Sawdust and Tinsel aka The Naked Night aka Gycklarnas afton (1953) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Sawdust and Tinsel's opening story introduces its theme of humiliation, John Simon writes in his Criterion Collection essay. Alma skinny dips in the ocean in front of a group of artillerymen. They leer while Alma's husband, a circus clown, jumps in to remove her from view. As they leave the beach, Alma infantalizes him as he collapses, crying in her arms while he crawls across the ground.
Stardust and Tinsel's primary plot echos this prologue. Circus director Albert has abandoned his wife for the circus life. He spends his time with his younger girlfriend, Anne. Anne leaves Albert for Sjuberg, the theater actor who asserts his superiority over Albert by comparing the stage to the circus. "The lowest of us would spit on the best of you. Why? You only risk your lives. We risk our pride."
Albert has no pride. He visits his family where his wife rejects him, but fixes his button and gives him money.
The scenes reminded me of two other movies. The first carries forward this concept of cuckoldry. A man whose woman sleeps with another man is not only emasculated, but has his very adulthood stripped from him.
Roman Polanski's absurdist 1966 Cul-de-sac features Donald Pleasance allowing his wife to cheat on him with visitors to their isolated home. The film begins with Pleasance's character happily putting on a woman's clothing and lipstick, and ends with him alone near the ocean in the fetal position.
The other is Woody Allen's 1991 German Expressionist pastiche, Shadows and Fog. It offers a different picture of manhood.
John Malkovich plays Paul, the clown who is cheating on his wife Irmy (Mira Farrow) with the tightrope walker (Madonna). Irmy leaves Paul when she finds out. She sleeps with another man for money, then returns to Paul when he comes after her. The two adopt a baby together and despite Irmy's flirtations with Woody Allen's character, their future as a couple seems bright when the movie ends.
Paul stands out on this list. The other men accept others' views of themselves as weak and childlike. Albert is humiliated verbally by Sjuberg apart from his sexual humiliation. Paul meanwhile, has an inflated ego that cannot be shrunk so easily. We're not like other people, we're artists, you know with great talent comes responsibility," he says about his role as a clown.
Allen wants us to see Paul as delusional, but it is a useful delusion. Paul's masculinity stays intact, while the others see theirs disappear. Self-delusion is used as a weapon of preservation by many of Allen's characters: it rescues Mia Farrow's Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo and insulates Cate Blanchett's Jasmine in Blue Jasmine. (At least for a time.) Woody Allen's Kleinman in Shadows and Fog escapes his role as a victim of the film's Kafkaesque world when he stops trying to make sense of it, and embraces his own power of illusion.
A man's mastery of illusion is his key to masculinity in Sawdust and Tinsel as well. Sjuberg is dominant over Albert through his superior acting and illusion-making; seducing Anne away through a false trinket and asserting his status on the stage. Albert's final victory comes when he leaves his dreams of normality behind and joins his circus on the road again.