I just watched CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972) recently, another Bergman film, but from 20 years later. There isn’t any real change between the two, besides maybe a loss of optimism, but the primary difference is development. Every film I’ve seen from him reminds me of the theatre in the way the drama is structured. SAWDUST AND TINSEL does not fail in this respect, even going further and reminding me of the theatre literally, with its characters.
Bergman’s films are episodes focused around drama, rather than realism. The plot often consists entirely of a few carefully-timed actions that set the characters on the dramatic course he really wants to present to us. In this way Bergman’s films are like plays, focusing not on the story of his characters, but on the feelings that lie buried deep in their souls. Bergman is not constrained to one timeline, either: he will not hesitate to show through flashback, or dream, or symbolism, what lies in the deep pits of his characters’ psychologies. He is unhampered by any “movement,” standing alone in the cinematic landscape, though perhaps he could be compared to that other genius artist from a foreign land who made films until he died, Akira Kurosawa. Free, he is able to express himself completely: SAWDUST AND TINSEL, an early work, is experimental in many ways, but generally these experiments do not fail. From the start it can be seen that he has a total sense of his characters and his aesthetic: one of the first scenes is the over-exposed, muted flashback showing the humiliation of the clown “Frost’s” (Anders Ek) wife “Alma” (Gudrum Brost). The scene is beautiful and devastating; although they are only minor characters, Frost and his wife Alma express tragedy throughout the rest of the film.
The perfect realization of his characters can be seen in the writing, the natural, earthy dialogue that is full of feeling. Scenes, too, are filled with stories told subtly through gesture and slight expression, unrelated to the conversation, the result of careful attention on all levels. Writer, director, and actor working together in perfect unison to create layered, complex characters.
Plot-points that are minor, yet carefully wrought to set up drama that reveals character, rather than obscuring, is what theatre is based on; though Bergman writes strictly in this style (I haven’t seen a single film from him where the story is “important” in any real way), he is still a film-maker, using the form to his benefit in ways theatre can not (flashbacks and the like), and a great artist. The drama of SAWDUST AND TINSEL, while masterfully wrought, could be criticized for being minor, but Bergman’s style can not: it is as critical an aspect of the man’s work as his dramatic style of writing, from his insistent use of close-up to his lighting used in combination with framing, set and costume to create beautiful, resounding images as timeless as the films themselves. His actors are chosen with taste, also, each one talented enough to carry his demanding script and intricate direction, but also perfectly suited for their part.
Compared with CRIES AND WHISPERS, SAWDUST AND TINSEL is an optimistic film about characters struggling to escape their lives, but in the end, when they can’t, finding acceptance; his style may have developed into something more boldly expressionistic, but Bergman’s good taste is evident in all of the various pieces of SAWDUST AND TINSEL, proving to us that he may have come from the theatre and retained a large part of its tradition, but as a film-maker he is a unique voice and an unparalleled artist.