"Why have I become what I am?"
Early in writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Isak (Victor Sjostrom) has a dream in which he looks up at a clock on a street corner, and notices that it has no hands. This is a not-so-subtle signifier to both Isak and to the audience that time will be flowing freely here, that Isak will be beset by both nostalgia and regret for past failures.
Wild Strawberries follows Isak, an aging doctor, on a dual journey: the first is a road trip to a university where he is to receive a lifetime achievement citation, and the other is a voyage of self-discovery, as he looks back on his life. They come together when, at the beginning of the film, Isak decides that he would rather take his time and drive to the awards ceremony rather than fly. Accompanying him on the trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who is going through her own personal dilemma concerning her marriage to Isak’s son.
Soon after hitting the road, Isak and Marianne stop at the summerhouse where he used to stay in his youth. While she goes down to a nearby stream, he looks around and recalls some of the fond, and not so fond, memories of his years there, initiating a flashback where he witnesses the most important event of his young adulthood, when he lost the woman he loved to another man. Following this vision, he and Marianne pick up three young hitchhikers, including a woman named Sara, who looks like and has the same name as the cousin Isak once loved. In fact, the same actress (Bibi Andersson) plays both women, to emphasize the similarities. Like the older Sara, the present day Sara is also caught between two men, unable to decide which one to marry.
A second important incident occurs when Isak and Marianne pick up a middle-aged couple who have been in an auto accident. The two—who sit in a middle seat, between Isak in the front seat and the young adults in the back—are so vindictive and insulting toward one another during the ride, that Marianne stops the car and asks them to leave. These two remind Isak of what his failed marriage had become, and Marianne of what hers may one day become. After they drop off the couple, Isak has his second, and very significant dream. It has three parts: The first part is about his sorrow over his long lost lover’s marriage to someone else; the second part is about an easy medical exam that he flunks (an examine that he has not, in fact, ever taken); and the third part is about his wife’s infidelity. Each points out Isak’s frustrations at being unable to make simple connections in his life, much like the couple he has just witnessed.
This second dream includes a moment when Isak encounters his wife as she is having an affair with another man. He spies on them from a distance and then hears her talking about how much she resents his calm and understanding ways when she tells him about her liaisons. The dream illustrates his costly distance from the woman he loved, but considering it is a dream, we have to wonder if this is exactly how it happened. We cannot help but be wary, because, as the film reminds us, memories are fed by imagination, solipsistic mythology, and, in this case, self-pity.
The film’s title in Swedish is Smultronstället (literally, Wild Strawberry Patch), suggesting the beauty of Sweden’s short summer months, and also that ideal moment, the “summer” of life, before we are tamed by responsibilities and restraints. Yet, Bergman doesn’t provide easy answers or didactic lessons concerning Isak’s life. Rather, the movie presents questions, leaving conclusions as to what constitutes success and failure open to our own interpretations. And, the film cautions, these must be carefully regarded: Isak’s interpretative recollections of what has happened in his life could very well be faulty or incomplete.
At only 92 minutes long, Wild Strawberries feels quite complete, without a single superfluous scene or image. Bergman’s directing and Oscar Rosander’s editing are masterful; numerous lap dissolves show us connections between characters and the landscape around them, even if the characters themselves remain unaware. Each step along the trip yields new faces, new situations, and dilemmas—all leading back to the film’s ideas about love, life, death, accomplishment, and incompetence. By the end of his journey, Isak knows that what he has just experienced is more valuable than the lifetime citation, which is based on someone else’s perception of his “accomplishment.” It’s clear that the people applauding him at the ceremony really don’t know him. And in many ways, he really doesn’t know himself.
The Criterion Collection DVD includes not only Peter Cowie’s insightful commentary, but also a documentary—by Jorn Donner, titled Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work—in which Bergman tells an interviewer, “There has always been a problem I have tried to tackle. Who am I and where do I come from and why have I become what I am?” When asked if he understands this better now in his old age, he replies, “No. I know less about myself now than I did ten years ago.” Despite Bergman’s expression of self-doubt, it’s safe to say that Wild Strawberries is one of his best films and certainly one of the best ever made on the subject of aging.