Monday, January 14, 2013

Bergman's Women, Pt. 1: Wild Strawberries

Isak & Sara

In my last blog post I put up two of Ingmar Bergman’s best known, most critically acclaimed works. Without delving too deeply into what the films say, are trying to say, or what is hidden beneath the surface of each, lets begin with a very simple observation: both films have to do with women, with male attitudes towards women.

That is not to say that these films are in any way anti-feminist rants designed to tell women how they ought to live their lives. Rather, this is an exploration of the female psyche. By a male. In the most sympathetic manner. If that gets the feminists up in arms, then what chance of any dialogue at all? Men take their place as the villain of the piece, a figure of the devil to chastise and berate without any hope of change and transformation.

In the two films, we are dealing with the male gaze. This is most obvious in Wild Strawberries, not so much in Persona. In Wild Strawberries, a man looks back on his life, examining his relationship to the women in his life. He sees that he has been at times inattentive, at times too sensitive, and at times too much of a moral arbiter to allow them to get close to him. He recognises how he drove them away, how cold he had been.

There is also the question of memory in Wild Strawberries. For instance, in an early scene the old man, Isak, recalls his brother kissing his beloved cousin played by Bibi Andersson. As a young boy, he almost certainly did not experience this first hand. What’s more, in the next scene Isak’s family is having dinner together and we are expressly told that Isak is out on the boat with his father. His cousin storms out of the room after being teased, and tells her misgivings to Isak’s sister, about how Isak is gentle and sensitive, but also cold and aloof, and how she does not feel like his equal on any level, sometimes feeling she is beneath Isak, and sometimes feeling she is much older than him even though they are the same age.

Could Isak’s sister have told him this? Perhaps. But I think we here have to question the mechanism of memory as a pure record of events. I think it is much more likely that Isak, as an old man, is imbuing this primordial rejection with attributes he recognises as solidified like cast iron in the old man that he is.

His other memories are mixed up with dream sequences, so what we see are elastic memories. Even in the forest, where he recalls seeing his wife have an affair, we cannot be sure of this being a first-hand account. The sequence begins with his status as a doctor being challenged and him being accused of guilt. He fails to recognise a bacterium under a microscope, and pronounces a woman to be dead even though she is very much alive. He is then brought to be shown his wife’s act of infidelity, which he is told he also witnessed. But can we trust this? Is it not more likely that he is experiencing his own suspicions of how these women viewed him? That is not to say they did not view him in this way. Only to say, and I think this is crucial, especially in relation to Persona, that what is being explored, in many variations, is the male relationship with his female counterpart. He even visits his mother, who is cold and negative, though she elevates Isak above all her other children.

The film ends with Sara, his beautiful young cousin/a hitch hiker they pick up, comes to Isak’s window, shouting up to him, “Goodbye, father Isak. Can’t you see you’re the one I love? Today, tomorrow and forever!” This is a sweet ending to the film. But perhaps Bergman is getting at something deeper than sweet sentimentality. In Through a Glass Darkly, a young woman has a schizophrenic episode in which she claims to see God, but that God is a spider trying to penetrate her. In the end, the girl’s father tells his son that he believes in a higher power of sorts, and it lies in love, in all sorts of love, in the relationships between one another. Love, then, for Bergman, can be crazy, domineering, as well as beautiful and soft.

When Sara, who is both his first love and a girl hitch hiking with a bickering pair - a future scientist and a future pastor - tells him, as this sort of archetypal presence signifying his idealised woman, that she loves him, that all women love him, she means it. Not in spite of all the injustices he has made against women in the past, but including them, including his dispassion, including all human relations, cold and warm.

Love, in all its forms.

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