To Joy (1950)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 38min

Before we even meet Stig’s wife, Marta, in To Joy, we discover that she has already died. It was an accident with a kerosene stove, we are told, though the tragedy doesn’t feel nearly as potent as it will by the end of the film. Their relationship is one of frequent turmoil, rocked by an unexpected pregnancy, an affair, and insurmountable ambition that Stig’s talent as a violinist just can’t live up to. Like so many other lovers in previous Ingmar Bergman films, bitter scorn and overwhelming passion are locked in a constant struggle, but there is also a mutual understanding here which transcends either, expressing ideas and emotions that can only be captured through their music.

As the conductor of the classical orchestra that both play in, Victor Sjöström becomes a father figure of sorts to this young couple. Professor Sönderby carries out his own rich emotional arc in his transformation from a perfectionistic who won’t budge his rehearsal time for a wedding, into a man whose heart melts at the sight of their small family, proving himself to be perhaps the richest character of them all. He is a pure embodiment of the joy they share together, shaping the sounds of strings, woodwinds, and brass instruments through the movement of his hands, and frequently underscoring scenes of their life with pieces written by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.

This isn’t quite Whiplash, but Bergman’s pairing of montage editing and camera movements as the orchestra plays brings a dynamic energy to these swells of grand emotion. Crane shots move from high above stages down to ground level where Bergman finds harmonious patterns in rows of identical instruments, and through the harp’s strings he obstructs wide shots of the entire ensemble, each putting in their part to create something grander than any single one of them. These interludes make up a decent portion of the film’s entire run time, becoming extensions of the characters as their faces fade in over the top of sheet music flipping from page to page.

When the exuberant Beethoven symphony from Stig’s rehearsal continues playing beneath his discovery that Marta has given birth to twins, dialogue isn’t needed to feel the pure elation of the sequence. Neither is it integral to the tender sadness of Bergman’s visual compositions, underlining the couple’s gradual estrangement in one beautifully blocked shot of both their heads turned away from each other at different depths, nor the elegant frame of Stig’s mistress, Nelly, entering a doorway through a thin strip of light to silently watch him play.

At the same time though, Bergman’s achievement in screenwriting here may be one of his strongest at this point in his career, letting a drunken Stig deliver harsh condemnations to his fellow musicians he calls “despicable loafers” who “wallow and slobber and burp in your stained ties.” It is impossible for him to separate the disappointment he feels in his own solo performance from his relationships, and so when his debut as criticised an “unnecessary suicide”, Marta is regrettably caught up in his angst. She insults him, he slaps her, she sardonically tells him that perhaps Nelly will nurture his genius, and it all seems to be over for this once happy couple.

But this is an Ingmar Bergman film, and so ties between quarrelling spouses can’t be severed as easily as this. Love and resentment move in cycles, leaving much to regret when a promising reconciliation is cut short by the tragedy that led us into his extended flashback, and which now sombrely greets us as we return to the present. Music was the language of Stig and Marta’s love, and so too is it the expression of Sönderby’s great sorrow, poured out in the final rendition of the film’s leitmotif that has followed the lovers through their relationship – ‘Ode to Joy’. It is from that symphony where the film gets its title, and where the great conductor finds profound inspiration to reflect on Marta’s passing.

“It’s about joy, you see. Not the joy expressed in laughter… or the joy that says “I’m happy”. What I mean is a joy so great, so special, that it lies beyond pain and boundless despair. It’s a joy beyond all understanding. I can’t explain it any better.”

Sönderby is only partially right here – perhaps he can explain it better, just not through words. Joy is a strange way to describe Stig’s state of mind in this moment, but within that final piece of classical music there is a complex mixture of sadness, tenderness, regret, and pride among so many other emotions, each one unfolding across his face as his son sits in the auditorium and watches him play. Bergman’s tribute to artistic expressions that speak directly to the human soul resonate loudly through these final minutes of visual and musical orchestrations, each one harmonising to acutely pinpoint the intersection of love, tragedy, and a wistful longing for happiness that was always taken for granted.

To Joy is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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