When Dr. Isak Borg decides to drive his own car to Lund for a ceremony in which he will receive a medal for 50 years of service as a medical doctor and professor -- one of the more bizarre road trips in film or literature -- Ingmar Bergmann's 1957 film Wild Strawberries ensues.
Played, by the Swedish film pioneer Victor Sjostrom in his final role, Isak struggles to maintain the integrity of his own self-identity through a series of accidents, rebuffs, apparent dreams, all frustrations past and present. His hunt for love and understanding is relentless, yet remains elusive. But in the end, as Borg goes to sleep, in a film expressly acknowledged for its contented quality by auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen (who borrowed much of the plot of Wild Strawberries for his own effort, Another Woman, 1988), the professor seems satisfied and at peace with himself and the world.
Viewing Wild Strawberries the other day for the first time since I saw it at the old Thalia revival house in New York in 1968, I was struck by the impression I have from watching so much of Bergmann's work, again -- that much of his existential program is merely a cover for his own fixed gaze on the beautiful, complex actresses he courted and allowed his cinematographer Sven Nykvist to film.
Thus Wild Strawberries is not "about" the old professor, but rather the dominant beauty Ingrid Thulin, who resembles the American actress Robin Wright and plays Borg's pregnant daughter-in-law and road-trip sidekick. As the professor navigates through a collision with a VW driven by a neurotic couple, a fawning encounter with a gas station owner (played amusingly by Max von Sydow) whom Borg had helped, a dreamlike view of his late wife's adultery and a visit to Borg's viciously cold mother, Thulin, who had hated the professor, warms up to him as confessor, erotic lodestar and rational judge of each travel situation.
Yet, she herself is justifiably alienated from her husband, Borg's frigid son who appears at Lund, and haughtily adult next to the three hitchhikers Borg picks up, who, in their immature disputes about God and flowers, provide comic relief. One of these is played by a startlingly youthful and gamine Bibi Andersson, who was at the time Bergmann's lover, and, in the film, essentially a girlish foil to Thulin's goddess.
Many of Bergmann's films have not aged well. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Shame (1968), for example, which use women's neuroses as a metaphor for existential loneliness, emerge as sexist tripe. Persona has the same problem, but triumphs in its pure cinematic interpretation of the psychotic relationship between two eternal beauties, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman.
The salvation of Wild Strawberries is its sheer comedic quirkiness, betraying the influence of Orson Welles' use of flashback, F.W. Murnau's mystic camerawork (in Sunrise, 1927) and Fritz Lang's elements of surprise. But the film endures because of the beauty and presence of Ingrid Thulin, an actress forgotten by time. Seek her out
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).