One very haunting and rather chilling scene in Ingmar Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries' makes a clear allusion to the film's overall theme, the real bone of contention the Swedish filmmaker seems to be grappling with. Isak Borg, played with solemn intensity by another legendary Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström, is an aging widower suddenly plagued with visions, daydreams and twisted nightmares. In one such dream, he walks on a desolate city street in the middle of the day and notices the hands on his pocket watch, along with those of a storefront sign, are missing. In an instant, a funeral carriage crashes into a lamppost, losing a wheel and the casket carrying its deceased passenger. Inside, Isak finds himself grasping at a helping hand and struggling out of the wooden box.
With voice-over narration by Isak, this particular nightmare is our opening introduction to the character and his subjective experience. It implies Bergman, as well as our protagonist, are tackling the seriously somber themes of self-reflection, the pangs of guilt and death head on. There are no subtle meanings or indirect messages. The director, who also wrote the screenplay while in the hospital, wants his audience to be aware of precisely the point — an introspective look at human existence. Isak, too, knows exactly what he's doing when he unexpectedly decides to travel by car from Stockholm to Lund University where he's being awarded with an honorary degree. The dream is fairly clear; his time is fast approaching, causing him to question what he's accomplished.
Joining him on this deeply intimate and personal journey of deliberate self-discovery is Isak's daughter-in-law Marianne (Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin). When asked her opinion of him, an otherwise reserved and quiet beauty issues very blunt but completely honest judgments of the proud and arrogant doctor. Still early into the long car ride to Lund, and in the narrative itself, Sjöström's facial reaction is astounding, painfully revealing a bruised ego knowing what he heard is the truth but hating to admit it. Again, this self-inflicted excursion into his past is brought to the forefront of the plot and made into an agonizing, palpable reality for Isak. Like the nightmare, this conversation between the two is done early on, igniting in Isak an awareness of what's happening around him, creating reminders of his life that spark various memories both imagined and real.
In the troubled marriage of Marianne and his only son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand), he sees the makings of his stubborn, egotistical self in the behavior of his son as husband. He also sees something of his marriage in the brutally bitter and nasty middle-aged couple Marianne and Isak offer a ride to after almost crashing into them. Even more so, Isak is reminded of what we're made to interpret as possibly his most aching regret in trio of young hitchhikers. Sara (Bibi Andersson) is traveling with two men (Björn Bjelfvenstam and Folke Sundquist) vying for her love, a fact she uses for pitting them against one another. Sara is the spitting image of Isak's first true love — also named Sara and played by Andersson — causing him to revisit the painful day when Isak's older brother stole her from him.
'Wild Strawberries' is arguably Ingmar Bergman's most personal story, next to 'Fanny & Alexander,' because much of his own private thoughts and feelings on life are reflected here — so much so that the protagonist even shares identical initials with the master of cinema. The narrative may not be subtle, which is intentional, but the extraordinary camerawork and cinematography by Gunnar Fischer is. Characters in the foreground are slightly softer while in the background they are clear and in perfect deep focus, beautifully echoing Isak's mood and state of mind about time's ephemeralness and the somewhat punishing memories which haunt us. Thankfully, Bergman finishes his insightful journey with an equally perceptive and sentimental note as the wonderful Victor Sjöström learns to appreciate the now and sleeps with an uplifting smile on his face.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Wild Strawberries' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #139) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 16-page booklet with photos and an insightful essay entitled "Where Is the Friend I Seek?" by author and scholar Mark Le Fanu. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options while music plays in the background.
According to the accompanying booklet, this high-def transfer of 'Wild Strawberries' was struck from the original 35mm camera negative at 2k resolution in Stockholm. Criterion, once again, delivers a marvelous, near-reference picture quality that bests previous home video editions of this beautiful piece of cinematic art.
Aside from some unavoidable instances of softness and other negligible, age-related issues, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is highly-detailed with distinct fine lines around trees, leaves and grass. Textures and threading in the clothing are distinct with the smallest stitching plainly visible, and the tiniest wrinkle on the face of Victor Sjöström is sharply defined and revealing with incredible lifelike clarity.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the image also displays a very fine layer of grain, maintaining the classic film's cinematic quality, while contrast is pitch-perfect with crisp, brilliant whites throughout. Black levels are luxurious and accurate with remarkable gradational details and strong delineation within the darkest portions of the presentation.
Remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm print, as explained in the liner notes, the uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack for the Swedish classic is as equally impressive with a soundstage that feels broad, despite only coming from one channel. Acoustics and fidelity are superb, giving the lossless mix a good deal of presence and warmth. Dynamic range is never really pushed very far, but imaging delivers wonderful clarity detail with ambient effects in the background breaking much of the silence. While the crashing of waves on the beach is heard in the distance, we can also hear actors moving and rubbing against the vinyl seats of the cars. Being a character and dialogue-driven film, conversations are lucid and intelligible, providing the emotional inflections of actors splendidly. Overall, it's a wonderful and very fine high-rez track for an emotional, heartfelt film.
Supplements are ported over from the previous Criterion DVD.
Next to 'Fanny & Alexander,' 'Wild Strawberries' is arguably Ingmar Bergman's most personal and reflective film since a great deal of his intimate thoughts and feelings on life are expressed here. Starring legendary filmmaker Victor Sjöström, the story of one man's self-prescribed journey into his past is a lovely photographed and deeply complex tale of self-reflection and introspection. The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection arrives with a near-reference video presentation and an excellent lossless mix. With a healthy assortment of bonus material accompanying the classic film, the overall package is recommended for Bergman fans and cinema lovers everywhere.