There’s a scene fairly early on in this movie that pretty much sums up the problem I have with it and Ingmar Bergman in general. During the first of Victor Sjöström’s flashbacks, we see his “secret fiancee” get kissed by his good-for-nothing brother. (We know the brother’s good-for-nothing because the dialogue helpfully tells us several times that he is, in fact, good-for-nothing.) After the kiss, the girl, Sara, is anguished. We know this because she cries “Ah! I am anguished!” (or something like that, I don’t remember the dialogue exactly); because Bergman rushes in for a closer shot of her face, wearing an actorly expression of Anguish; because the kiss has spilled the Wild Strawberries she had been gathering to give her uncle, smearing her white dress–this is Symbolism (we know because Wild Strawberries is also the title of the film): her generous strawberry gift has been ruined by a selfish act, through this same act she has lost her innocence (despite the black and white, we can assume her white dress is now smeared red, please don’t make me explain what that is Symbolic of). Basically, Bergman is never content to let things be subtle, he will let you know exactly what he means in every way he possibly can in every scene. The film is utterly lifeless, over-determined and surprisingly sloppy.
Another example: we are told repeatedly that Sjöström’s is cold, a heartless old bastard, yet all we see is a slightly cantankerous, wistful old man who is nothing but nice to pretty blonde girls and anyone else he comes across. So when, at the end, he’s learned to be nice and wistful, we haven’t learned anything. We’ve gone on a journey through space and time but not character, as Sjöström’s flaws are only asserted in dialogue, never depicted. The flashbacks do nothing to deepen his character, they show how he was betrayed by women, but not why (we are told his marriage is bad, but we don’t ever see any evidence of it, or ever he and his wife together). This assertion as a substitute for dramatization applies to the character of Sjöström’s mother as well: we spend a long scene with her only to be told later that she’s “as cold as ice”. But on the evidence of the scene we just watched, I thought she seemed remarkably pleasant for a 96 year old lady that no one ever visits. This also applies to Gunnar Björnstrand as Sjöström’s son. Ingrid Thulin tells us about his horrible crime: he is also a cold bastard, our evidence is that when she tells him she’s pregnant he gets mad and says it’s evil to bring a child into the world and he wishes he was dead. This is clearly a man with serious psychological issues, or it would be if we actually took this nonsense seriously. Fortunately, we must not, as the whole situation is resolved in Björnstrand’s only other scene, where he explains that he now will have the kid because he can’t live without Thulin. Yippee! Glad that’s resolved!
I did like the opening dream sequence, with its overt reference to The Phantom Carriage and a neat little visual trick where Sjöström is walking along a sidewalk, past a lamppost whose shadow apparently falls on the side of a building, but when Sjöström passes, he moves in front of the shadow instead of through it–the shadow is painted on the wall. This opening sequence owes a huge debt to Cocteau and Buñuel, though it never reaches their height of surreality (Fellini does better in the opening dream of 8 1/2). The rest of the film as well does follow a kind of dream logic, I kinda like that Sjöström’s flashbacks aren’t really flashbacks (because they’re of things he couldn’t have seen) but rather Scroogelike ghostly visitations, but even that logic gets screwed up in the second flashback: Sjöström and his examiner (“You’ve been accused of guilt.” Blech) are watching Sjöström’s wife hook up with some dude in the woods in what first looks like rape but is apparently just infidelity. Our POV is Sjöström’s, looking out in long shot at the couple far off in the distance. But Bergman repeatedly violates that POV by cutting to close-ups of the couple as they struggle and then talk. And it isn’t just that Sjöström has moved closer, because those close shots are intercut with reverse angles of Sjöström and the examiner in the same distant location, with repeated POV shots of them again looking at the couple far off in the distance. You could probably get away with applying dream logic to that, except the examiner helpfully explains in dialogue that what we are seeing is a flashback, that Sjöström once stood in this same spot and saw and heard this exact scene. So the long shot and dialogue is the flashback while the closeups are the dream? I don’t buy it. I think it’s just shoddy filmmaking.
Seventh Seal is soooo much better than this.