Friday, August 05, 2005

Wild Strawberries and Bergman at 80

Though he was a young man when he started making films, Ingmar Bergman has always been the trademark filmmaker of mortality. The epic battle on the beach with the devil in "The '>Seventh Seal" is famous enough to be routinely parodied, and the intense beauty of "'>Cries and Whispers" is framed in pain and fatality. Even the child in "'>Through A Glass Darkly" seems to be glimpsing mortal lessons as the adults around him pose and flail on their train trip to the end of the line.

But oddly perhaps, his early film concerning an old man is among his most gentle. The Criterion Collection '>DVD of "Wild Strawberries" happens also to include an extended interview with Bergman when he had just passed the age of that film's protagonist. He was a sharp and physically graceful 80 (and this was in 1998. He's gone back to making films since---his latest release was 2003.) Both the movie and the interview turn out to be rather encouraging.

Ingmar Bergman's films were the closest thing to holy writ I can remember from my college days through the early 70s, when I was editing Janet Maslin's review of "Cries and Whispers" for the Boston Phoenix. Because I hadn't seen a "foreign film" until college, I was learning the cinematic vocabulary and syntax by osmosis mostly, and mostly by watching the French New Wave filmmakers, the Italian giants, and Bergman. Partly because the experience of watching Bergman had been conditioned by his reputation as being deep and depressing, I've seldom gone back to those films. But curiosity for what Bergman can tell me now, inspired me to take a look at this DVD of "Wild Strawberries."

"Wild Strawberries" is the story of an eminent 79 year old doctor, who lives alone with his housekeeper, on the day he is to receive a prestigious honorary degree in another city. It opens with a dream and contains several reveries---the kind of thing that became pretty standard on television dramas like "Thirty-something," but was disconcerting in 1957. Even with all these copycats, these scenes in this movie retain their power: they are economical, with not an extra image or a sound, and elegant.

The doctor wakes up from his unusual dream and suddenly decides instead of taking a plane as was planned, he will drive to the ceremony. Then his daughter-in-law appears; she's been staying with him, and asks to come along, since he'll be driving to the city where she lives. Why is she going back to her husband now? Why has she left?

They pick up three young hitchhikers---including the radiant young Bibi Anderssen, who reminds him of a lost love (who she also plays in his reverie). They get involved in a traffic accident, a bickering couple piles into the car, and suddenly we're in another prototype: the road movie.

The group covers a lot of ground in the past and present, and so does the movie, in a compact ninety minutes. But then, it was his 19th film. And he wasn't half done.) In one of his essays on Bergman, Truffaut comments that Bergman's women are "infinitely subtle," while his men "are mere conventions." This film is a rarity in focusing on a male character, played by Victor Sjostrom, a giant of Swedish theater and film who was all but forgotten by the time this movie was made, and he came out of retirement to act in it. Bergman said he did more than that---he took it over. The character was originally based (at least physically) on his father, but the film ceased being Bergman's, he said, and became Sjostrom's. If he meant through the subtle performance and the life he brought to the character, then it was all to the good.

This is an enjoyable film to watch, and there's extra enjoyment in watching it again with the commentary of film scholar Peter Cowie. His commentary has just the right mixture of preparation and spontaneity (as when he comments on how good a particular scene looks on DVD---the film is in glorious black and white.) When Cowie explains how precious the summers are in Sweden, just a few weeks of warmth and sunshine, it helps you feel the power of the imagery, in the professor's recollections of family summers by the sea.

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