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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Pretty Girl, Beware, This Heart Is Cold
by Donald Levit

Ingmar Bergman admitted to his own selfish cruel behavior to wives and lovers in three-part television documentary Bergman Island. Hinging on a similar character defect in the past, 1957 Wild Strawberries/Smultron-Stället nevertheless ends with its elderly man’s affirmation of life, love, youth, faith and the future not often associated with the gruff, pessimistic, God- and death-obsessed screenwriter/film and stage director and not to be fully repeated until autobiographical Fanny and Alexander revived his career twenty-six years later.

With the same-year The Seventh Seal, this one made its auteur an international art-house icon. Apart from a nightmare in which the hero bacteriology professor encounters an unmourned coffin containing his own dead-in-life soul and another, later one, however, it is the Swede’s warmest, most human early work. Shown again now, three times, at the Museum of Modern Art and built around a typical Bergman journey, it is less allegorical than its companion piece in which the questing, questioning Knight plays chess with Death. (Both films are linked in Coe-Lover and company’s undeservedly forgotten homage-spoof short, De Düva/The Dove.)

His voiceover what he is also writing down at seventy-eight, Professor Isak Borg (master silents director Viktor Sjöström -- or Saestrom -- also seventy-eight) is to receive an august honorary degree from the university in Lund, where he is still revered by all (including a very brief Max von Sydow) for his earlier medical dedication and where his equally unemotional, politely estranged son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) practices medicine. The son has an outstanding loan from the father, a stickler for forms and promises, a release from which obligation he thinks is the reason daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) has come and spent the last month in his home.

Several actors who were to form the director’s virtual stock company are here, but it is Sjöström who is heart and soul of the film and who shared numerous personal characteristics with Bergman, exactly half his age.

The story’s self-deprecating widower is hardly a social butterfly and is content to let maid-housekeeper-assistant Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl) manage his affairs and act as buffer against the outside world. The two chafe one another like a worn married couple, but the barely younger woman is careful to draw lines, keep their relationship on an unimpeachable formal basis and thus protect her reputation when he suggests more.

When the Professor upsets her plans by insisting on driving to the investiture ceremony instead of flying, Marianne asks to go along in the roomy hearse-like 1937 Packard. Respectful, she however does not like him, because he is cold like his son, whom she does nevertheless love, and also like his dry nonagenarian mother (Naima Wifstrand) whom they visit along the way. Following a road accident, they pick up and soon discharge a spiteful bickering middle-aged Catholic couple. They also acquire three bubbly hitchhikers bound for youthful adventure in Italy: flirty virgin Sara (Bibi Andersson) is momentarily sulky when Anders and Viktor (Folke Sundquist, Bjorn Bjelvenstam) slight her charms to duke it out over religious belief, but she reaffirms enthusiasm and hope. More, she first approaches him at the country house that Professor Borg revisits and where, he in black, he sees long-ago family reunions in overexposed white and his own scholarly morality that caused cousin and first love Sara (also Andersson) to choose his carefree brother over straitlaced himself.

Another memory, a single examination-nightmare, is darker, about the now-dead woman he did marry (Gunnel Btoström).


The unfortunate past appears about to be repeated, according to what Marianne confides in him after she and he come to care for one another. But, far from stern Lutheran pastor’s son Bergman’s trademark agonizing about life and death and religion and meaning, the outcome is upbeat, for the three young travelers continue on their journey only after serenading the Professor with love. In bed for the evening, with handless timepieces disappeared, the patriarch loves his son and pregnant daughter-in-law and does not die as one expects but smiles on his pillow, blessing life and the joy he had so long denied and, in a long-shot interpretation, even killed.

(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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