Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sawdust & Tinsel

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from years of watching Bergman films, it’s that I never want to go to Sweden. You hear interest groups complain all the time about the poor treatment Arabs or blacks get in the cinema, but you never hear anyone talk about the decades of negative portrayals the Swedes have gotten at the hands of their resident pessimist Ingmar. All that I know of Swedish people is from these movies, and they are all filled with miserable, negative people that go around actively engaged in the pursuit of making themselves and everyone around them more miserable. That level of psychic damage can irreparably harm a nation, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the Germans what the psychic trauma of knowing they were the bad guys in two successive world wars did to their appreciation of pornography.

While Bergman had made some decent movies before this, it was here, with his (appropriately enough) thirteenth film, where he really came into his own. His familiar themes of depression and humiliation come to the fore here, as he follows a circus troupe that seems to be on its last legs as it arrives at a new town in search of the money it desperately needs to continue. Along their way, they find adversity in the form of pretty much everyone they encounter, up to and including each other. The ringleader of the show, Albert, and his wife Anne make up the main part of the film, as the two are constantly fighting for one-upsmanship in their relationship, which I think you’ll agree is always the sign of a happy couple.

The best, and certainly most easily quotable, example of their humiliation comes when Albert and his wife visit the town’s lecherous theater director hoping to borrow some of his costumes for their show that night. The director openly despises them for being the bottom rung of the entertainer ladder, and has no problem telling them so, in a searing speech in which he explains that he insults them because they let him, and that “you only risk your lives. We risk our pride,” before letting them go. This may all seem a tad harsh, but when you see how abysmal their show actually is, you’ll begin to understand.

I can’t honestly say this ranks up there with Bergman’s best works. It lacks the gravitas of such masterpieces as The Seventh Seal or Persona, as its main insight into the human condition is that we’re all a bunch of creeps, wading through the miasma of pain that is life. Frankly, I could have gotten that from almost every other film of his. For what it is, though, it is very good. This film will only appeal to a pretty select group of people, and if you’ve read this far, you probably already know if you’re part of that select group.

Rating: ***

No comments: