Sawdust & Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton, 1953) is one of my favorite Bergman films. He displays an extraordinary cinematography in this intensive, brutal, bizarre and burlesque film. The first minutes could have been the minutes of a Fellini’s film too, if it wouldn’t have been for the filming way, the cold atmosphere. Bergman shows us the circus life scarcity and decadence as in The Clowns (1970) by the Italian director.
Alma Frost, the clown’s wife, is undressing in front of a bunch of soldiers. Frost, followed by the circus troupe, goes to make her back. Frost the clown is such a weak, poor thing. He swims into the sea to rescue her. She seems to be ashamed, as if she would have been out of her mind for a moment. Everybody is laughing at them. Frost is crying. The shabby make up makes them look grotesque. Frost carries his wife walking barefoot on the stones at the rhythm of a drum. Finally, Frost falls down defeated and they have to carry his body too. It is so intense his master performance. This first part of the film reminds the mute cinema. No much is needed to say but to see.
Circus Albert is having a hard time. They have left their costumes behind. They have a bear which starves… Albert -the Circus director- dreams with America, where he says circus is a good business.
Bergman’s interest in the theatre began early, when he was only a child. Some episodes in Sawdust & Tinsel are performed in a theatrical way more than in a cinematographic way. There are two main themes on the movie: the theatre versus the circus and the humiliation. The self-humiliation, others humiliation, is like a thin thread that connect the characters.
The arrogant theatre director does not hesitate to humiliate the circus director when he swallowed his pride asking to borrow some costumes -knowing they are just a bit upper class than them. The film –as it always happens with Bergman cinema- has a powerful, meaningful script. The theatre director makes a comparison between both worlds: “You live in caravans. We stay in filthy hotels. We make art. You make artifice. The lowest of us would spit on the best of you. Why? You only risk your life. We risk our pride.” He goes on with the description of both worlds adding theatre has a shabby elegance, painted faces, pretentious speech… meanwhile, circus smells stable, carries diseases, lice and fleas.
Another of the intense moments of the film comes when Frost came in Albert’s caravan after he has been driven mad cause Anna’s infidelity. Albert has conflicting emotions between his chaotic passion –the circus-, and the security -a respectable life. His feelings are represented by the two women of his life: Anne and Agda. Then, it comes the turn of a highly theatrical representation of this two circus characters inside the caravan. Both of them are sick of the circus, both are drunk.
Albert: “But now I am going to rise up and do something worthy of a human being”.
Frost (the clown): “You mean kill yourself?”
A: “I didn’t say that!”
F: “You ought to shoot the beard. It’s in a bad way.”
A: “Yes, I ought to shoot the beard.”
F: “And don’t forget to shoot my wife too. It would be an act of kindness.”
A: “Just five or six people… I should shoot you too, my dear Frost!”
F: “But I have my poor old dad to care for!”
A: “Are you afraid?”
F: “No! Yes, I am.”
A: “Afraid to die?”
A: “Well, I’m not afraid of death.”
F: “Then, kill yourself!”
A: “No! It’s hot in here!”
F: “Yes, let’s get out! Open the door!”
The film got mixed reviews and some hard criticism. Bergman said: “I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding”. And this is a film to feel.
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