Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman (uncredited)
Starring: Åke Grönberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek, Gudrun Brost
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
I’m ashamed to say, I still have some way to go in working through the films of Ingmar Bergman. I put off watching any of them for a while due to the stereotypical image of them being very dour and cerebral. Once I finally dipped my toe into his work though, I cursed myself for not doing so sooner. Yes, some of what I’ve watched has been bleak and hardly easy going, but his status as a master filmmaker is undeniable. In the US, Criterion have released what looks to be one of the finest Blu-Ray box sets ever put together, in their ‘Ingmar Berman’s Cinema’ collection. Being region-free and on sale at half price for a good month or so, I was very tempted to pick it up, but tight funds around the build-up to Christmas wouldn’t allow it. Luckily, Criterion are releasing Sawdust and Tinsel in the UK. It’s thought to be one of Bergman’s first masterpieces, so at least I had some sort of consolation. Hopefully this is the first of a string of Bergman titles getting the HD treatment they deserve over here.
Sawdust and Tinsel is set in the world of a travelling circus. It opens by presenting us with a slightly surreal flashback to when clown Frost (Anders Ek) caught his wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) bathing naked with a regiment of army troops. We then shift most of our focus to circus ringmaster/manager Albert (Åke Grönberg) and his mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson). The troupe arrive in the town where Albert’s estranged wife and two sons live and he decides to pay them a visit. Anne is not happy about this and is manipulatively drawn to the arms of cruel actor Frans (Hasse Ekman). Both Albert and Anne have had enough of their transient lives in which they are shown little respect, so try to find footholds in these alternatives, but are doomed to fail.
The story and characters are largely quite ugly and grotesque, not necessarily in the visual sense (Anne is particularly attractive), but in what they do or what happens to them, as well as in the strange world of the circus. It’s a film about humiliation and shame, which are not pleasant subjects. As such, on top of being quite a grim watch, it feels ahead of its time. Tackling complex and dark relationships and discussing sex fairly frankly, it’s a far cry from the sanitised romances in Hollywood during the early 50s. It’s a very human drama too, with believably flawed characters, despite the vaguely surreal setting of the circus.
The film isn’t quite all doom and gloom either. There’s some Earthy humour between the circus folk, although most of the troupe have their share of problems. The circus performance scenes themselves don’t offer much recompense, with a hint of melancholy lying beneath them due to the fact we know the performers have had enough and are struggling to make ends meet. There are some very subtle blackly comic sequences though, such as Frost’s humorous reactions when trying to deal with what seems to be a suicide attempt by Albert.
On the other hand, I found the scenes between Albert and his family heartbreaking. His wife has moved on and is now more successful and happy than him, which makes Albert long to be part of her world again, but she doesn’t want him polluting it any more. Elsewhere the film didn’t get to me though. I often struggle with relationship dramas about infidelity, shame and jealousy. Perhaps I’ve not been involved in enough of that in my life to connect, or I simply wasn’t in the mood to watch such a film, but for whatever reason, it never clicked for me. It’s a vague reason for criticising a film perhaps, but it’s the only way I can describe why I haven’t given it a higher rating here, despite my praise for much of it.
Indeed there is more to praise too. Being a Bergman film, it is finely crafted and looks gorgeous. Shot in black and white, often making good use of high contrast lighting/situations, it’s a visual treat without looking overly stylised or artificial (other than in a couple of sequences when Bergman wants it to seem unreal). The performances are first class too, often a little larger than life to fit the circus and stage setting, but otherwise naturalistic and engaging.
There’s a highly effective score by Karl-Birger Blomdahl too, which mixes typical circus music with darkly foreboding, abstract cues. Like the subject matter, it helps the film feel like it was made a decade or two later in its modern approach.
All in all then, it’s a bleak and intimate tale that’s ahead of its time. It’s not a film I particularly warmed to I’m afraid (hence the lukewarm rating), but it shows early signs of Bergman’s genius. His visual prowess and sombre but human worldview particularly come to the fore. I’m still eager to dig deeper into his work, that’s for sure.
Sawdust and Tinsel is out on 7th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The audio and visual transfer is excellent, as is to be expected from the label.
There are a few special features included too:
- 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
The Bergman introduction is very short, so not particularly illuminating, but describes the poor reception the film received on its original release. The commentary, on the other hand, is extremely rich and detailed, so comes highly recommended to those who like to dig a bit deeper into their films.