The rawest critique comes from the aspiring young minister, sore with anguish amidst a sea of aphorisms: "This is too painful to be comical!" There’s the aging roué (Gunnar Björnstrand) with the virgin wife (Ulla Jacobsson), his son the budding parson (Björn Bjelfvenstam) distracted by the swirling ass of the maid (Harriet Andersson), the grand dame of theater (Eva Dahlbeck) whose return wreaks elegant havoc, the monocled militarist with pet dueling pistols (Jarl Kulle), the coolly ferocious countess (Margit Carlqvist). Love and all its "loathsome business" propel their roundelay as an impeccable choreography of vows broken, shuffled and reaffirmed, with characters circling like the stone dolls on the church tower overlooking them. (Because it is Ingmar Bergman winding the clock, a tiny Reaper skulks along with the chiming figurines.) "Sex is the young boy’s and the old man’s utmost toy," women meanwhile have male dignity to play with: Hoping to catch up with his former mistress, Björnstrand is not just speared by Dahlbeck’s ironic gaze, but also slips into a puddle, is attired in a clownish nightshirt, and finally chased away with his tail between his legs. The peccadilloes converge at the diva’s country estate, where her ancient mother (Naima Wifstrand), something of a doddering good witch, lets everybody’s desires loose with a toast of magic potion. Despite the boudoir equipped with a mechanic cupid, Bergman insisted that he hadn’t seen La Règle du Jeu yet; the sad, cuckolded wolf who pulls the trigger only to end up with a face full of soot suggests that he'd seen some Ophüls or Lubitsch. Still, the rosiness of its Belle Époque setting scarcely dissipates the farce’s sardonic edge: This is playfulness built on illusions and humiliations straight out of Sawdust and Tinsel, a Bach sonata pretending to be a Mozart concerto, the perfume in the summer air might easily be arsenic. Contemplating romance as "both gift and punishment," Bergman comes up with his most ornate mise en scène and then proceeds to purposefully scrape it away with each of the astringent films that followed. Cinematography by Gunnar Fischer. With Åke Fridell, Jullan Kindahl, and Bibi Andersson. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce