Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: Sawdust and Tinsel

★★★★☆

1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel was a financial and critical failure, yet is now considered one of Ingmar Bergman’s early masterpieces. It’s significant for being Bergman’s first collaboration with Sven Nykvist (sharing cinematography duties with Hilding Bladh), but beyond this, there is much to admire and a great deal to love about this imperfect but riveting study of jealousy, betrayal and the nature of performance.

Albert Johansson (Åbe Grönberg) is the ringmaster for a struggling travelling circus. Hoping to visit his wife Agda (Annika Tretow) and three sons after leaving them three years prior, Albert is now in a relationship with the young and beautiful Anne (Harriet Andersson), another member of the circus troupe. It’s a romantic, if hard, life, but on arriving in Agda’s town, the buried resentments and compromises gathered on the road begin to surface.

Sawdust and Tinsel isn’t quite a match for his other great works, but along with prior film Summer With Monika, this is where Bergman discovers the stark, realist aesthetic that define his later masterpieces. The early morning opening on a barren, moody landscape anticipates the rural apocalyptica of The Seventh Seal (as does the final, albeit more optimistic, shot) whereas the cramped 4:3 aspect ratio hems his characters in to a tense, pressurised misé en scene, suggested the unnerving psychological space of Persona. The cluttered confines of Albert’s ramshackle caravan may give way to the empty Swedish countryside, and later to the cobbled streets of a well-heeled town, but the fog of claustrophobia never lifts, driven by a lifetime of regret and compromise, and a clammy under-swell of eroticism centred around the viperish Anne.

On arriving at the town, Albert approaches the local theatre director, Sjuberg (Gunnar Björnstrand) to borrow costumes in order to drum up a much-needed audience for the show. The predatory, self-regarding theatre director looking down his nose on the circus introduces a class dimension that the film never quite gets to grips with, but the theme does provide background texture for the film’s analysis of performativity. All of the film’s main players are actors, but it’s when they’re off stage when they truly perform; explicitly in the circus outfits that the troupe wear to announce their arrival, but also in the finery that Albert and Anne don to go cap in hand to Sjuberg.

Framed through screens and mirrors, Anne’s image is always at one remove from the genuine article. Her sexuality, too, is ambiguous as something both performative and primal. Meanwhile, chained animals are frequently linked to Albert, in particular a miserable bear languishing behind the bars of a cage. We witness the film’s climactic circus show not from the perspective of the audience, but in the pit itself, as if we are one of the performers. Finally, the climax – a bout of fisticuffs between Albert and Sjuberg as the onlookers passively cheer them on – becomes a Bakhtinian carnival where theatre and reality are inverted, becoming indistinguishable from each other. Lacking the coherence of his later films, Sawdust and Tinsel is nevertheless an important moment in Bergman’s career and a captivating piece of cinema.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell