It’s funny, before I saw The Virgin Spring—my first Ingmar Bergman film—my expectations were not very high. Based on his reputation, I figured however good quality it was in some respects, it would surely be incomprehensibly artsy and symbolic, which is the kind of movie I typically can’t appreciate. Instead, while I wouldn’t say it makes my all-time top ten list of favorite movies, I liked the film quite a bit and it clearly surpassed my expectations
Coming into seeing Wild Strawberries—my second Bergman film—my expectations, though not sky high, were certainly positive. I looked forward to it noticeably more than I had The Virgin Spring. And it turns out that while I by no means hated the movie, I really didn’t get all that much out of it and it fell short of my expectations.
The problem, though, wasn’t that this movie is surreal and unfathomable, any more than The Virgin Spring is. There are some dream sequences, and sequences when the protagonist imagines himself back in time watching the people of his boyhood, and no doubt there are all kinds of deep symbolic things going on that I’m clueless about as usual, but really it’s not a difficult movie to follow. I was rarely if ever confused about who was who or whether something was really happening. Watching the movie wasn’t an annoying or frustrating experience like that.
No, the problem is simply that I was never more than a little drawn in by the movie. The subject matter is potentially both interesting to me and profoundly important, but this movie’s treatment of it just never seems to get that deep.
The protagonist is a septuagenarian physician and former academic. The occasion of his being given some kind of tribute at the college where he used to teach causes him to become reflective about the life he has led and the mistakes he has made.
He decides to drive rather than fly to the site of the ceremony, taking along with him his daughter-in-law, with whom he has neither a close nor a hostile relationship. Along the way they encounter various characters with whom they share parts of the journey. His self-examination comes partly by conversing with the other characters, especially his daughter-in-law, and partly through his dreams and reminiscing.
Mostly he doesn’t like what he sees. He’s lived his life in a somewhat formal, at times rigid, principled way, somewhat lacking in warmth, passion, and risk taking.
A key event in his life—which in its way is both a cause and an effect of the kind of person he is—was when the cousin he was in love with as a young man left him to marry his brother. Clearly this was the love of his life. But he was the reasonable, scrupulous, considerate, tame, nice guy type, and his brother was more the live for the moment, grab what you want and worry about rationalizing it later type, so it’s no mystery who ended up with the hot girl.
He was burned badly enough that presumably that made him all the less willing to take chances emotionally. He settled into a proper existence, working at an honorable profession, making a lot of money, marrying a woman for whom he felt nothing like the passion he had had for his great love, and raising a conventional family.
Now, with his wife long dead, and his son even more cold and rigid than he is, he has a mostly lonely existence. He hasn’t had a particularly bad life, but he’s aware as he looks back that there was a spark in his childhood, and certainly in his feelings for the love of his life, that maybe could have led him to a more fulfilling life with greater human connection, but that partly due to his own character he just never nurtured that, never went down that path.
Certainly Wild Strawberries’s theme, these ideas, has great potential to speak to me. There are fairly obvious parallels with certain aspects of my life. (In fact, I may have unconsciously misinterpreted the story in small ways to make it more relevant to my life.) But it only reached me a little bit emotionally.
For one thing, the protagonist neither comes across as miserable nor as cold and unfeeling. He’s a likable guy, evidently content to at least some degree, and he seems to treat those around him well. When his daughter-in-law upbraids him for being unfeeling toward her and his son, it’s a criticism that seems off base, at least given the little bit we’ve seen of him in the movie.
Does he have some amount of dissatisfaction with his life? Sure, as everyone does. And he becomes more conscious of it the more he thinks about it. But this is not the story of a bitter, lonely old man who has driven everyone away from him by being such an ogre, who now realizes with great anguish what a mess he’s made of his life. There’s nothing so dramatic as that going on.
The old man himself is well-acted, and the daughter-in-law is not bad. I also liked the no-nonsense, live-in housekeeper—their interaction is the source of a little comedy in the movie. But a lot of the lesser characters—especially those in the flashbacks to his youth, are distractingly theatrical, unrealistic, and caricaturish in their speech and behavior.
There is a certain amount of that in The Virgin Spring as well, but I chalked it up to trying to give the film the simplistic feel of a medieval fairy tale. But maybe it’s just a certain style of Bergman’s. In any case, it makes it a little harder for me to connect with a film, kind of like dealing with bug-eyed characters in silent movies gesticulating wildly and such. There’s a kind of unreality to it.
As Wild Strawberries draws to a close, the protagonist makes certain tentative efforts to turn over a new leaf, to reach out to people a little better and try to connect with them emotionally. There is some reason for optimism that he and his daughter-in-law understand each other a little better now and could well have a better relationship moving forward, but his initial efforts with his son and his housekeeper do not bear fruit. Clearly it’s going to take some time and some work if he’s to overcome what he’s discovered he is unsatisfied with about his life.
I like the idea of this film, I like the main character, it reached me a little bit here and there, but I just have the feeling that handled a little differently, this film could have done a lot more for me.