Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
Original Title: Gycklarnas afton
Sweden, 1953. Sandrews. Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography by Hilding Bladh, Sven Nykvist. Produced by Rune Waldekranz. Music by Karl-Birger Blomdahl. Production Design by Bibi Lindstrom. Costume Design by Mago. Film Editing by Carl-Olov Skeppstedt.
The drama among members of a group of traveling players becomes the battleground for expressions of masculine aggression in this very strong early work from Ingmar Bergman. In the opening prelude, a circus troupe travels across the country to their next destination as one performer sits next to a caravan driver and sleepily narrates a tale, about a clown and his wife that escalated when she left him to spend the day at the beach with another man. Filmed in stark monochrome in harsh sunlit exteriors with no synchronized sound, it’s a visually startling sequence emphasizing emotional extremes, and it prepares us for the melodrama that will follow. Marking Bergman’s first of many collaborations with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the imagery grows richer with darkness and shadows as the troupe arrives at a small town that greets them with little enthusiasm; with their resources compromised by circumstance, they reach out to a nearby theatre company for help and are gladly indulged, the theatre’s director is happy to lend them costumes and set pieces, while their leading actor and lothario Hasse Ekman catches the eye of the circus owner’s horseback-riding wife Harriet Andersson. She is at odds with her gruff, domineering husband (Åke Grönberg) and indulges in the possibility that this caddish charmer might take her away from her current drudgery, which then sparks up a dueling battle of wills between the two men. A rich side plot reminiscent of Ozu’s The Story of Floating Weeds has Gronberg visiting the wife and child that he only sees when breezing through this part of the country, these scenes brimming with pain and regret in opposition to the sexual heat being generated by the main narrative. Bergman presents clashes of will in a primal and exact manner without letting it ever feel cold or cynical, this film still has plenty of sympathy for the emotional desperation of its characters played by such multi-dimensional actors. As the title suggests, the world of live performance that holds our imagination is simply a matter of assembling cheap physical resources to create illusions, which when combined with our willing disbelief turns that illusion into something magical and affecting. Love, we are told, is much the same mixture of carnal need made explosive by our emotional needs, and this delicately beautiful film manages to state all of this without ever overstating its conflicts (or overstaying its running time).