Smultronstället (1957)
(aka Wild Strawberries)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A remarkable journey through one man's past, Wild Strawberries reaches the emotions and feelings which dwell within us all. Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is an old man who has enjoyed a successful career as a medical doctor, first in practice then through research. Tomorrow he is to be bestowed with an honorary doctorate, important and valuable recognition of his contribution to medical science. That night Isak has a peculiar dream; he is lost in a strange part of town, a deserted, ramshackle area where the hands of every clock are missing. As if this negation of time wasn't unsettling enough, Isak chances upon a man who collapses when Isak taps him, then a driverless funeral cart appears and crashes. The upshot of this is the realisation that it is he, Isak, who inhabits the coffin. Upon waking, Isak decides that he will drive to Lund University, instead of flying with Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl), his housekeeper.

Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), Isak's daughter-in-law who is staying with him, decides to hitch a ride for the trip to Lund. She has been undergoing a trial separation from Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand), her husband and Isak's son, but has now decided to return home to resolve their differences. In the car it's clear that Marianne doesn't really like Isak, although she respects him. He's far too cantankerous, opinionated and self-centred (like Evald) to deserve such feelings, not that Isak particularly minds. As the journey is long Isak breaks off at his childhood holiday home, where he spent his first twenty summers surrounded by relatives. When Marianne leaves for a swim, Isak lapses into a dream-like state where he is transported to his adolescence. Here he observes the object of his youthful ardour, cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson), picking wild strawberries. When his brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand) arrives and embraces Sara (they later married) this is plainly a critical moment in Isak's life.

Sara, the key which draws Isak back, is also the force which returns him to the present, although now Sara is a feisty teenage girl (still played by Bibi Andersson though). She manages to hitch a lift, with her friends Anders and Viktor, in Isak's increasingly full car. Travelling to Italy, the vitality and freshness of these young companions boosts everyone's spirits and provokes further reminiscing from Isak. A near-fatal traffic accident results in the addition of yet more passengers, a bitterly bickering married couple. Their cruel animosity proves too much for Marianne though and she leaves them by the roadside. However, they provide the seed for another of Isaks's dreams; in this one, which further blurs the fantasy/reality line, Isak is cross-examined by the patronising husband. Forced to prove his medical competence, he is unable to (misdiagnosing the wife as being dead). The car eventually reaches Lund where further ghosts from the past are laid to rest.

Skillfully mixing dreams and actuality, the past and the present, the feeling of drifting through one man's psyche pervades Wild Strawberries. Transitions are achieved without fuss, using the elderly Isak as an anchor, and seem wholly appropriate to the central theme of regeneration. Indeed, the very first dream has an expressionistic and surreal quality (faceless people, blank and distorted city streets) which is both compelling and troubling. This is scene which speaks to our very soul, bypassing all senses and grabbing hold of our deepest fears. The level of acting is sufficiently good to rival these more concrete elements, with Sjöström in particular providing a deeply affecting performance. His portrayal of a man who is outwardly content yet internally carries disabling scars is perfect, never striking an incorrect note.

Intriguingly the script has a quality where the words used contain an emotional power all of their own, separate from everything else. Even through the filter of subtitles the dialogue creates striking imagery, which complements the visual inaction. However, Bergman typically relies heavily on symbolism and psychoanalytical elements, which occasionally dilute scenes from their more intense pure state. It's also true that certain minor characters, such as Evald, are lacking in the nuances which make them convincing. Evald is like his father, only more so and to an extent which is difficult to believe. However, these are minor flaws in an otherwise beautiful and moving work.