The Bergman Files: To Joy

“One wants to be a real person and an artist” – the character of Stig early in the film.

For me, Bergman had been in a bit of a funk through his last couple of films. But thankfully he blows it out of the water, with the excellent To Joy (1950). There is a refreshing originality to this film when compared to the tired Thirst (1949) which makes this one of the more enjoyable early Bergman watches.

Many of the same plot points feature here – a love story, surprise pregnancy, abortion. However here the whole thing is set against the backdrop of an orchestra which revitalises these themes and makes them as engaging as they should be. The couple at the centre of the relationship, Marta and Stig are the new musicians in the orchestra, although they have met in the past. Much of the early part of the film takes part in the rehearsals of the orchestra and Bergman clearly has fun with those sequences. I did too, even though I have minimal interest in or knowledge of classical music, I appreciated the skill of the musicians and also of Bergman in presenting their work. His camera flits from musician to musician allowing the viewer to see the individual cogs and also the orchestra as a whole. In addition to the freshness that the orchestra adds to the film, the structure also strays from Bergman’s formula. The film starts with a horrific accident and then goes back seven years to build back up toward it.

The relationship between Marta and Stig is one with a lot of complexity and depth. It begins in a scene by the beach where they almost negotiate the terms of their agreement. But from this beginning, Bergman is able to paint a love story, though one with a number of hurdles to clear. Stig has some demons himself, especially the disconnect between his ambition and his skill as a musician. For a long time throughout the film he is yearning yet falling short of what the quote at the top of the page describes. Like many of Bergman’s characters, Stig is enigmatic, talented and struggling to find to his place in the world. Marta comes into this world and both supports and challenges him, building him to great heights and standing by him through great lows when she could be forgiven for cutting him adrift. A pet gripe of mine, film at times seems to have an obsession with adultery. In this film there is an adultery subplot that for me took all of the steam out of the narrative. Luckily the script recovered and the reconnection of Marta and Stig was an effecting one. Actually their reconciliation is really nicely done, especially as the whole thing is presented by the two of them reading love letters from the other. This reconciliation is reflected in the really nice ending which whilst sentimental, is effecting, completing the release of one of the main characters from their grief.

Once again Bergman gets a very good performance from his female lead, this time Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marta who carries the film. Also featuring here is the father of Swedish film and Bergman’s mentor, iconic director Victor Sjostrom as Stig’s mentor, and the conductor of the orchestra. Sjostrom gives a really good performance and his character is effective in that it expands the world of the film out from the two central players. The film looks excellent with clean cinematography and looks very sharp. Bergman employs a lot of close-ups as well, focusing in on the couple early in their relationship at the exclusion of the wider world. Much like how a new relationship feels, with only the other person mattering, rather than any outside distractions. Another really clever use of close-up is in the scene when Stig and Marta are married. As they are exchanging vows, the camera lingers on a close-up of Marta’s face, even when Stig is talking, showing the impact of this moment on one of the parties involved. Bergman also utilises darkness visually really well. Much like a silent director, he intentionally shrouds various parts of the screen in darkness, obscuring what he wants to remain hidden.

The presence of long swathes of music and the flashback structure means that this is the most original that Bergman has felt for a number of films. Expanding on his usual love story and themes by incorporating orchestral music and an illuminating structure to elevate the film.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

‘The Bergman Files’ Leaderboard

  1. It Rains on our Love (1946)
  2. To Joy (1950)
  3. Crisis (1946)
  4. Port of Call (1948)
  5. Music in Darkness (1948)
  6. A Ship Bound for India (1947)
  7. Prison (1949)
  8. Thirst (1949)

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