The bitter has not yet overpowered the sweet in this early film from writer-director Ingmar Bergman.
Aging professor Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) travels to his former university to accept a prestigious honor, and along the way reflects on the various regrets of his long life. The film consists of dreams and reveries interspersed with a lightly comedic road trip, all woven together by Bergman with a deftness that’s nothing short of poetic.
Victor’s first dream is one of the classic sequences of mid-century world cinema: wandering down empty streets, Victor observes a clock with no hands, a man with a horribly squinched face and then a horse-drawn carriage with a hearse. One guess as to whose body lies inside. Edited according to the illogical rhythm of dreams – and a nice nod to Sjostrom’s own directorial masterwork, the 1921 silent film The Phantom Carriage – it’s the ultimate mortality nightmare.
Victor’s first dream is one of the classic sequences of mid-century world cinema.
On the road, Victor is accompanied by his estranged daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin), whose emotional distance allows her to be honest about his callous, sexist ways. Eventually they pick up a trio of hitchhikers: two men angrily arguing over the existence of God and the woman (Bibi Andersson) they’re both pursuing. She sits between them, deflating their debates with her youthful insouciance, and thereby bringing a blithe touch to the film’s philosophizing.
Andersson also plays Sara, the unrequited love of Victor’s youth, who appears in his memories. These are full of melancholy and nostalgia, as well as the hint of horror (including a jarring image of a baby’s cradle in the forest). It all adds up to an intensely cinematic psychological portrait of a man reckoning with the how and why of who he’s become.
Sjostrom is as key to this as Bergman’s agile camera. His Victor is playful and bitter, exhilarated and depressed – often Sjostrom conveys the transition from one to the other in the same scene. It’s a performance of remarkable subtlety, especially considering his long career in silent cinema. If the end of Wild Strawberries leaves you with a punch in the gut, it’s because Bergman and Sjostrom have managed to earn our empathy on Victor’s behalf. He’s a ravaged adult, seeking to soothe himself in innocent childhood memories.