Before we witness lulling images of a circus caravan wobbling under a dim, rainy Scandinavian sky, before we’re privy to the ongoing love affair between the plump circus owner and his beguiling horseback-riding mistress, before we’re drawn into the rotunda of humiliations and grappling with the impossibility of love, the fanciful opening titles of Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel describe what proceeds as “a broadside ballad on film.” It brings into question the true nature of broad entertainment, what tumultuous personas prop it up, and why, perhaps above all, we’re attracted to their grotesque faces, gaudy spectacle and hysterical laughter. In escapism there is always the shadow of whatever it is we’re trying to escape.
Released in 1953, Sawdust and Tinsel, written and directed by a young filmmaker still struggling for respect in his native Sweden and waiting for that crucial applause from abroad, drifts through the floating world of nomadic entertainers to observe their own particular brand of ordinary madness. The first event is a flashback set on a beach pebbled with soldiers, the image overexposed to evoke the blasted-out feeling of a painful memory. It features an elder member of the circus, the striking but already middle-aged Alma, swimming naked for the amusement of the grunts. Her husband, a gawky clown, comes to remove her from this salacious audience but, when he returns from the sea with his naked spouse cradled awkwardly in his skinny arms, their clothes have been hidden, and he must stumble along the rocky shore to a chorus of laughter.
The scene introduces only minor characters but announcing the major theme: the shame that befalls couples seeking the attention and desires of outsiders yet unable to part from each other. The actual protagonists, Albert (Åke Grönberg) and Anne (the delectable Harriet Andersson), both want to run away from the circus, not to mention each other. Having set up in the town where his abandoned wife and kids reside, Albert will be compelled to return to them and embrace domestic bliss, while Anne will retaliate by courting the local theatre and submitting to the sexual proposition of its lead actor. Yet they cannot escape the circus ring, where marriage must play itself out for better or for worse. Theirs is a poetic, resonant dance of love and its inherent unease, set to seductive images, particularly of mirrors and faces, which Bergman would here begin to close in on with increasingly obsessive focus.
Criterion’s DVD of Sawdust and Tinsel is a highly significant release for enthusiasts whose knowledge of the late master’s work doesn’t predate his initial triumphs Smiles on a Summer Night or The Seventh Seal. Here, we see an auteur finding his mature voice, not to mention the cinematographer who would come to be his greatest stylistic collaborator, Sven Nykvist. The disc features an excellent commentary from Peter Cowie, a short intro from Bergman, and essays from John Simon and Catherine Breillat.