Monday, 14 May 2007

Emma J Lennox reviews her ten favourite films, Part 2

Wild Strawberries
Sweden 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman

Runtime: 91 mins
Certificate: 15
DVD Distributor: Tartan Video

There is no better genre to highlight the correlation between film and existential philosophy than the road movie, and Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) is an excellent example. Existentialism is a philosophy based on the momentary experience; it is about spontaneity, the cause and effect of the irrational, the feelings, emotions and decisions of an individual. In films the road becomes a metaphor personal and spiritual journeys. This melancholic and picaresque story follows 78 year old Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) as he travels to Lund to be awarded an honorary degree after 50 years in the medical profession. It begins with a disturbing dream, similar to a short avant guard film, which includes symbolism of time and death; a theme of fear which is continued throughout. After this dream Borg decides to drive to the ceremony instead of taking the plane. As Borg travels, so do the audience with a lyrical camera style which sweeps us along from inner thought to nightmares to moments in the past or present. A close eye line also helps the audience identify with Borg as he suffers the anxiety of regret and loneliness whilst dreams and reality merge on the road. “I'm trying to tell myself something I don't want to hear when I'm awake,” he tells his daughter in law, “that I'm dead, even though I'm alive.” But through his travelling, and connecting with people, Borg is able to come to terms with the tragedies and disappointments in his life. The final image; a beautiful memory of his parents on the bank of a river on an idyllic day, is such a contrast to previous disturbing images that it is profoundly and deeply moving.

Japan 1952
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Shinobu Hashimoto & Akira Kurosawa

Runtime: 142 mins
Certificate: PG
DVD Distributor: BFI DVD

“Men are fools, they only realise life's true beauty when faced with death.” This line could have been uttered in Wild Strawberries yet it came five years earlier in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952); an unsentimental portrait of a man; his life, his work and his family. Looking at my list so far there is a theme of enduring beauty against the transgressions of humankind but Ikiru (which means 'living') shows that the actions of one man can have a positive effect and make his life, and his death meaningful.

There is a dramatic change in perspective which divides the film into two sections; the first follows Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) as he discovers he has a terminal illness, the second is the judgement of Watanabe after his death. Like Wild Strawberries the camera is fluid and match cuts between the past and present as Watanabe's life compresses before his eyes. Kurosawa uses slow fade transitions to juxtapose images or sounds often with heavy irony, including using a refrain of 'happy birthday' before the line 'five months later our hero died.'

It is a humble film which depicts a flawed character in the turmoil of the meaning of life. The answer takes an existential form similar to Victor E Frankl's school of thought; 'ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by being responsible.' Each shot holds within it a kinetic energy and the film itself appears to dance to Watanabe's favourite ballad 'life is brief'. Not least in Watanabe's final moments; the famous playground scene, where the movement of the swing evokes joy and redemption, in my opinion, the most fulfilling denouement in cinema.

Read Part 3 tomorrow!

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