24th Jan2019

‘Sawdust and Tinsel’ Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Åke Grönberg, Harriet Andersson, Erik Strandmark, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek | Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

sawdust-tinsel-blu

In Skane, a county in southern Sweden, the bedraggled Alberti Circus caravan trundles through the rain and mud. They’ve had to leave half their costumes behind and they’re running out of food. Leader Albert (Åke Grönberg) is seriously considering shooting their performing bear for food. They stop off in a small town, where potential respite comes in the form of the Sjuberg Theatre Group. But it will also create a rift between Albert and his young mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson). Albert’s wife and kids live nearby and he wants to drop them a visit. Gripped by jealousy, Anne hooks up with a lascivious actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman), from the Sjuberg troupe.

The fallout is toxic. It turns out both Albert and Anne just want to leave the nomadic circus life and settle down. But neither Albert’s wife or Anne’s lover are prepared to go there, so Albert and Anne are thrust back together, armed with red-hot revelations and resentments. With the dressing room poisoned, can the Alberti Circus pull off one final, triumphant gala performance and rejuvenate their brand?

This being an Ingmar Bergman film, I wouldn’t bank on it. Made in 1953, before Bergman’s dazzling home run starting later that decade, there are hints of The Seventh Seal in the rough, rural setting and the absurdist humour (at his lowest ebb, Albert even does a bit of drunken midget-tossing); and Bergman’s penchant for capturing extreme human emotion in uncomfortable closeup is right there.

As far as storytelling goes, though, it’s more of a mixed bag. Inexplicably, the film opens with a subplot where Frost the clown (Anders Ek) rescues his wife (Gudrun Brost) from a squad of leering soldiers on a beach. As a prologue it’s artfully shot and intriguingly soundless, but it feels like it’ll go on forever, and turns out to be superfluous once the main plot kicks in.

Bergman has never been one for straight-laced heroes, but here his cast of misfits dive to new depths of flawed. What Anne sees in the oafish, ungrateful, aggressive, cruel and charmless Albert is anyone’s guess. But Anne isn’t much better herself: manipulative, moody, possessive and fickle. Bergman is great at depicting relational burnout; less so the part where the relationship burns bright, thus why it should matter to us.

A film needn’t feature sympathetic characters, but we need a route to empathy. Here, what prevents us from walking in the shoes of Bergman’s characters is that they put themselves into their position of crisis consciously. It’s not like they were plunged into an unavoidable scenario and had their relationships tested; therefore there is more stupidity than tragedy in their predicament.

Essentially Sawdust and Tinsel is about two people – Albert and Anne – who are failing to communicate. That they’re part of a circus seems thematically irrelevant beyond the fact that it’s a life both wants to escape. The climactic gala performance – an event that another filmmaker might treat as a redemptive opportunity – is a dreary and humourless affair, offering little in the way of resolution. It also includes one of the silliest and least convincing fight scenes ever committed to film.

Those final moments are indicative of the general level of humour throughout, which is rarely subtle and frequently revels in the grotesque. But then, I suppose this is in keeping with the original Swedish title, Gycklarnas afton, which literally translates as “The Evening of the Jesters”.

Bergman calls his film a “broadside ballad” – referring to a now-obsolete type of document which in ye olde days would be printed with a poem or song. He brings this folktale sensibility to Sawdust and Tinsel, and it does achieve a certain bawdy atmosphere. It’s beautifully lit, especially in the silhouette-heavy night-time scenes, and his range of shooting lengths is as varied and impressive as ever. If only the story and characters could match his style, then we might have had a hidden classic on our hands.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie
  • Introduction by Bergman from 2003
  • PLUS: An essay by critic John Simon

Sawdust and Tinsel is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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