Sawdust and Tinsel: Criterion Collection

I had a dream this afternoon while I slept off the booze. I dreamt that Alma came to me and said, “Poor Frost, you look tired and sad. Wouldn’t you like to rest a while?” “Yes”, I said. “I’ll make you [as] small as a little, unborn child”, she said. “You can climb into my womb and sleep in peace”. So I did as she said and crept inside her womb, and I slept there so soundly and peacefully, rocked to sleep as if in a cradle. Then I got smaller and smaller, until at last I was just a tiny seed, and then I was gone.

The head clown of a traveling circus, Frost (Anders Ek), matter-of-factly and apropos of nothing relates the dream of his wife induced by a drunken haze to the circus’s owner, Albert (Åke Grönberg), as they slowly walk behind the caravan of wagons traveling in the crepuscular light of the evening at the close of Ingmar Bergman’s remarkable early film Sawdust and Tinsel. (It is early in the sense that it predates his masterpieces and first great successes, Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, but it is already his 13th cinematic effort.) Albert listens with a distracted air that recalls his attitude at the beginning of the film, when another carnie told him a tale that also involved poor Frost and his wife.

In this tale, Alma (Gudrun Brost), in her vanity or foolishness or some amalgam of both, decides to bathe nude in the sea in full view of an entire regiment of soldiers, who were practicing firing off their canons. Bergman drives the grotesque phallic symbolism of the scene home by having Alma undress while appearing to be in the line of increasingly erratic fire. Frost, hearing of his wife’s indiscretions, rushes to the beach to find Alma cavorting in the waves with a few men while the great majority of the soldiers serve as an audience. They point and jeer and laugh uproariously. Frost calls out to his wife but we cannot hear his words, only the wonderfully jarring score (at this moment, a bizarrely dissonant imitation of a Sousa March) by Karl-Birger Blomdahl and the cruel laughter of the soldiers.

Bergman shoots the scene in a manner radically different from the remainder of the film. The screen is bleached out by the impossibly harsh radiance of the pitiless sunlight, which gleams off of the white rocks and sand to produce an irremediable sterility that haunts this account of Frost’s degradation. The exaggerated gestures, the extreme close-ups, and the stylized rhythm of the montage of images derive from Bergman’s admiration for the films of Eisenstein and the masterpieces of German Expressionism. The use to which Bergman puts these devices, however, is wholly his own. While it may be something of an exaggeration, John Simon is not totally unjustified in his claim, contained in his essay “The Lower Depths” included in the liner notes, that Sawdust and Tinsel was Bergman’s first film “that no other director could have made”.

The stark surrealism of Bergman’s vision here emphasizes the introduction of the main theme of the film: an almost primal opposition between man and woman with respect to their sexual needs and desires. In claiming this to be the film’s driving force, I am, of course, breaking with the critical consensus (reinforced by Simon’s essay and Peter Cowie’s wonderful commentary included as an extra on the DVD) that Sawdust and Tinsel treats the theme of humiliation. However, the beautiful new edition of this film by Criterion Collection invites reconsideration of the received view.

In part, the need for reconsideration derives from the fact that this film (although it is certainly one of the most important in terms of Bergman’s development as a director) has been largely unavailable or available in rather poor prints. This release marks the first time that one can see a clear print of the film, and its first release on DVD. Therefore, the time is ripe for taking a fresh look at this wonderful work. And, as I hope briefly to demonstrate in this review, humiliation is merely a manifestation of that oppositional relationship between man and woman that Bergman explores here and which finds its necessary complement in expressions of comfort.

Bergman masterfully illustrates this archetypal tension between man and woman in the scene of Frost’s humiliation. Frost’s face, framed in tight close-up, is inscribed with the dark ironies that play themselves out in his predicament. Dressed in his clown costume, his face caked with white makeup, Frost appears unworldly; his craggy features seem etched in implacable stone. The music ends and the horror of Frost’s expression shocks the jeering crowd into a momentary, stunned silence. He strips off his costume revealing his ridiculous undergarments and gets into the water. The crowd experiences another paroxysm of laughter but continually fall back into a hushed and observant silence. The absence of sound heightens the monumentality of the moment. Frost pulls Alma from the sea. Their clothes have been spirited away and the clown carries his naked wife over the sharp stones away from the beach, his fellow carnies trailing behind him in an eerie reimagining of Christ’s trek at Calgary.

We see his mouth in motion but again we cannot hear the words. We cannot tell if he is castigating or comforting his wife. His burden becomes too great and he collapses. Alma harangues the other carnies for their lack of concern. Thus Alma shifts from the lewd cause of public humiliation to the source of an eroticized maternal love while Frost changes from a ludicrous protector of marital honor to a dismal object of pity, the image of his limp body hoisted by the carnies reverberating with the traditional iconography of Christ’s descent from the cross.

