Sawdust and Tinsel: Awakening

In 2003, on the occasion of the Cinémathèque française’s complete retrospective of Ingmar Bergman’s work, ten filmmakers were invited to present one of his films that had a significant effect on them. Controversial French director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) selected Sawdust and Tinsel and, as a preamble, wrote a tribute to the film for the September 2003 issue of Cahiers du cinéma. The piece, excerpted below, was translated for this release by Ellen Sowchek.

She has short brown bangs, abrupt and sophisticated, in the middle of her broad domed forehead. The hairstyle of a child or a she-devil: in my home, in my family, bangs are vulgar and strictly banned, as is any forelock, lovelock, or spit curl. Parts are straight, braids mercilessly tight in order to reduce any loosening and to show a presentable face to the world.

Vulgar, in reality that means sensual, perhaps enticing. In spite of that—in spite of the bangs—the actress has this childlike face of pure virginity, where no history of human belonging is written, with the inviolability of a statue; eyes like fissures cracked open by the light, purpurine lips discernible in the contrast between black and white. She stands to the left of the bed, in the foreground, and he is relegated to the background, despised, trivial, and yet desirable (because what can a statue desire if not to fall from its pedestal). This marmoreal beauty is coupled, badly of course—with Bergman, young girls are the pearls that are given to the swine.

He is brutish, fat, and older than she is, but he has this power, this animal fatality of heavy men. He is a Gypsy with a curly tuft of hair, a slanted eye, and a fleshy lower lip under his mustache. But in the secrecy of their caravan, with this ill-matched couple, it is just like Beauty and the Beast, and there is a strange vertigo, a dark sensuality, in being Beauty and the Beast. As if desire came not from the union of beauty with itself but from the insult to beauty made by ugliness. Or more precisely to virginity by bestiality. That is the Naked Feast.

Bergman’s heroine (and with her the cinema) has just burst into my life like a mirror. Like a sudden emergence of life. What Sartre’s Nausea could not do, nor Moravia’s Boredom—because they are too deliberately modernist—is what cinema does exceptionally well. Cinema is the conspicuous representation of still waters. It reconciles fire and ice. Purity and indecency. I am twelve years old; I am a terribly well-behaved little girl and a rebellious adolescent. I would call these Bergman women “serpentine” for a long time. They reconcile belonging to a rigidly puritanical world, in which they are?looked on as proud icons, with the duplicitous knowledge that they are the?absolute opposite. I understand this immediately: for me it is the incarnate superiority of cinematic storytelling, its modernity in contrast to literature. Bergman does not disrupt appear--ances: he carves into them, invents the abyss for them. It is the Mona Lisa smile. The enigma that reveals a complicity that is shameful but that those who know recognize [. . .]

Harriet Andersson and Baby Doll’s Carroll Baker are the same: pure dove and dirty little pigeon, the two poles of the young girl, according to which she pleases without realizing it or because she is the one who begins, horribly, to desire it. Unfortunately, one is often followed by the other. And I feel that, with a secret shame, in seeing Harriet Andersson confront—first for fun, and then, one must face the facts, it is a real taming session—the whip that the actor handles with increasing precision, like a scathing order for a confession she must make of her own dark desires.

But she is much too proud for that, and if she, and if I, waver in the transition from the romance to the whip—if the passage itself disturbs me—whoever means to tame me is not equal to the task. He who needs to humiliate betrays himself. In this he shows who he is, he lets the mask fall, and a mask is all it is, this face outrageously plastered by makeup that, without the distance of the stage or the mirror, reveals another misfortune, that of what is going on underneath it all. Contempt returns to the sender, and that is how it is.

All of the images I am describing, more than forty years later, I can see again with the absolute precision of black and white, the light and the specific, almost incandescent definition. But perhaps I am inventing them, perhaps I was able to understand the film only as it related to me, in a selfish and fragmentary manner. Who cares! Curiously, I never saw Sawdust and Tinsel again, so what does it matter if I make up stories—the importance of works is not only in their objectivity but even more so in their elemental power.

When I saw this film, I immediately decided To Be a filmmaker. Not out of love for the cinema. Out of necessity. In order to save myself. I did not decide to make films because I was a cinephile but because there was no life elsewhere. This film invented me when I was twelve years old. It awakened me to myself.

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