WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)
It’s so easy to categorise an Ingmar Bergman motion picture as one engendering a cynical, pessimistic, often uncomfortably existentialist point of view. For this cinephile and writer, those are the very qualities that become hallmarks of WILD STRAWBERRIES because it benefits from being in constant contact with the reality of flesh and blood emotions. To my mind, it’s a heartening and ultimately life-affirming work because it bears a spirit of enquiry about one’s past and present which helps us to come to a resolution about where things will stand in the near future.
Victor Sjostrom is the elderly prefect whose nightmares centring around death and reminisces back to his happy childhood days and family ties unravel during the course of a road trip, to the university town where he is to receive an honourary doctorate degree from his alma mater. A haunting and bewitching scene is where he dreams about being put on stand in a mock courtroom with many familiar faces from his lifetime present. His duties as a doctor and personal commitments are called into question. Bergman expertly marks the distinction between the family recollections and these often disturbing dreams, such as when an empty hearse carriage carries a coffin which tumbles out and reveals his own facsimile inside. Another point is when he watches a disturbing episode from years prior involving his wife with another abusive man, the former of whom at present has been deceased for a while. His older self presides over these memories and the recreation of events as if to say that the body may age but the soul never forgets. Surrealism and absurdity of these dream visions are visibly drawn from a realisation that the last lap of this lifetime has left a lot without reparation or closure. As it is the nature of human psychology. His passivity in taking decisions and a distanced or detached outlook over earnest matters has obviously caused him regrets.
Other strands relate to his lovely daughter in law( Ingrid Thulin) accompanying him on the trip, three hitchhikers( including the regular Bergman muse Bibi Andersson) who lighten up the load with their youth and high spirits and a couple they meet en route whose limited presence is spiked with the imploding hostility of a relationship of many years.
The visit to his mother( Naima Wifstrand, so spooky as the woman with no face in Bergman’s own HOUR OF THE WOLF), too, formidably reveals a cultural heritage where women always side-step kith and kin from their own gender in service for a patriarchal favouritism for sons while his son’s(Gunnar Bjornstrand) inheritance of his father’s profession and attitude, a detachment received from him and now transmuted to an almost nihilistic view of the world, has created fissures within his relationship with his better half( Thulin).
Now WILD STRAWBERRIES, which takes its title from fond childhood memories, is all about returning to a place of commitment to truth and honesty, a point of love despite the odds or a history of silently watching years go by. All so that the future isn’t a wasteland. If the doctor’s childhood years bear the joy and melodrama of a typical ’50s picture, the present is steeped in the realism of his musings. The treatment hence attests to that. This despite the disorienting nature of his dream visions. A special mention must be made of his banter with his housekeeper of many decades. Their interactions bear the truth and convivial charm of growing together in terms of age and experience despite sharing no formal ties. Despite the social markers that divide them as employer and employee.
I love how each interaction is laden with hope and hopelessness, love and its loaded contents, truth and an escape from it. But it is beautifully resonant and given such a hopeful resolution when one would predict that the gradual journey towards reconcilement along multiple lines will end with the doctor’s deep sleep and passage to the other world. In continuing with life and the passage ahead, WILD STRAWBERRIES becomes one of Bergman’s tokens of optimism. Relationships of the heart prevail here.
In many of my previous writings, I have already made it abundantly clear about how much respect and admiration I reserve for Halle Berry’s effortless craft and inimitable style of embodying the vagaries of life. Her predominant intersections of storytelling have been around race, sexuality and the power structures that sheer human determination can dismantle. MONSTER’S BALL, INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, LOSING ISAIAH, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, ALEX HALEY’S QUEEN, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE and FRANKIE AND ALICE or KINGS attest to that committed filmography across decades. BRUISED is her battle cry where she goes above and beyond her best efforts to helm a human story of grit and survival behind and in front of the camera. In the fashion of the best sports centred dramas, Berry designs some priceless moments in this strong screenplay written by Michelle Rosenfarb.
