SAWDUST AND TINSEL (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

Arty, lame, masochistic, mean-spirited, Gycklarnas afton—literally, Twilight of a Clown, but provocatively titled in the U.S., originally, The Naked Night—reminds us why we disliked Ingmar Bergman even as we liked some of his films. This was one sick puppy, and (despite his pathetic protests to the contrary) it is not his father who was to blame.
     Writer-director Bergman’s film, set in late nineteenth-century Sweden, begins well. A long-shot of a circus caravan advancing across a hilly horizon under the weight of voluminous sky yields to a closer view: the caravan upside down—its reflection in water as it crosses a bridge. The camera rises, as though the exhalation of breath of a drowning soul, to frame again the “reality,” the material caravan. A point-of-view shot through woods yields to the driver of one of the carriages, singing. Horse; wheels; windmill; driver again; cages; “Alberti Circus.” Ringmaster Albert (Åke Grönberg, excellent) wakes up inside his carriage, looks at his ticking clock. The married man’s young mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson, also excellent), sleeping in their bed, is upside-down in the frame as rotund Albert and his shadow lean in on her. After kissing Anne, Albert rises from this (implicitly) projective reflection of her and joins the “reality” of the singing driver, who flashes back seven years, as though hopeful that the deteriorating enterprise’s length of bad luck has finally run its course. Seven years ago, soldiers here were performing artillery exercises—if you will, like the circus, a form of theater. We hear music and the boom of cannons; the rest is silence. Flirtatious (though “long in the tooth”) Alma, the circus bear-tamer, undresses and frolics with soldiers in the water. Her husband, Frost the clown, in his makeup and under his comical conical cap, is brought to the scene by circus compatriots. Amidst the heard cacophonous laughter of the idiot soldiers, Frost undresses; kicking off his pants hindways, he resembles a horse. Having retrieved his wife, he carries her away (Alma, whose bare feet dangle, is his Cross), his bare feet on stones, in closeup, evoking the ordeal of Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion. Frost collapses—Bergman’s mockery of Christian faith. (Daddy Dearest again.) Alma blames her buttinsky circus compatriots for this wrecking outcome. I blame the sun, to which in gleeful overexposure the camera continually rises and scenes fade out.
     What heavy-handed irony that Albert is now shown to have been dozing through the driver’s reminiscence; for the rest of the film details Albert’s own public humiliations and demoralization. Really, it is all beating a dead horse.

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