As a young kid, where were you?
What were you doing?
What were you hearing?
Do you remember?
In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 “Wild Strawberries,” Isak Borg — the protagonist — remembers. For that matter, his remembrance constitutes the very matrix of the film: As Isak drives to reach Lund University for the ceremony that will pronounce him Doctor Jubilaris after 50 years of medical practice, he encounters a series of detours, bumps and obstacles that will throw him into a spiral of cognitive foraging through his past.
Isak is initially introduced as a cantankerous, 78 year old widow with a crippling fear of death — a fear that permeates his consciousness and invades his recurrent nightmares. In fact, Bergman often chooses to depict him accordingly smoking a cigar in a figurative representation of his mortality, foreshadowing the imminent degradation of his body through the slow burn of cigar paper.
The film unfolds entirely on June 1 — a date that symbolises the renewal of a new month, of almost a new season and, as will be Isak’s case, of a newfound perception of life. As Isak sets off on the road, he stumbles upon the summer home of his adolescence and young adulthood — “the place where wild strawberries go.” It is here, in the nexus that holds all of Isak’s past, that Bergman accordingly begins to reconstruct scenes — whether real or imagined — from the protagonist’s memory. In the reconstructions, Bergman maintains Isak’s actual form as the irascible, rigid doctor we have come to know and never shows the protagonist as his younger self. The spectator is thereby presented with a dissonance, albeit a telling one: To convey the unrelenting, constant ardour of Isak’s remembrance, it is his current self who spies on his once beloved cousin Sara, who eavesdrops past family lunches in the summer, who relives the moment in which he caught his wife cheating and who re-undergoes university examinations under an imagined Freudian, intrusive presence of his relatives.
Isak’s past comes to co-exist alongside his present, or, perhaps, it always has: Isak has never let it go, not the heartbreak of Sara’s betrayal nor the oppressive imposter syndrome he has carried throughout all of his life. No, because right on the day of his utmost professional realisation, Isak chooses to press on the poignant, sore bruises of his past. As Isak drives, the upheld margins that apparently delineate his existence – once as clear as those cut by the razor of a surgical blade – lose their precision. The cigar paper keeps burning. Isak, “the world’s best doctor,” begins to see himself. His real self, beyond the surface-level definitions stamped upon him. In a crucial scene of the film, Sara holds a mirror towards Isak to — ironically — reveal himself to his own self. “You know so much, yet you know nothing,” she says, encapsulating both the film and Isak’s existential dilemma: Did I know, live or do enough? Can any of us say we have?
Isak, however, doesn’t travel alone. Alongside him is his daughter-in-law Marianne, a disarmingly radiant yet tormented young woman who is at once his complement and his antagonist. If he is allowed to smoke the cigar, she is not permitted to do so; if she is hysterical, he is the image of rationality; and, most importantly, if he embodies the decay of a lineage as the only living son, she is the sole hope of its reinvigoration. In fact, just moments before reaching Lund University, Marianne reveals her unexpected pregnancy to Isak to define the film’s point of inflection. Against her beauty, from which new life is about to rise, Isak moves closer to dissipation with each passing moment — the natural process of ‘the old making way for the new,’ one would say. After Marianne’s revelation, Bergman’s reconstructions cease. Isak returns to the present — and only the present — to accept his inexorable role in such a process with a newfound tranquillity.
Why, though? What reassures him to do so? Well, one thing’s for sure: Marianne and Isak come to be the two faces of the same coin. Regardless of their apparent incongruences, they share the same fundamental, existential discomfort of taking up space — and thereby existence — in the world. As Marianne describes her urge to live and give life despite her mental suffering, Isak realises that he’s not alone. And, perhaps, there is still some of that urge — an urge that one could call hope — left for him too.
Isak starts to live in a world without fields of “wild strawberries” to guide him. And, as he serenely falls asleep after having attended the anticipated ceremony, we could say that he’s done all that he could. And that, maybe, he’s done well.