Such as the ones with her son( the excellent Harry Boyd Jr.) whose loss of a father figure at the hands of indiscriminate violence has left him mute. The emotional reconnection with an estranged mother who gave him up owing to her own dire personal life is gradual and palpable, crossing out none of their traumas individually as also the tangible beauty of their blood bonds. Adriane Lenox as her mother displays the full force of a woman who has demons of her own but deflects those by blaming her daughter. The physicality of their volatile tempers in one particular scene is realistically conveyed. Stephen Henderson is then the father figure and mentor whose steadying support to Jackie while in the throes of training in the ring lifts her up.
But Bruised will be nothing if not for the beautifully observed journey towards getting back to the sports arena that is alighted by the protagonist’s trainer, mentor and eventual lover Buddhakan ( an excellent Sheila Atim) ; their moments of truth together as women, sportspersons and survivors of a society ready to bracket them is never annouced per se and unfolds with their interactive intimacy. In a year where record number of LGBTQ+ athletes made history by their participation at the Olympics, this dynamic of imparting support, grit and love among two steadfast and driven individuals is a standout.
Berry hence achieves a delicacy in her handling of these multiple tracks which spring forth from Jackie’s life and are given their due place. But I will be remiss if I didn’t appreciate Adan Canto and Shameir Anderson for their contributions as Jackie’s managers. They exemplify the toxic side of male management that besets so many promising women athletes within a still patriarchal cultural set-up.
Ultimately, BRUISED earns its victory laps by Berry’s all-out commitment to embodying the physical toll and adrenaline rush associated with Mixed Martial Arts in all their glory and simultaneous dangers to the body. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart to either watch or participate in what is deemed as a ‘bloodsport’; the bouts inside the ring are true to its punishing nature and dire paybacks.
Watch BRUISED for its role in defining the crux of individual agency, of a life strapped to being have-nots financially and socially and how sports can help transcend those lines without simplifying the struggles. Come awards season and I want this to find the widest representation across the board. It’s because it holds itself to truth in every aspect.
THE POWER OF THE DOG(2021)
The power of suggestion reigns supreme in this tale set in the Old West which pits one man’s inner turmoil against the fragile foundations of those around him.
Jane Campion and her cinematographer Ari Wegner very obviously capture the vistas and landscapes to define this story. But it is more to emphasise on the isolation that has a role to play in driving Phil Burbank towards an odyssey of self-destruction. Yes, he is not the most likeable person and his gruff nature is in keeping with his profession as a rancher. Campion, however, doesn’t demonise him as replete as his character is with glowering expressions and verbal bile, they are limited here. He feels the pinch of loneliness when his brother George is out of the home and sometimes shares the same childhood bedroom with him. If he is to be seen as a father figure to his younger sibling then no practical wisdom can qualify him as one. He is a boor to him but clearly knows that he’s the only one he has to call his own. That’s why he remains silent as the younger one asks him to clean up before a visit by the governer.
Benedict Cumberbatch manages to instill him with silent, wordless moments where his life-script surfaces with placidity and a churning pointing towards repressed sexuality. Watch as he tenderly makes way to the water in utter privacy to bathe and lets a piece of cloth belonging to his deceased best friend and possible lover caress his whole body. Bronco Henry is the enigmatic figure whose omnipresence lingers in his life, almost like a myth. Just like the enigma of the title. In Phil, I could see a cult of keeping up with masculine appearances. It slowly breaks apart as his latent desires unfold in the presence of a young man Peter( Kodi Smit- McPhee)
The pillars of this vast but ultimately insulated world are supported by Jesse Plemons’ kindly but detached younger brother and by the extraordinary work by Kirsten Dunst as Rose, a young widow who has borne the pain of her status and the thankless pangs of her work as an innkeeper and cook while looking out for her son( McPhee) who is lost, adrift and taunted by others owing to his lithe frame and lack of machismo. When he is drawn by Phil, she panics and this only worsens her problems with the bottle. In fact, every single person is hemmed in by the demands of appearances and a sense of confidence eludes them. Even Phil is not invincible in his domineering attitude.
