Sight and Sound - 01/01/2008
"[O]ne of his richest and most revealing films....There's something admirable about his stoicism and his continuing faith in the shabby glamour of circus life."
Ingmar Bergman's SAWDUST AND TINSEL bears a resemblance to his later, better-known features in its harsh treatment of human relationships. Jealousy, lovers taking turns humiliating one other, selfish sexual desire--all these are familiar themes that would be developed further by Bergman later on, but the film's final moments seem to hold a rare promise of reconciliation. Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg) is a sad, pathetic man who has given up domestic tranquillity for an uncertain life on the road as the director of the traveling Circus Alberti. Since leaving his wife and children, he has taken up with young bareback rider Anne (Harriet Andersson, who often played sexy, earthy characters in Bergman movies of the period). In Albert's old hometown the couple approaches the haughty director of a local theater company (Gunnar Björnstrand) to borrow props and costumes for the night's performance. Anne falls for the dandylike ham actor Frans (Hasse Ekman), who subsequently insults Albert in public, and a physical confrontation between the two men ensues. The film is formally captivating throughout and contains a celebrated, somewhat surreal flashback sequence early on, reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema, in which a white-faced clown (played by Anders Ek) suffers a breakdown after being confronted with his wife's infidelity.
The circus is the backdrop for this story of a woman who falls for the gaudy charm of a small-town actor. Ingmar Bergman directed this grim and tragic tale of frustrated desires and human perseverance in the face of misery.