The more Bergman films I watch the more I find myself arriving at one conclusion: Ingmar Bergman makes psychoanalysis in film redundant. Anyone who even thinks of examining part or all of the human condition is at least indirectly ripping him off if not outright stealing (see: Woody Allen, though this isn't meant as a slight). Anyone who doesn't almost certainly made a terrible film. His films do not so much examine the existential quandaries of existence so much as dive head-first into the mind itself, and the results are often bleak. However, his 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries offers a rare and (unlike the tacked-on ending of Through a Glass Darkly) unforced nugget of hope.
Bergman uses the film to follow Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, in a masterful performance) as he travels from Stockholm to Lund in order to receive an honorary degree from Lund University after 50 years of practicing medicine. At first he plans to take a plane, but at the start of the film suffers from a nightmarish vision of a driver-less wagon bearing his own coffin, and this prompts him to take a car instead. If this were made today we'd have to listen to the umpteenth joke about plane safety vs. car safety, but I can't say I blame him for being shaken.
Accompanying Isak is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who drives the car as Isak slips in and out of remembrances, dreams, and nightmares. The two speak about life and Marianne's relationship with Isak's son. Not long after, Marianne admits that she does not care for Isak very much. This moment of frankness hurts the man, and it only furthers his feelings of life wasted and depression.
Bergman presents Borg's dreams in a then-unique manner: he offers no visual clues to distinguish between reality and hallucination. "What if you could make a film about this that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door," the director wondered, "and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives." Isak interacts with figures from his childhood, bringing to light old joys and great regret.
The most prominent of these figures from his past is his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson). The symbol of his youthful passion and vigor, Sara ultimately becomes the turning point in Isak's life when she informs him that she's marrying Isak's brother. We see the old man relive this conversation with his vision, and the pain etched on Sjostrom's face is almost unbearable. Sara ends up in the car later with two friends, and she brings with her all the freshness and exuberance of youth back into Isak's life.
Bergman never lets his metaphors and philosophical musings get too dense to be examined, but he certainly never condescends to us. After Sara and her friends join the ride, Marianne picks up a married couple after they two parties are involved in a near-fatal accident. But their vicious bickering eventually becomes too much, and Marianne dumps them out on the roadside. Near the end of the film, Isak suffers his most disturbing nightmare: he finds himself in a medical cross-examination lead by the husband. Suddenly unable to remember anything about medicine -- he even diagnoses the husband's conscious wife as deceased -- Isak is found incompetent and the husband harangues him for being passionless and crippled by regret. Where Sara and co. brought back a touch of Isak's youth, this couple only reminded him of the failures and misery of his life and marriage after Sara married another man.
Some of you might be wondering when that "hope" I mentioned shines through here. Isak and Marianne finally arrive in Lund, and Isak has a sort of epiphany. He sighs "I am dead. Although, I am alive," a reconciliation of his bright youth with the regrets of his adulthood and the fears of his twilight. It's not exactly a Hollywood ending, but it gives Isak a sense of inner peace without invalidating the dark personal quest that brought him here. It offers a sense of hope for the man, which is lighter than we normally get from the director. Bergman even throws in a joke or two this time: when Isak finally makes it to Lund after all of his visions and nightmares, a woman says to him warmly, "A nice drive is relaxing, isn't it?"