Blossoming with the promises of a forgotten youth that never really existed in the first place, Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” is a careful, evocative meditation on loss, regret and the perils of aging. Like a strawberry that looks delicious but is too sweet to taste, this dreamlike meditation is an apt argument that our “what could have beens” aren’t equal to our “what should have beens.” Victor Sjostrom channels agony in his brittle bones, weakened by the harrowing truth that even if he got everything he ever wanted in life, his existence would still be just as empty.
Sjostrom stars as Dr. Isak Borg, an accomplished professor whom is about to receive a prestigious academic honor in recognition of his lifetime of work. Work is the proper word to describe Borg’s life, as his constant dreamlike fantasies reveal he hasn’t had all that much fun since his less-wrinkly days. He does have family: a son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a mom, Mrs. Borg (Naima Wifstrand), and a daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who doesn’t quite care for him. Yet, it’s Marianne who accompanies the gloomy Isak on a cross-country drive to the ceremony where he will receive his honor.
Isak constantly prods himself with self-loathing, referring to his advancing age and status as an “old man.” Nobody quite minds Isak’s age, nor do they even bring it up in conversation. It’s Isak who is constantly referring to his oldness, an obnoxious, self-pitying reminder to everyone in the nearby vicinity that he might not even be alive tomorrow.
Those bleak reflections are challenged when Isak and Marianne pick up a group of young hitchhikers. Sara (Bibi Andersson), a peppy, confident woman and her two suitors, Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Bjor Bjelfvenstam). Their playful antics mirror Isak’s own romantic tribulations of his youth, where he was too was romantically involved with a woman also named Sara (quite literally the same actress), who ended up marrying his brother Sigfrid instead.
These dreamy ruminations on youth and age are rewarding, and Bergman shoots them in a way that doesn’t coat the camera with nostalgia or put us at too far of a distance with Isak’s past. We’re able to vicariously live through Isak, just as he’s able to vicariously live through the antics of this joyful threesome. But the film hits its master, storytelling stroke when we’re introduced to the Almans, a repugnant couple whose middle age earns them no love or pity, but only contempt.
Isak, Marianne and the youthful threesome nearly collide with the Almans while driving up a curvy road. The husband, Sten (Gunnar Sjoberg) is overly-talkative, confident that he is clever because of how fast the words fly out of his mouth. His wife (Gunnel Brostrom) is more worthy of our sympathy, but the two and their abusive interactions create such a hostile, malevolent mood that they’re kicked out of the car. Bergman, in an expert way that is obvious but still subtle, tells us that this couple represents the utter contempt of adulthood, that middle-age where carefree galivanting in strawberry fields is no longer permitted, but still a period in life that where one isn’t beholden to the inevitable grappling with their own mortality.
It’s no mistake that Isak doesn’t give much attention to his middle-aged self throughout this story. His regrets are based on the futile assumption that everything wrong in his life could have been fixed with better decisions made in his youth, rather than in his middle years. That fallacy is compounded when we watch Isak reunite with his elderly but spritely mother, whom somehow seems nearly 10 years his junior.
The fact that she is still alive, let alone thriving, presents a harsh Peter Pan paradox for Isak: he can never truly enjoy the life of an old man with a parent still left alive, nor can he consider himself a child while wearing his wispy grey hair. When his mother says she is going to give away a pocket watch to another relative besides Isak, we see that the watch has no hands. It’s a brutal reminder for Isak that he doesn’t know if his life is still moving forward towards something or if his best years are left in the past. All Isak knows is that time no longer belongs to him.