Things are not well in hell: the devil has a pain in his eye, and as everyone knows, this can only mean one thing: there’s a young woman on earth who is about to enter marriage as a virgin. What’s a devil to do? Clearly, there’s only one thing: that famous sinner Don Juan must be dispatched post-haste to seduce the young Nordic maid!
I’d not heard of The Devil’s Eye before coming upon it in Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. It’s easy to see why: by Bergman’s standards, the film is a slight, lesser work – and not because it is a comedy, as Smiles of a Summer Night is an incontestable, stone-cold classic full of wit and charm. By comparison, The Devil’s Eye can’t help but come across as lesser Bergman in pretty much every respect. Its jokes, while droll, are more dusty, its characters less immediately engaging (in spite of the cast, which features many Bergman stalwarts). The film has a genial, amusing tone, but it is difficult not to feel that it is something Bergman put together with some friends during a break in between two more substantial films. There is a charm to it, undoubtedly – man does not live by The Seventh Seal alone -, but let’s be honest: the name Bergman does raise certain expectations.
But first impressions can be deceiving: The Devil’s Eye is a lighter helping of Bergman, especially as it comes between the atavistic The Virgin Spring and the sombre Through a Glass Darkly, but once you accept the film for what it is (and stop expecting something it isn’t), it is definitely rewarding. Certainly, its premise, plot and characters do feel like the kind of light theatre that a local amateur troupe might stage, but it wouldn’t be Bergman if there weren’t more to it, including some surprising idiosyncracies.
What makes The Devil’s Eye work better than expected is that its characters are capable of depth and growth untypical of the genre. The virginal Britt-Marie (Bibi Andersson), a vicar’s daughter, is not a simple naif, nor is she a prude: she has wishes, desires, and a good understanding of herself as well as of Don Juan (Jarl Kulle), the legendary playboy sent to seduce her. It is her canniness, not her morality, that thwart the devil’s purpose. Meanwhile, Don Juan’s servant Pablo (Sture Lagerwall) actually manages to get some while his master fails to do so, seducing Renata (Gertrud Frith), the sickly wife of the childlike vicar (Nils Poppe) – but this seduction is played less for farce than the film’s genre would suggest, leading to a poignant scene between the vicar and his wife, showing an empathy and understanding of middle age, desire and the characters’ flaws and limitations that would not be out of place in Scenes from a Marriage.
Bergman’s devil (Stig Järrel) expects human beings to conform to cliché and genre expectations, but he doesn’t (quite) get what he wants because they are indeed human beings. They are capable of being more complex, more three-dimensional, than the forces of Hell need them to be. Which, by the way, the film also suggests may be true for God, although he – as befits a Bergman play – remains silent and absent. Human beings are better than both heaven and hell at delivering damnation as well as salvation of all sorts.
If anyone had time for half a dozen Bergman films only, The Devil’s Eye would never make the list. It doesn’t want to, and it doesn’t have to. It is what it is: smaller in scope and ambition, but sweet and surprising, a Bergman snack that is unexpectedly tasty. Many directors would gladly opt for a sty in their eye if it meant that they could make their own The Devil’s Eye.