Ingmar Bergman: To Joy (1949) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: To Joy (1949)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYI dismissed Port of Call and Thirst completely when I first watched them.  I saw those films as nothing more than bad exercises that Bergman had to do to get to his true talent. Those films, in reality, showcase a wealth of imagination the Bergman was ready to tap into with his later films, even if he did not know exactly how to do so.

Today’s film, To Joy, is a surprising disappointment compared to the other two films. It’s not nearly as experimental with time as Thirst is, nor is it as interestingly shot and delivered as Port of Call. What we end up with is a specimen of Bergman film that ends up being happy in more points than not. If there’s one thing that we’ll learn together over the next few months it’s this - when Bergman is happy, or attempting to redeem himself directly, his films suffer incredibly.

To Joy borrows heavily from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to set a backdrop of love and redemption amongst a Swedish orchestra troupe in the early 20th century. When the film opens we see Stig (Stig Olin), who has just received a call saying that his wife Martha died in a kerosene explosion. Leaving Stig to his grief, we flash back several years to a young Stig. He has delusions of being the greatest concert violinist that has ever played center stage and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) feels that she could do the same.

They strike up a romance, but are not far from the watchful eye of their conductor Sonderby (Victor Sjostrom). Sjostrom is one of Bergman’s mentors, a man that coaxed him through his horrible directorial debut Crisis, and acted in several of Bergman’s film (including the wonderful Wild Strawberries). Here, Sonderby nearly approaches the level of godhood in the eyes of the film. He is a fount of strength and support and has a near omniscient stature as narrator at points in the film, and is always filmed as a stalwart defender of music and life against the darkness that threatens Stig. We sit and watch as the three of them go through the years in various stages of happiness, anger and depression - all while Sonderby functions as a father figure to both Stig and Martha.

To Joy comes alive in its many concert moments.

Unfortunately, there is little of interest in the film itself outside the autobiographical elements that are in play with the production. Casting his mentor was but one stroke that Bergman would use to paint a personal portrait with this film. He also was using it as a way to exorcise his demons from a recent divorce, his second, and to try and find a way to redeem himself through his fiction.

If we are to believe the fictional stand in of Stig as a representation of Bergman, than we will see that he has a lot to repent for. Stig is a humble man that just wants to rise to the top until he gets his opportunity and then completely ruins it. Marta is a saint in the meantime, waiting in the wings with a reservoir of patience and resolve to push Stig through his many moments of despair. Soon that despair turns to alcohol, and then my least favorite trope of early Bergman films, the jazz players (though the music itself, mercifully, makes no appearance in this film).

On and on the story goes as Stig descends into a level of abusiveness that it seems Martha will be unable to tolerate. But, because of an ill advised intro that takes place many years after these events, we know that she will. This drains To Joy of any tension that might result from the plot, as the outcome is predetermined. Granted, all films, as well as all great fiction, are about the journey instead of the destination. But Bergman doesn’t really keep things that interesting along the way. True, there are a few moments of visual insight as Stig laments his dead wife over a teddy bear, or the fantastic framing that symbolizes the division between Stig and Martha. But these moments are sparsely doled out, and don’t have the sort of emotional resonance that Bergman wishes that they could have.

Bergman's mastery of the frame takes a noticeable step back, especially after the numerous chances he took with Thirst, but there are still a few good moments.

This is not to say that To Joy is a waste. It’s still a decent film, if only really recommended for fans of Ingmar Bergman. He brings a wonderful energy to the many concert scenes in the film, and shows how badly a soloist can screw up onstage while still presenting the accompanying music in a beautiful manner. The photography, as mentioned, still yields some gems and the performances range from serviceable (Stig Olin) to excellent (Victor Sjostrom).

I wish that I could get as excited about this film as I was the first time I watched it. The closing scenes play out with such a wonderful pathos that it is easy to leave To Joy with an overwhelming impression of excellence. But upon close examination, it is not what it could have been, and feels like a film that Bergman made more for himself than for the shared need of expressing his pain through cinema.

Next week is Bergman’s first truly great film, Sawdust and Tinsel.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

To Joy (1949)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring  Stig Olin, Maj-Britt Nilsson, and Victor Sjostrom.

Posted by Andrew

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