Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ghost of Sweden Past

Films Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

As we get older, our memories get longer. That’s simple fact, and one that I’m reminded of, since my birthday is around the corner. Every day, we have more memories, and every day because of that, there are new possibilities in the world around us to bring up old memories and return them to the fronts of our brains. Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries) explores this idea in depth in the guise of a drive taken by an elderly gentlemen, his daughter-in-law, and some hitchhikers.

Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, who directed the interesting Korkarlen) is about to be honored by his university for 50 years of service. It’s a big moment in Borg’s life, but he’s having trouble finding someone to share the moment with. His wife is dead as are all his siblings, and his mother, while still alive, is ancient. His housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl) would like to accompany him, but does not want to drive all the way to the ceremony, and is thus crabby.

However, he won’t take the drive alone. His daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who is visiting him, and experiencing some level of trouble at home, has decided to accompany him to his ceremony and to return at least temporarily to her husband. And so the two set off. It’s evident to Isak that Marianne is not too fond of him in part because his son, her husband, and he are far too much alike.

The pair stop at a place where Isak lived when he was much younger, and he slips into a reverie in which he essentially floats back to an important day in his past. While everyone in his memory is has he remembers them, he is still the old man of his present day. It is here that he discovers his first love, Sara (Bibi Andersson) was truly in love with his brother Sigfrid (Per Sjostrand), and that she will eventually run off with this younger brother. Returned to the present, Isak discovers a trio of travelers headed to Italy, and he offers them a lift for as far as they are going. As a reminder of his past, the girl in the group is named Sara (and is also played by Bibi Andersson).

Such reveries happen multiple times. We meet a quarreling couple who remind Isak of his own failed marriage and his wife’s infidelity. We also discover the truth behind what is going on with Marianne; she is pregnant and going to leave her husband because he does not want the child. Through all of this, Isak attempts to make sense of his current life, his loneliness, and the events of his past.

In a way, the film is sort of like a Swedish version of A Christmas Carol, or at least the parts featuring the ghosts of Christmas past and present. Isak learns of his own past crimes, of his guilt that he carries through life as well as the effects his own life has had on the people around him. In part, the reason his son’s marriage is breaking up is because his son does not want his life to mimic that of his parents. In one of the more interesting sequences, Isak’s subconscious puts himself on trial in which he is accused of guilt. The results of the trial never really come out, because he is awakened.

Bergman’s work often skirts into territory normally reserved for horror. While there are no slashers or bugaboos or things jumping out of cupboards, there is a sense of despair in his work, of the intense and constant pressure of existence in the world. Bergman’s films, at least in my experience, plunge the characters into places of despair and deep existential pain. Isak Borg is no different from these characters going through a crisis of the soul—in this late stage in his life, he is reaching the same point. Essentially, Borg has not yet come to terms with either his life as he has lived it or with his eventual death.

It’s a strange film, and one worth exploring. I’m not sure I groked the whole thing, and I probably need to watch it again after I’ve had some time to let it settle. Right now, I don’t think I can call it a film I’ve either loved or hated. I appreciate it, and for the moment, that’s going to have to do. I think I like it, but I’m not sure if I actually like it or if I simply feel obligated to like a film that has such an impeccable pedigree.

Why to watch Smultronstallet: Well, it’s normally considered one of Bergman’s great films.
Why not to watch: It’s hard to tell whether it’s actually enjoyable or not.

18 comments:

  1. I have a strong childhood memory from watching this movie. I probably didn't watch it all, I guess I just threw a glance at it as the grown-ups watched on TV. But I remember the scene ever so cleary: the dream with the clocks without pointers. It was so creepy, nightmarish, and I couldn't get it out of my head.
    I've watched it when I was older too, but somehow that first impression lingered. I still found it unsettling.

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  2. I think that first impression is pretty accurate. There is a sense of the off, of things being skewed and upsetting in this film. I get that from Bergman a lot, actually. There's a sense of things not fitting together correctly, of not being right, and that creates a vague sense of the strange. It's hard to pin down. I felt the same way watching Vargtimmen.

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  3. I have a sense that with age, for me at least, a lot of my memories are getting cleared out. Perhaps I could retrieve them, but from this perspective they don't seem to matter so much anymore. Except to my wife during an argument.

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  4. Yeah, but in some senses, I think the memories that I do retain are quite sharp and vivid.

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  5. The opening dream sequence is awesome and I totally agree on the Christmas Carol resemblance.

    One note for foreign viewers is that Isak Bork kind of translates into Ice Castle. That was of course an intentional choice of character name.

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  6. Thanks, Joel. I'll have to consider exactly what that name means in the context of the film--but it certainly adds a new dimension.

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  7. Seeing the title written out as »Smultronstallet« looks kind of funny since »stallet« in swedish means »the stable« while »st√§llet« means »the place« ;-)

    Otherwise, an interesting read as always – got me thinking about the similarities and differences of »Smultronst√§llet« when compared to Woody Allen's »Deconstructing Harry«.

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  8. That would make a great double feature, actually.

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  9. He's not one of my favourite directors, but I remember thinking Wild Strawberries was one of the best of the Bergman films I had seen. Somehow worked both on a visual and psychological level, and you can't ask for much more than that. And as you say, the use of flash-back was interesting.
    I don't know if it works better for old people who can mirror themselves in the character?

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  10. I'm not sure I qualify as "old" in a general sense, although I do seem to qualify in terms of movie bloggers.

    That said, I wonder if it's more simply a case of introspection--if you tend to turn internally, I think this film will resonate a lot more.

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  11. I didn't mean you are old, sorry! Just that older people in a general sense might identify (like "The Straight Story", which my grandparents enjoyed)

    As teenagers identify with teenage characters, and so on.

    introspection, yes, it can be an ageless feeling.

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  12. Heh. I am old, though. I claim to have stopped aging at 35--now I count anniversaries of my 35th birthday. Next year, that hits double digits.

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  13. For a very long time, this was my favorite Bergman film and even now it's still in the running because I have a five- or six-way tie for picking Bergman's best. I watched it last night on TCM and that viewing reminded me of numerous reasons why I considered it my favorite film of Bergman. Mostly, it's just so darned entertaining at the same time it is thoughtful and funny and charming and even a bit morose.

    It's been more than twenty years since the last time I saw it, and I think I need to make it one of those films - like Yojimbo and La strada - that I try to watch every three or four years.

    Victor Sjostrom is really amazing, both funny and sentimental at the same time he is also crabby and irritable. And I also think Ingrid Thulin is great in this, very natural, and also stunningly beautiful.

    But the real heart of this movie is Bibi Andersson, not as flashback Sara, but as beatnik Sara. She's hilarious! A lot of that is based on her naivete, but there is also a lot of (almost unintentional) wisdom in what she says. An awful lot of her dialogue makes me smile.

    So glad I saw this again after several decades.

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    1. This is a great film, and one of Bergman's best. It's also one of the great influences from Bergman on Woody Allen. You can find a lot of this film in a lot of his movies.

      In many ways, this is the crystalization of Bergman's philosophy. I'm looking forward to watching it again.

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  14. Good call on the quarreling couple they pick up. I had not connected it with Isak's own marriage. There is a lot left to understand in this movie.

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  15. I love your comparison with A Christmas Carol! I had not thought of it, but it is perfect.

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    1. It's definitely there, even if only as a way for me to approach the film!

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