Sawdust & Tinsel (1953, Ingmar Bergman)

“A pity people must live. I feel sorry for them.” What is it with the mid-1950’s and depressing circus movies? This obviously aimed to completely bum out anyone who finds joy or delight at a circus, then if cinemagoers weren’t yet convinced, along came La Strada the following year to make sure we’d forever equate the circus with death and disappointment.

A shitty circus sputters into the town where ringmaster Albert (Åke Grönberg of A Lesson in Love) left behind his wife and kids. He’s now with Anna (Harriet Andersson, star of Monika and Through a Glass Darkly), who doesn’t like him visiting the family, so she sneaks off with the pointy-sideburned actor Frans (Hasse Ekman, a writer/director also in Bergman’s Thirst and Prison), whose theater (run by Winter Light star Gunnar Bjornstrand) has lent the circus costumes while they’re in town. Albert and Anna would both desperately like to leave their horrible circus, and Albert even attempts suicide (similar ending to Smiles of a Summer Night) but in the end, they sadly roll back out of town together.

Anna and the actor:

Anna and the ringmaster:

Near the beginning is one of Bergman’s most intense dream/flashback sequences, in which humiliated clown Frost (Anders Ek, a priest in Cries & Whispers) “rescues” his wife (Gudrun Brost, Hour of the Wolf) who is bathing nude at the beach, putting on a show for an army regiment.

Wonderful quote from Catherine Breillat, which could apply to any great film:

All of the images I am describing, more than forty years later, I can see again with the absolute precision of black and white, the light and the specific, almost incandescent definition. But perhaps I am inventing them, perhaps I was able to understand the film only as it related to me, in a selfish and fragmentary manner. Who cares! … What does it matter if I make up stories — the importance of works is not only in their objectivity but even more so in their elemental power.

John Simon:

Fine as the Swedish filmmaker’s earlier outings were, here, in his thirteenth film, Bergman gazed deeper than ever into the human soul, depicting it with greater artistry. The sparring spouses in his 1949 film Thirst have their Strindbergian fascination, but the empathy in Sawdust and Tinsel is more profound, the suffering more shattering, the Pyrrhic victories (such as the film’s ending) more moving. Stylistically, one of the ways Bergman achieved this was by using a greater number of close-ups of the human face, which would continue to fascinate the filmmaker above all else throughout his career.

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