Age of Smultron
It has been made very clear to me that the editor of the Post is not a fan of the superheroic genre, and especially not of the studio responsible for the movie currently occupying the global #1 spot. So I have endeavoured to find something a bit more cultured to cover this week as a sort of counter-programming measure. Of course, it's not just superheroes that are doing well just now: in the UK at least, Swedish culture is also enjoying a moment in the sun. Not only is a new series of the brilliant thriller The Bridge imminent, but there was also the recent news that melancholic power-pop royalty Abba have been back in the studio after 35 years, a fact which may or may not be connected to the imminent release of Mamma Mia! 2 (and you thought Infinity War was a gruelling experience...). (Although I have to say that none of my Swedish friends actually seem to like Abba. This may be why they don't actually live in Sweden any more, now I think on it.) Adding to this general sense of festen is a series of films celebrating the career of one of Sweden's most renowned directors, Ingmar Bergman.
Most of these have been on at funny times or clashed with meetings of my Dungeons and Dragons group (oh yes, I live the life), but I was able to make a showing of Bergman's celebrated 1957 film Smultronstället, better known by its English title Wild Strawberries, and apparently known specifically to the ticketeer at Oxford's Ultimate Picture Palace as Old Dude on a Road Trip – one wonders how he refers to The Seventh Seal (ticketeer in question also welcomed me into the cinema with a hearty cry of 'It's Bergman time!!!').
Well, quibble one might, but Old Dude on a Road Trip is a fairly accurate description of Wild Strawberries, from a certain point of view at least. The story concerns Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an elderly doctor about to celebrate fifty years in the profession. A ceremony in his honour has been laid on at his alma mater in Lund, and all the plans for his trip down from Stockholm have been made. However, as the ceremony draws close, Borg finds himself beset by unsettling dreams and decides to do something a bit different. Much to the displeasure of his housekeeper, he decides to drive down to Lund. Along for the ride is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, whom I suspect is everyone's idea of what a Swedish movie star looks like).
They pause along the way at Borg's old family home, and he finds himself lost in a reverie as he remembers – or fantasises about – his youth and cousins. The stop also results in Borg and Marianne picking up some hitch-hikers, who are practically beatniks by the standards of 1950s Sweden (they are still incredibly wholesome and well-mannered for the most part). Further stops along the way prompt the professor to reconsider his principles and the course his life has taken; some curious characters are encountered along the way. (The appearance of one of these, a petrol attendant played by Max von Sydow, was greeted with an audible sigh of appreciation by at least part of the audience, presumably because it was a relief, amongst all the subtitled Swedish and discussions of metaphysics, to see someone out of The Force Wakes Up.)
Well, I hope it doesn't constitute a spoiler if I say that by the end of the film Professor Borg has come to a new and deeper understanding of himself and the course of his life, although quite how this has come to pass remains slightly obscure. The whole story is executed with an almost absurd lightness of touch, completely devoid of the big, histrionic Moments of Character Transformation you will likely find in an Anglophone treatment of a story of this kind. The initial dream sequence sums this up: nothing overtly unusual or disturbing occurs at first, but there is a tiny incremental accumulation of sound and image until suddenly you find yourself deeply unsettled by what is on the screen. Nothing much seems to be happening: but you do get the sense that Bergman is working the script and the screen for all they are worth in every moment of the film.
This may explain why Sjöström, who at first glance spends much of the film wandering about looking distracted, apparently found it such a gruelling experience that he was on occasion to be found beating his head against the wall between takes. Certainly the actor gives a brilliant, terrifically understated performance as the initially stubborn and misanthropic old man; you never notice him acting. He is also notably well-supported by Thulin, Bibi Andersson, and Gunnar Sjöberg.
Andersson and Sjöberg both play dual roles as the film progresses – one in the 'reality' of the story and the other in the fantasies which come increasingly to preoccupy Borg. There's some symbolism going on here with the doubling: Andersson is playing Borg's first love, who eventually forsakes him for his brother, and also a young hitch-hiker of whom he becomes perhaps just a bit too fond (both characters have the same name). Sjöberg, on the other hand, plays darker, more downbeat figures, symbols not of love but of cynicism and failure. It is he who presides over another disquieting dream sequence in which Borg must endure a nightmarish, unfair examination: watching the ominous mood Bergman evokes here you are definitely reminded that this is the man who eventually inspired Wes Craven to make Last House on the Left.
But what does it all mean? Life, death, age, youth, guilt, sin, acceptance, denial, they are all in the mix which Bergman so deftly whips up. There is a touch of existential misery as the film goes on, but also perhaps some self-aware humour as well: at one point a debate over the existence or otherwise of God is resolved by a fistfight in a pub car park. One of the most obvious of Bergman's disciples in English-language cinema is Woody Allen, and being rather more familiar with Allen's canon than Bergman's there are many weird pre-echoes here, in the bold internalism of this film, in the wise old man's fascination with a much younger woman, in the sense that while nothing much seems to be happening, in fact everything is happening. In the end, though, while you could never call this film a comedy, it resolves itself with an enormous sense of compassion and warmth towards its characters – Borg is perhaps not quite redeemed, but certainly he finds a sense of contentment he is initially lacking. In this sense the film is indeed about a road trip, but it's trip from a state of simple existence to one of genuine living, and one depicted with undeniable artistry and skill.