This is the first Bergman film I’ve seen in a little while and it’s pretty awesome. Pre-Smiles of a Summer Night, Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, it’s pretty early in his filmography and, while many of what will become his full-fledged stylistic traits are evident, there are some influences here that seemed to wane as he developed as a filmmaker.
The film follows a down-and-out carnival run by Albert (Åke Edvard Grönberg) and his wife Anne (Bergman-regular Harriet Andersson). It charts their infidelities, run-ins with a rival, particularly lascivious theater group, and general angst. The raw emotions, stark close-ups (Sven Nykvist shot it), and human torment are pure Bergman.
The film opens with a flashback involving two current carnival performers in what becomes a metaphor for Albert and Anne’s relationship. This sequence in particular has a style reminiscent of Soviet Montage and German Expressionist films – quick, grotesque cuts, canted angles, harsh light. The emotion at play is decidedly Bergman, but the style feels strange for someone more familiar with his later filmography. It feels less theatrical – which, ironically, would make some of his later stuff great – but not purely filmic. It’s choppy, and intentionally so, adding to the awkward and embarrassing act of adultery we are forced to watch.
Once we return to the normal narrative the style shifts. While not as dominated by the close-up as his later films, the shot is still given preference over other frame-sizes in Sawdust and Tinsel. There is some tense and very effective blocking, too. Consider a scene where Anne and Albert visit the theater group led by Mr. Sjuberg (Gunnar Bjornstrand). In a series of highly inflected long takes (with inflected here, read: biased angles) Bergman blocks Sjuberg strategically between Anne and Albert as he humiliates both of them and blatantly flirts with Anne. The movement is slight, but as Sjuberg paces back and forth, and Bergman’s camera, framed at a low angle, looks up, his actions seem to become serpentine, his movements a sly, winking dance.
There’s another technique that’s very effective in here. Bergman has always like silences, and in here he finds the juxtaposition of extreme sound and extreme silence uniquely useful. Consider the early flashback scene, as well as a later, brutal to watch, fight scene between Albert and the man whom Anne has cheated on him with, Frans (Hasse Ekman). Both scenes have something in common: large crowds watching two people publicly humiliate themselves. In both scenes the tone is derisive. And in both scenes, Bergman punctuates the flow of emotion by following loud bursts of laughter and mockery with silence so extreme as to be almost absolute. Similar to the aforementioned choppy editing, it makes the scenes all the more uncomfortable. We’re placed in the ring with the characters (the loud noise) and then in their heads (the silence)…or you can reverse that. Either way these are powerful moments.
Of course Nykvist’s cinematography is gorgeous. The sequence just before Anne’s infidelity is breathtaking (it’s also the cover of the Criterion DVD). She stands alone on stage in wide-shot. The lights gradually go down until she is lit solely by a lone bulb hanging above her. Bergman cuts to a close-up and she is framed in a bare, chiaroscuro image. The aesthetics reflect her decision process. The next series of shots – dollies back, mirror shots, extreme low angles – are full of trickery and further enhance the fact that she is walking a slippery slope to what could well be the end of she and Albert. It’s a scary moment but also heart-stopping in its visual power.
Bergman has three lead females in this film: Anne, Agda (Annika Tretow), Albert’s former wife whom he visits, and Alma (Gudrub Brost), the subject of the opening flashback. Three A’s – Anne, Agda, and Alma. Each woman is presented as flawed, though Agda is perhaps the strongest. She lives alone, refuses to allow Albert to return even when he begs, and is the bigger person is a scene that could easily devolve into a loud argument. Alma is rather complex given her limited screentime. At the outset of the film she oscillates rapidly between embracing the lustful cheers of a group of soldiers watching her swim naked and then terror at their advances (and perhaps more so at the fact that her husband shows up). Later she is portrayed as broken: all she has left in the world is the dying circus bear. Anne fits squarely between them. She stands by Albert for much of the film, and only cheats on him in a scene of near-rape, and possibly when she sees a way out of the carnival. The women function as a composite and, in some way, anticipate Bergman’s furthering of this idea in a film like Persona.