The carnie ends his narration with the dismissive quip, “That’s a woman and love for you”. However, his nonchalant flippancy masks the early revelation of the film’s true theme. The strange narrative of Frost’s unfortunate marital incident reveals the vision of love between man and woman that this film promotes. A man and a woman in love are inextricably locked in a battle over their sexual need and desirability, their contradictory longings for sexual security and illicit erotic danger, and their irreconcilable desires to be both fiercely independent and yet wholly bound up in the other person. Couples in this film draw blood in order to feel the human warmth left behind by bruises. They humiliate each other less as a means to exert dominance than as a way of reinforcing their sexual and emotional bonds (or bondage, if you prefer); in the act of humiliating the other, the lovers degrade themselves and thus the couple becomes something ever further apart from the remainder of the world. They become increasingly isolated, left to their own devices. They become more themselves.

Love in this film is parasitic. It feeds off of the weakness and strength of the lovers. They console and comfort, they chastise and curse because they know the pain that love brings. They recognize the pain because they inflict it on themselves and on the loved one in the very act of being in love. But without this love, as savage as it may appear, life is meaningless and empty. And so the lovers continue to risk their egos, their sense of security, their peace of mind because, ultimately, they realize that it is well worth the risk. Indeed, in a world so bleak that one character laments that people have to bother to live in it at all, love may be the only thing worth the risk.

The central couple of the film is Albert, the circus owner, and his young mistress, Anne (a truly beguiling Harriet Andersson, who manages to combine youthful innocence and seductive allure). The circus arrives in the town where Albert’s wife and children (whom he abandoned years ago) live and operate a tobacco shop. Anne worries that Albert will return to his family, thus exchanging the travails of circus life for the security of bourgeois life. Indeed, this is precisely what Albert has in mind. He asks his wife for permission to return but she denies him. She refuses to let anyone disturb her peace of mind. Albert must have known, however, that his bourgeois escape would never have worked. He enjoys having his wife serve him a meal and capably mend his coat. He marvels at the quiescence that surrounds her home. She claims that her quiet life means fulfillment to her. He experiences it as emptiness.

Albert’s estranged wife has found fulfillment in being alone. It is a fulfillment without risk, a sense of belonging wholly to oneself because one belongs to no one else. It is a fulfillment without love. For Albert, who craves love with all of its messy entanglements, this kind of life can only be empty. He might have been willing to exchange the vicissitudes of traveling life for the insipid security of the small village but he would have been unhappy. It would, of course, be an unhappiness without misery but this would still be more than Albert could stand for long. He requires misery to be happy because misery in this film is concomitant with love.

When he returns, he finds that Anne has been unfaithful in an attempt to get away from Albert and the circus. Both of them have half-heartedly sought escape only to be forced (or, perhaps, allowed) to return. Albert rails against this fate a little longer. He fights with the man who seduced Anne in a vain attempt to defend her honor or, more likely, his own and he is roundly beaten. He threatens suicide but only succeeds in reducing himself to a slobbering idiot. He then kills a bear, an act we witness more or less from the bear’s point of view. Thus we see it for what it is: an act of impotence but all the same, an act. Having purged himself of the need for some kind of violent expression of his inability to extricate himself from a situation he could not stand to leave anyway, Albert is ready to lead the circus forward.

It is at this point that we hear of Frost’s dream, the account that serves as the epigraph to this review. It perfectly encapsulates the struggle between man and woman that has driven the entire film. Frost desires maternal comfort from his wife but that motherly care threatens to reduce him to a mere nothing. It is only by opposing the comforting aspects of his marriage with moments of cruelty, humiliation, and pure resistance that he manages to prevent his own obliteration. The trick of the love relationship is that two become one and yet somehow remain two. This is the impossibility that love demands. The couple remains two individuals in an uneasy alliance that they both vitally need and yet must resist if they are not to lose themselves altogether. It strikes one as a rather bleak understanding of love.

And yet, the true miracle of Sawdust and Tinsel is not its Strindbergian take on the sadism/masochism of the love relationship, but rather that Bergman is able to delve into this subject matter and yet maintain a comic edge. In the end, and despite the common take on the film, Sawdust and Tinsel is a comedy. A comedy ends in reunion (traditionally, the reunion of lovers who suffered a misunderstanding and finally come together in marriage) and that is what occurs at the end of this film (without the marriage, of course). Alma calls to Frost, telling him to stop babbling and come to bed. Frost giggles, shrugs his shoulders, and tells Albert that Alma cannot sleep without him. They squabble, they shame each other, but they continue to desire each other, to comfort and console. As Albert continues to follow the wagons, he sees Anne. They stand still and stare into each other’s eyes. Slowly their visages reveal the hint of a smile. They are a couple again. They will continue to comfort and taunt each other. They will continue to enfold themselves within the other and desperately to pull away. In short, they will remain miserably in love. Despite all of the bitter recriminations, neither of them tried that hard to get away.

RATING 8 / 10