“A woman’s chastity is a sty in the Devil’s eye.”
“Lack of principle is my principle, vice my virtue, debauchery my asceticism, godlessness my religion…Those capable of love are very few. Their suffering has no limit. I am told they are mirrors which reflect God and make life easier for us wretches in the dark. I have chosen another road – contempt and indifference.” —Don Juan
I began last month’s review by mentioning one of the rites of passage of my high school days—the long weekend, triple horror feature at the local theatre or drive-in. This month’s film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye (1960), brought back fond memories of a similar rite of passage shared with friends at university. Doesn’t every Faculty of Arts student still make frequent pilgrimages downtown to watch strange foreign movies with subtitles, and spend hours afterwards over coffee or beer in heated discussion? In Vancouver in the early Seventies, Mecca was the City Lights Theatre near Hastings & Main.
Stuck in the heart of the skid road district, with gold paint peeling off the old-fashioned balconies and comfortable, veloured seats like mini-armchairs, City Lights seemed a character out of one of its own films. Although I would now have a difficult time listing even a half dozen of the movies I saw there, one particular Friday night will stay with me forever as the ultimate in SubtitleMania. On the bill were three Ingmar Bergman movies: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona. By the time I walked out of the theatre after midnight, I felt like I’d been mugged by a philosopher. I’d been forced to hand over ideas and preconceptions at camera point, and left wandering the streets in a daze. Even coffee, beer, and conversation seemed inadequate therapies. My soul had been Bergmanized.
For years after that particular evening, I attended showings of other Bergman films with mixed feelings of awe & existential dread. It was the same mindset I brought to stories by Franz Kafka or songs by Leonard Cohen. One takes some things much too seriously when one is younger. Everyone sings the blues, but can you sing them and not smile? The older Leonard Cohen gets, the bigger his music smiles. It took my first viewing of The Devil’s Eye to make me realize that the desert has water. That genius and humour inevitably cohabit. Genius makes us smile. Even through the pain. Especially through the pain. The world may never cease to be a battleground, but striding across it Genius will send out its Clowns & Jokers & Fools & Mocking Rebels. Francois Villon. Gargantua. Sancho Panza. Sir John Falstaff. Casanova. Pere Ubu. Groucho Marx. Vladimir & Estragon. Bob Dylan.
And Don Juan. The Greatest Lover in History. At the beginning of The Devil’s Eye we see him in Hell. Condemned to repeat all his conquests over and over, without the final consummation. As one of the Devil’s flunkeys casually announces: “The day’s first torment is here.” But the Devil, too, has his problems. There’s something in his eye. Something alarming is happening on earth. A young woman (Britt-Marie) is about to go to her bridal bed in virginal innocence. The example would be horrendous; the consequences appalling. Not only would there be an “unholy row” of celebration in heaven, but, as one of the Devil’s unctuous advisors (Count Armand de Rochefoucauld, eminent politician & poisoner and deeply versed in plainsong) comments, “The result could be law & Order…monogamy….even happy marriages.” Although the Count is immediately brought down to earth by his equally unctuous companion (the Marquis Guiseppe de Maccopazza, who says “Let’s not exaggerate! Marriage is the solid base of hell—our pièce de résistance—where would hell be without marriage?”) the Devil’s eye continues to trouble him and something must be done.
A deal is struck. Don Juan and his faithful servant, Pablo, will be given a day and a night on earth. A respite from torment. In exchange, Don Juan will add another girl to his list of discarded lovers. A simple seduction, made even easier by the naivete of Britt-Marie’s father, a country parson who sees the world through utterly innocent eyes. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, the Devil also sends along a demon (in the sardonic shape of a roly-poly friar) to keep an eye on developments.
Naturally, things do not go as planned. The demon runs into difficulty with a cupboard, Pablo falls in love, Don Juan manages to be both the Snake in Eden and the Angel of Light, Britt-Marie surprises her would-be seducer and herself, the Pastor and his wife learn something about one another, and the Devil almost resigns. Almost.
To give away more of the plot would be downight wicked. If the humour is unexpected, the quality of design, cinematography, and acting is not. Jarl Kulle makes a wonderful Don Juan with heavy-lidded eyes and undeniable self-satisfaction. Bibi Andersson is radiant and sexy as Britt-Marie. Satan is marvelously petulant, complaining that his evil has been worsted by Heaven’s “icy, calculating goodness.” Hell itself (“designed by the keenest brains and worst prigs in Christendom”) is outstanding. The Devil’s office is an IBM boardroom with the eternal flames burning silently outside the picture window. The musical score, composed by Bergman, adds a suitably incongruous Baroque counterpoint to a film he himself labelled a rondo capriccio (and if someone can tell me exactly what that means, please do). Something must also be said for the music of the Swedish language itself. Beware the dubbed version of this film sitting next to the subtitled one at Reo’s Videos in Nelson. Subtitles may sometimes be inconvenient & incomplete, but hearing The Devil’s Eye in English is like listening to Eric Clapton playing on one string.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
[If it weren’t friggin’ impossible to get streaming services like Hulu and Filmstruck into Canada, it would have been a snap to find an online copy of The Devil’s Eye. It’s in the Criterion Collection. Maybe I should just break down and get an American IP address. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking. Feel free to check back later.]