One of the best scenes here is when Rose practices a tune on the piano in anticipation of the governor’s visit after her marriage to Burbank Jr. and is outwitted by Phil playing the same song on the banjo without hesitation. There’s a tension there and an irrational sense of dominance over the one whom Phil considers to be an intruder in his world of men. Cue that other standout scene where he revels in Rose’s failure to play at the dinner party even as he is the same cold, distant figure everyone is wary of crossing the wrong way. A parochial code persists hence, true to this day and age, something of a cultural internalisation. He never raises a finger but his aura is constricting.
In the final moments, Kodi Smit-McPhee turns tables by his show of seduction and camaraderie, making us guess if Phil’s disturbing unraveling was associated with the young man’s doing to secure his mother’s marriage and rescue the household from Phil’s dark shadow. The dynamic between these two men is one that invokes the power of suggestion beautifully. Use of saddle, belts and other cowboy paraphernalia as also the rolling of a cigarette have a phallic quality in that moment. In the final bow from this writer, all praises must go to Jonny Greenwood’s musical score, especially the theme music and one particular instance where eerie use of the piano punctuates Rose’s sheer unease.
THE POWER OF THE DOG is a veritable arthouse classic and has much to satisfy true cinephiles by its almost reptilian movement through human endeavours. You never know what might strike you or whether it will happen with a force or a gentle touch here.
This was my second viewing of GLORIA BELL as I had watched a good part of the first half on a television movie channel few months ago. I got lucky as both this title and AFTER THE WEDDING dropped on Netflix together, both starring the brilliant Julianne Moore and sharing the same year of release( I had also watched AFTER…. on television in full)
I have to say that it is one of those screenplays where life is celebrated in all its hues. It’s especially meaningful since it deals with a middle-aged protagonist and those around her share the same demographic. Like AFTER THE WEDDING introduced Ms. Moore singing away enthusiastically to THE EDGE OF GLORY, this one extends her joie de vivre not only with her ever-smiling comportment but with her love for music. She sings along to classic titles while driving or at home and extends that affinity for sound and rhythm by dancing in clubs that have a penchant for such boisterous tunes. It’s her mechanism to hold herself steady as an empty nester and given the reality of advancing age. It primarily defines who she is, a woman in love with herself first whose passion for music underscores her streak of positivity.
But GLORIA BELL shows us her grappling with being an ancillary figure for her aloof children( Caren Pistorius and Michael Cera), such as when her son barely registers her presence or words or when her daughter seems to plunge headlong into a relationship with a surfer and decides to relocate to Sweden. Both relationships, however, gradually root themselves in reserves of warmth central to the idea of family.
Gloria also discovers a second shot at love with a man her age( John Turturro); it’s to Mr. Turturro’s credit that the struggles of a man whose ex-wife and daughters are wholly dependent on him and cause roadblocks for his blooming love life gets a heartbreaking testament. His sense of guilt at neither being wholeheartedly invested in a relationship with Gloria or dissociating from his family obligations gives us a point to ponder on the fate of those men who suffer and struggle to be seen. The dinner scene where he meets with Gloria’s family and is surprised not only at the amicable bonds she shares with her ex-husband( EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND’S iconic Brad Garrett) and his second wife but also by the barrage of questions they all pose to him is immersive, a definitive highlight since it so succinctly captures human expressions and disappointments.
GLORIA BELL ends with an affirmation of life and in the manner of delineating a personal journey, it shows us both sides of the equation, the good and the bad layered with complexity. I adore it for its grip on pertinent truths regarding adult lives and its insistence on not letting narrow bounds of age define our experiences.