The Devil's Eye Review
Billed as a “rondo capriccioso”, a light-hearted diversion from the bleakness becoming increasingly evident in the director’s works, Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye is meant to counterpoint the intensity of his reworking of the old folklore tale recounted in The Virgin Spring (1960). Bergman “comedies” are, to put it mildly, something of an acquired taste and rarely actually funny, the director usually mistaking cleverness for humour. Occasionally however - as with Smiles of a Summer Night - everything seems to fall effortlessly into place. If The Devil’s Eye doesn’t quite live up to that high point and isn’t exactly what you would call a laugh riot, it does have the same lightness of touch in how it deals with darker undercurrents of the sex comedy.
The film’s title comes from an old Irish proverb that “A young woman’s chastity is a sty in the devil’s eye”, and indeed Satan (Stig Järrel) is ocularly inconvenienced by one particular North European twenty-year old virgin, Britt-Marie (Bibi Andersson), who is engaged to and unsullied by her honourable fiancé Jonas – a circumstance that sets a dangerous precedent for others entering into that devilish union known as marriage. The situation requires immediate rectification and Satan is forced to call upon his best man for the job – none other than Don Juan (Jarl Kulle). With the promise of 300 years remission from his sentence of unconsummated nightly unions with a parade of beautiful women, Don Juan and his assistant Pablo (Sture Lagerwall), accompanied by a devil that takes the form of a cat (Ragnar Arvedson), inveigle their way into the home of a country vicar (Nils Poppe) in order to seduce his pure, innocent and virtuous daughter.
The Devil’s Eye retains the folklorish elements of Bergman’s previous film The Virgin Spring and the associated bawdiness that can be found in those old classic folk takes, similarly exploited in Smiles of a Summer’s Night. The situation recounted in The Devil’s Eye has similar sense of theatricality, a morality tale of good against evil, virtue versus lust, but marvellously, at this stage in his career, Bergman is able to play on such archetypes with a greater degree of precision and insight into human nature and behaviour, particularly in the area of infidelity. The characters of Don Juan and Britt-Marie are not so black and white – both have their strengths and weaknesses. Don Juan has an impressive record of seduction that speaks for itself, but it is his vanity of course that has led to his downfall. Britt-Marie is certainly virtuous, but she isn’t innocent of an understanding of human nature, particularly in regards to the ways of men. Yet although fully aware of their vulnerabilities, deep down in their heart of hearts they both long to be fatally wounded by love.
Not content with such an intense stand-off, Bergman balances this out with Pablo’s attempted seduction of the vicar’s wife Renata (Gertrud Fridh) – a struggle that doesn’t exist on the level of gaining the upper hand, of conquest or submission. Rather, it regards the tenderness of the touch of another person through lovemaking as a momentary reanimation of the senses, a reaffirmation and expression of one’s deepest, purest nature – the one thing to elevate human beings from the misery of our existence and the eternity of hell. Or perhaps it’s all just empty flattery that both sides are willing to believe, the man in order to get into the sack with a beautiful woman, the woman acting ostensibly out of compassion, perhaps does so to feel a sense of validation about her looks and charms not given to her by her husband.
This constant sense of flirtation with truth is what is so delightful about The Devil’s Eye, Bergman having tremendous fun with these ambiguous characters, delivering a clever script that has an unusually witty and light-hearted take on the director’s usual subject matter. His pronouncements on marriage as “the foundation of hell”, his analysis of the weaknesses of Nordic women and his playful battle between the third couple in the film – the vicar and the devil – are poetic, self-effacing and almost a parody of his more common angst-ridden treatment of the material. Not everything is perfect however. Bergman’s insistence on Jarl Kulle as a comic actor is as misplaced here as it would be in All These Women, the actor walking around striking haughty and imperious poses and failing utterly to humanise Don Juan in his tragedy. Gunnar Björnstrand’s narrator interludes spoken directly to the camera aren’t particularly funny or necessary, but seem designed to allow Bergman to distance himself somewhat from a film that he would later profess to detest. Bergman however was never a good judge of comic material and how it worked, least of all in his own work. The Devil’s Eye is a fine example of Bergman’s theatrical stylisations and overblown writing finding their perfect balance and form.
The Devil’s Eye is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, but is not region encoded. Although released as part of the Tartan Bergman Collection, neither this title nor Sawdust And Tinsel released alongside it, are included in the 30 disc Ingmar Bergman Collection boxset.
The Devil’s Eye has been gifted with a remarkably fine transfer to DVD. The greyscale palette and the contrast/brightness tones are outstanding, showing excellent detail and clarity, with a touch of softness that is more appropriate and filmic than a razor sharp image. The major part of the film looks flawless, though there are occasional marks and flecks visible, but nothing that is worth noting. Some minor artefacting occurs on thin vertical lines, but otherwise the transfer displays no digital problems. Quite beautiful.
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 is also very good. Dialogue has a rounded tone with good dynamic, and the underlying analogue hiss rarely intrudes. There is however some harsh sibilance which causes words to become rather clipped and distorted – but this is more evident in earlier scenes and becomes less of a problem as the film goes on.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font.
No surprises with the extra features – yet again we get the same old Persona Trailer (2:30) and Autumn Sonata Trailer (2:22). An enclosed insert contains an outline and essay on the film by David Parkinson which puts the case for this much maligned and “overlooked comedy”.
Ingmar Bergman is not noted for his comedies and even the director himself confessed that he hadn’t the slightest idea of how they worked. The Devil’s Eye is one in particular that Bergman had nothing good to say about it, but I think the film has been unjustly neglected. It’s certainly not a typical Bergman treatment, and can be somewhat stiffly theatrical, but the light-hearted playing on familiar themes does bring a new dimension to the director’s favourite subjects, the sparkling script here capturing with precision that same sense of ambiguity, bitterness and resignation about the nature of relationships, but also some of its joys. Beautifully photographed and presented with a stunning transfer, it’s certainly worthy of reconsideration.