöström and Thulin have some great bonding over the kids’ frivolity, since neither get any of their own. Sjöström’s too much of a curmudgeon to want any, Thulin is actively avoiding it.
Andersson acts as the film’s anchor, but Thulin is what perturbs it. She’s present for Sjöström’s journey. She’s also got one of her own, but it only gets room when it figures into Sjöström’s character development. So much of Wild Strawberries is Thulin taking in all, helping the viewer find the punctuation marks Sjöström is skipping across. At the same time, Thulin’s building her own character alongside–but (mostly) detached from–that main action. It’s a great performance, probably the film’s best.
Though it’s hard to really assign that particular accolade. Sjöström’s performance, and Bergman’s direction of it, is Wild Strawberries. The opening narration says it’s going to all be about Sjöström and then it’s all about Sjöström. It’s Sjöström listening, remembering, watching, dreaming, waking, walking, talking. It’s Sjöström.
So while Thulin’s performance is more impressive in what she gets done without the focus Sjöström’s performance gets, Sjöström does excel with the difference.
All of the performances are good. Andersson’s successfully enigmatic–dream, memory, and nymph, all ostensibly alternating. Kindahl’s a fine foil for Sjöström. Bergman directs the actors quite well.
Excellent music from Erik Nordgren and photography from Gunnar Fischer. Oscar Rosander’s editing is magnificent. Technically, it’s all great, but that Rosander editing is otherworldly. Bergman and Rosander control the narrative distance with the editing. It’s awesome.
Wild Strawberries is phenomenal.
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Oscar Rosander; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, Gittan Gustafsson; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.
Starring Victor Sjöström (Isak), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald), Jullan Kindahl (Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), and Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Borg).