Autumn Smiles of a Winter Light Darkly

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Ran WILD STRAWBERRIES for students. As one might expect, following the plot synopsis I gave them, not as many attended this screening as had shown up for CRISS CROSS. This is a shame, as it’s a cracking film. I hadn’t actually watched it all since I was about eighteen or something, and was relieved to find it as interesting as I remembered it. Also, huge parts of it I hadn’t remembered at all, and I enjoyed those too. Afterwards, one student agreed with me that Bergman can be pretty funny.

(As I recall, I recorded the film off of BBC2’s Film Club on a Sunday night, and sat down to watch it Monday lunchtime with a plate of fish and chips. And something that happened during the dream sequence five minutes in caused me to fling my knife and fork across the room in shock, startling the spaniel.)

They just showed the film in Lyon, too, where I learned that the French call it LES FRAISES SAUVAGES. SAVAGE STRAWBERRIES. Sounds like the kind of film George Clooney might have made early on, just so he could look adorably rueful about it now.

Of course, it’s not that, and nor is it a gloomy art film (Woody Allen, in his praise of I.B,, seems to WANT him to be a gloomy Swede, and doesn’t even notice the comedy in THE SEVENTH SEAL, which is at least 50% laffs) — it’s more like an anthology genre mash-up, beginning with an expressionist horror movie dream, then becoming a road movie, with diversions into teenage romcom and Kafkaesque noir (another dream). There’s even a song. And a car crash. If only it involved the Mercedes of a comedy gay man, Jerry Bruckheimer could remake this.

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The fragmentary, tone-hopping picaresque approach allows the film to segue into flash-forwards to Bergman films he hasn’t even made yet. The protagonist (my man Victor Sjostrom) picks up a bickering married couple locked in a horrible sadomasochistic codependent purgatory. In one dream, a blackboard displays a message in an incomprehensible gibberish language, undoubtedly the same one invented for THE SILENCE.

Another student remarked that the film felt very modern compared to Hollywood films of the same era — which is true. Partly this is because it rejects genre (though as I just said, it sort of drives through a number of them); partly it’s because Bergman wasn’t subject to the same stringent censorship, which meant he could get into the habit of approaching things with a greater frankness (there’s no sex as such in the film, really, but he creates the feeling that if there were, it wouldn’t be coy); and technically, the film does some striking things which seem quite new. In particular, there’s plenty of subtle camera movement during the driving scenes, pushing in on the leads or sliding from one to the other, which of course means it’s done in a studio with rear projection background. But it’s so skillfully done it didn’t make me think of Hitchcock, but of the car scene in CHILDREN OF MEN, which reintroduced the same kind of dramatically-effective artifice.

Strange seeing Max Von Sydow turn up as a garage mechanic, but then it was strange seeing him at the next table in a restaurant in Lyon, sitting with Pierre Richard and other elder statesmen of European cinema. My friend Lenick was able to overhear and translate: “They’re complaining about how things are different now, you can’t have a glass of wine and go for a drive anymore.” And then Dominique Sanda showed up and introduced herself to Max: “My name is Dominique Sanda, I starred in a film with you once.” True, she’s been away from France and may not be as well-remembered as she should be — the modest retrospective at Lyon hopefully has done something to right that — and also, maybe Max has erased STEPPENWOLF from his mind.

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Somehow Victor’s closeup makes me think of Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA.

Anyway, this is basically A Christmas Carol, isn’t it? A mean old man has some dreams about the past, present and future and changes his way of behaving with others. Arguably one reason it seems more sophisticated than that is we never really see Victor Sjostrom being mean, we mainly learn about his emotional coldness via his son. He seems a fairly sweet old stick, and it’s hard to work out why his daughter-in-law is so mean to him. This removes the caricature element of Dickens and replaces it with Bergman’s more nuanced sense of sliding sympathies. It’s a proper grown-up film, so I was pleased that the kids today can still “dig” it, as I believe the expression is nowadays.

7 Responses to “Autumn Smiles of a Winter Light Darkly”

  1. Bergman is actually more funnier than he gets credit for. The Seventh Seal is already a better spoof of itself than Monty Python can muster. Like the scene with the parade of the flagellants is done in so over the top a manner that it always made me laugh. That’s why the film is so interesting, in that death is part of the everyday, the ridiculous and the absurd. Like Death playing Chess is both a great symbol, but at the same time it shows the banality, doing something commonplace. Also death cutting down a tree like a good worker. It’s clearly a gag since if it is death, he doesn’t need to do that, just snap fingers and this man is finished, those actions suggest the deeper thing.

    A lot of Bergman’s relative modernity over 50s films is what made him such a sensation and so famous and admired. His movies broke through that old-timey surface and shine. Summer with Monika(my favourite of that period) was his breakthrough and that film was a huge influence on the French New Wave. It was also the movie that opened me to his genius.

    You are quite right about the camera movements in Wild Strawberries, he tends to be underrated as a technician.

  2. He was often quite content to be theatrical and flat, and made that work beautifully, but when he moved himself to a more florid cinematic style it was really rich. Also, I almost prefer the Gunnar Fischer look to the Sven Nykvist look. Is that a blasphemy? The Magician is a glorious little horror movie.

  3. Jenny Eardley Says:

    I watched this again a few months back with my Dad and I think the horror dream beginning is really useful if you have someone who doesn’t really want to watch a Bergman film. They can’t help but be surprised and drawn into it. I think he stayed awake all the way through but it has been one of several films we’ve watched lately where his reaction at the end was: “Is that it? Doesn’t he die?” I said I thought he probably would. It doesn’t help that there’s no “The End”, how is he to know I didn’t stop recording on the last ad break?

    I hate to spoil it, but sauvage does mean wild as well as savage and primitive. No attack of the killer strawberries here!

    In 2012 I felt like watching the Oscars so I went hunting on the web and could only find feeds of 12-year olds doing interviews on the red carpet. I was pleased to see they were going to speak to Max who had a nomination in best supporting actor, I thought they’d say something about Erland Josephson who had just died, but they never did. Maybe Max didn’t want to talk about him, I don’t know.

  4. Leave us not forget that Carson McCullers’ last novel was entitled “Clock Without Hands”

  5. It’s much more distracting when Swedish films end with “The End,” because the Swedish word for that is “Slut.” Particularly troublesome when the movie ends with a romantic clinch, though this is rarely an issue in Bergman’s oeuvre.

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