Sawdust and Tinsel- or The Swedish Master, or The Naked Night, take your pick on a title- is about a man who can't stand himself in his profession, but loves it so much at the same time: the low-brow sensibility of it, the wildness, the freedom to cut it loose with drink or with mad gimmicks during a show, and abandon of the rules when confronted with the law. But he also has a love whom he has his problems with, and her with him as well, leading to an infidelity drama that plays out harshly. Ingmar Bergman said this was a personal film for him, in a big sense, because of the connection to the excitement of the profession being played out against personal turmoil and trouble in professional terms (Bergman even said it was easier for a scrawny director to have a "fat actor" play the part of Arthur). It was reviled by critics and a box-office flop- one of the more expensive films, relatively to others, Bergman made up to that point.
It's a film that, seen years later now through the prism of Bergman as one of the world's true artists in the profession, also is deceptively high-brow about the world of low-brow, where experimentation filters in early on and Bergman makes one of his more distinctive marks as a director more-so than a screenwriter (usually, however much Bergman is always an absorbing and challenging director of scenes, writes like no other). The opening scenes, with the story of the sad/pathetic clown Frost (could be a distraction if overdone, but it's an interesting side-not throughout the film as a reminder of true melancholy), are shot like some crazy silent movie, where all we hear are sounds of laughter and little sound effects, brightly lit, shot and composed like some manic tale of desperation and defeat and humiliation, stylized so highly one might think a mad German too control of the reins and made it his own. It's not something all of Bergman's fans will like, but it shows him, even in 1953, trying new things, letting himself be free with the material as he sees fit.
Then, after this, we get into the "typical" Bergmania; a sort of square-block played out between Arthur, who is meeting his ex-wife in the town he's at for the circus performance (the actress playing his wife, I forget her name, is brilliant at displaying just enough pragmatism to show her as the most sane of anyone in the film), and Arthur's current beau Anne is somewhat attracted to a sneaky actor named Frans, who plays a wicked game of arm wrestling and leading to a somewhat Albert and Anne, and how this casts a dark shadow on the rest of the proceedings- including through the circus performance, which becomes a daring act of do by Bergman where he makes things effective once squaring in on the 'duel' between Arthur and Frans. For those that love Bergman doing relationship drama, this is solid, if not exceptional, stuff on display. And the ending, truth be told, might just be one of the most engrossing, and completely bleak (if you could imagine that Bergmanites) that he ever made (who doesn't cry with the scene with the bear?)
It might sound like Bergman has made a depressing little tome on circus life, the sorrows of living with the filth and lice and reckless frivolity of life as vagabond entertainers. But it's also a lot of fun, as the low-brow material displays another side to Bergman, which is something close to weird, comic excess. Sometimes Bergman even mocks his own world; a scene with Albert asking Gunnar Bjornstrand's theater director (the latter always shown in low-angle, a smart choice) makes the theater come off satirically compared to Bergman's more serious treatments of the profession in his films. And, seriously, where else will we get a dwarf tossing in a work by this filmmaker? And meanwhile, he also has a great turn from his would-be Emil Jannings in Åke Grönberg, who is big and over-emotional and strung-out on his excesses of anger and resentment, mostly with himself (watch for that gun!) And Andersson, of course, is ravishing as she was- if not erotically as such- in Monika, filmed the same year.
Now finally available just a bit easier than previously thanks to Criterion, Sawdust and Tinsel is a fine spectacle of a director branching out stylistically (if not to the spectacular Felliniesque aspirations it might have as a pre La Strada or The Clowns), while keeping his feet tethered to his personal cinema. Not quite in my top 10 of Bergman's, but considering how many great films he made it's close.
9 out of 10 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.