In the Presence of a Clown: Ingmar Bergman’s Made-for-TV Film

In the Presence of a Clown, Ingmar Bergman’s made-for-TV film, doesn’t rank very high in the filmmaker’s pantheon, but it represents a solid piece of work that will delight aficionados of the vet director who turns 80 in July.

Inspired by episodes and figures from Bergman’s own family, this sharply observed, well-acted chamber piece centers on Uncle Carl, a charismatic middle-aged inventor who was a mental patient in an asylum.

In the climate that prevails in today’s movie market, best chances for this film, which has already been shown on Euro TV, are to be aired on one of the premium cable channels.

Roughly divided into four unequal parts, In the Presence of a Clown is set in an Uppsala Psychiatric Hospital in 1925, a context that becomes more significant, when the drama dwells on the potential of the new medium of cinema and the differences between the conventions of projected images and live theater.

Bergman, who wrote and directed the film, shows a healthy dosage of cynical humor in spoofing both mediums from the inside, based on his extensive work in theater, film, and TV.

When first introduced, Carl Akerblom (Borje Ahlstedt) is sitting in an empty psychiatric ward, rapturously and secretly listening to records of his favorite composer, Franz Schubert. Interacting with his doctor and another patient, Professor Osvald Vogler (Bergman’s reliable pro, Erland Josephson), he’s obsessing about how Schubert must have felt at the end of his life. Without hesitation, the doctor proclaims that the musician must have experienced “a sinking feeling.” From this point on, Bergman uses the opposites metaphors of sinking and rising to comment on his central characters.

Afflicted with outbursts of rage, Akerblom was institutionalized for attempting to kill his beautiful, much younger fiancee, Pauline Thibault (Marie Richardson), whom he refuses to see now. An encounter with a white-faced, white-dressed clown (Agneta Ekmanner), who sporadically reappears in the movie, brings to the surface recurring themes in Bergman’s oeuvre: theology and spirituality, personal freedom and domesticated marriage–above all, creativity and death.

The playful Carl, who had mastered an impressive repertoire of magic tricks, is now intrigued by inventing a new performance style, the living talking picture, one that will replace silent movies. Joined by Professor Vogler, his fiancee and other thesps, they embark on a tour that takes them to a remote provincial village. To demonstrate the magic of his discovery, Carl chooses a play about the relationship between Schubert and Europe’s object of desire, Mizzi Veith, defying both logic and chronology, as Mizzi was not even born when the composer died.

About a dozen souls attend the show, which takes place during a snow storm, including Carl’s stepmother and his half sister. It’s in these interactions that Bergman reveal his mastery of in-depth psychological portraiture and mise-en-scene of dramatically focused scenes. As always, there are emotional confrontations and rivalries between mother and fiancee as well as between fiancee and the troupe’s sexy actress, who flirts with Carl and gets the lead part initially promised to Pauline.

In its good moments, which are plentiful, new work brings to mind Bergman’s 1984 teleplay, After the Rehearsal, which also concerned a womanizing director torn by his love for several women.

In due course, Bergman offers the kind of wry commentary that only an accomplished and disillusioned artist like himself can on the art of acting, the difference between movies and theater, and the meaning of role-playing on and off stage–all consistent Bergman motifs.

Bergman’s devotees will particularly enjoy this film, which employs characters from his earlier movies, such as Fanny and Alexander and Best Intentions. In fact, Uncle Carl is poignantly portrayed by Borje Ahlstedt, who embodied the same role in the aforementioned pictures as well as in Sunday’s Child, which was directed by Bergman’s son, Daniel. While all members of the acting ensemble reach the heights anticipated in a Bergman movie, tech credits are extremely modest, disclosing budgetary constraints and indicating none too favorably that this is a teleplay.

The Swedish title, “Larmar och gor sig till,” derives from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.