It is a law as inexorable as gravity that if a European movie has the word "joy" in its title, it will be just about the most grimly tragic, unhappy thing imaginable. And so it is with 1950's To Joy, the eighth film directed by Ingmar Bergman, the second with an original screenplay that he wrote, and the first that I would suggest turned out more or less exactly right (the "less" is from a short but debilitating stretch in the last few minutes). We know by the end of the first proper scene that this is about a marriage that ends when the wife, Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) dies in a fire caused by an exploding kerosene stove; immediately upon learning this, the husband, Stig (Stig Olin) collapses onto a table in tight close-up and flashes back to the start of their relationship, seven years prior. And the rest of the 99-minute movie is all about watching those seven years play out in little fragmentary chunks, sometimes portraying crucial moments in the couple's marriage, sometimes random moments of nothing much, all overshadowed by the doom waiting to fall.

Importantly, this glum irony isn't the only inflection of the title. To Joy also points us directly towards "Ode to Joy", the Friedrich Schiller poem that served as the basis for the vocal portion of the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. That extremely recognisable piece of music is given privilege of place in To Joy: one rehearsal starts the film, under the opening credits, and another rehearsal brings the film to a close. Bergman was a great admire of classical music, suggesting at one point that his ability to hear would be the last of his senses he'd want to give up, on account of the great importance that music had in his life, and To Joy is something like his tribute to that medium, which unlike his beloved theater and cinema, he never engaged with directly as a creator.

(spoiler alert for the not very surprising ending of a 70-year-old art film) The film's priorities can be seen clearly in the final sequence , which gives the conductor Sönderby (Victor Sjöström, Bergman's mentor and probably the most renowned Swedish film director in history until Bergman himself took that title) the last word, as clarifies that "Joy", in the "Ode to Joy", is not happiness, but something much more terrible and savage and powerful and ecstatic. He's using this as a means of communicating to the orchestra and chorus what he wants, but of course what he's actually doing is using his authority inside and outside of the film's diegesis - Sönderby is the wisest character in the movie, and Sjöström is arguably the most authoritative voice in all of Swedish cinema - to tell us and Stig that there is a cosmic joy beyond the suffering of individual humans that can be accessed through transportive art. It is, weirdly, the most uplifting ending any Bergman film has yet had, both because Stig is able to throw himself into the act of artistic creation, and because of the film's last shot, a crane across an orchestra that pushes in to the mesmerised face of a bereaved child, temporarily moved by the power of the music to understand, at least slightly, the awesome scope of that joy. It's a tremendously powerful, moving ending and the damn pity is that Bergman didn't trust his actors, his images, his scenario, or maybe just himself, and he uses some double-exposure of Nilsson's face to make sure we Get It, as if Sönderby's little speech wasn't on the nose enough. It's a jarring flat note in the midst of a thoroughly remarkable stretch of filmmaking, enough to make me feel a touch more hostile to the whole of To Joy, on account of coming so very close to the end. Still, that final shot! (spoilers end)

The bulk of the film is yet another story of domestic disharmony, but it's an especially well-made one, following as Marta and Stig keep moving from bliss to recrimination and back over the course of the years; we see very little of the middle of their marriage, except to check in and see that things are basically stable. Both of them are musicians in Sönderby's orchestra, though Marta gives it up as she draws near the birth of the couple's first baby; Stig hangs on hoping to get a chance to shine as a soloist despite his middling talent. Eventually, he falls in with the aging Mikael (John Ekman) and his much younger wife Nelly (Margit Carlqvist), procured by the husband to serve as her lover. This relationship disgusts him, but not enough to stop doing, not even after he learns that his smarmy nemesis Marcel (Birger Malmsten), a cellist in the orchestra, is Mikael and Nelly's lodger.

The film is the first nakedly autocritical work of Bergman's career: Stig is the most direct stand-in the filmmaker has written for himself (and one of the most direct he ever would), as he grappled with his bad behavior in letting his second marriage collapse as he had an affair with the woman who would become his third wife, leaving no fewer than four children in the lurch in the process (Bergman never seemed to care as much about being a terrible father as about being a terrible husband, and it's telling that while Stig's shabby behavior towards Marta is presented as the stuff of inexorable tragedy, the couple's children are basically just plot complications). It's also a story about his own artistic ego: he gave Stig a catastrophic professional failure as a way of coming to terms with how much of a disaster he'd come to find Crisis, his debut film, in the four years since it came out. Obviously this navel-gazing is more interesting to Bergman than it can be to any of us, but what matters about is that it means that To Joy is coming from a place of unusually focused introspection and observation, and this results in an exceptionally clear-eyed portrait of a thoroughly ordinary marriage in its bliss as well as its petty feuding. Olin and Nilsson are both extremely good, though Nilsson is given less screen time and material, and much of her time is spent reacting. As for Olin, he's done remarkable work in making Stig come across as a pathetic lost soul without asking us to forgive any of his mistakes: he is simultaneously a very sad figure and an unappealing one, though when the film turns happy and Olin is able to force a smile onto his haggard-looking face (Olin is by any standard an attractive man, but in To Joy he looks downright lumpy in shots), it takes no time to shift back towards feeling some level of kinship for him.

The film's sketch of a marriage as seen through several fragments of memory, loosely forming an arc but mostly feeling like whatever random moment of nostalgia or pain the grieving Stig can grasp as he lies crumpled across that table, feels in retrospect like a dry run for the richer, more penetrating analyses of marriage in Bergman's later work, especially the imposing Scenes from a Marriage, but I would certainly not want to rob this film of its own success by claiming that it was interesting for its echoes with later films. To Joy is quite a fine, challenging work on its own, elevated by Olin and Nilsson's tough, layered performances, but not only those things. Gunnar Fischer's cinematography is pretty great as well, surprising and varied - he and Bergman have worked out a system of having the camera sweep in and out of close-ups in a way that calls a bit more attention to itself than is necessarily productive, but certainly works to give us the sense that we're moving into a character's head and thoughts, or to slice away the world surround characters in moments of intensified emotion or psychological turmoil. Or, sometimes, it's just there to shape our reaction to the music, darting from place to place in the orchestra, attending to different moments that single out individuals while returning always to the full context of the entire orchestra working as aunit.

The film also plays around with a kind of subtle anti-realism. At multiple points, Bergman stages the action in front of black, empty backgrounds, letting characters stand out as though they're in a void, all the better to focus on them and their words & thoughts - Sönderby has a particularly striking example of this early on, and Sjöström's tetchy, dictatorial speaking style is thrown into sharp relief that makes him feel more like a raving preacher more than a conductor.

To Joy is an extremely satisfying piece of cinema - the first Bergman film for which this is unabashedly true. It's not quite the work of a mature talent yet; the clumsy handling of the last scene, which reads unmistakably like a failure of nerve, makes that clear, and the focus diffuses too much when Mikael, Nelly, and Marcel come in to distract from the intense, conflicted relationship between Marta and Stig. Still, that relationship is a gem, and Nilsson and Olin give the two best performances the director has overseen yet.To Joy is the first Bergman film that persistently works on all levels: sensitively acted, shot with clean greys that create a realistic aesthetic to frame the heightened realism of the psychodrama, carefully edited to preserve long takes but also to suddenly punctuate moments, and keenly aware of how to use music to segment the characters' emotional journeys and clarify their inner conflict. It's not smooth sailing from here on out, but this is the point where it finally makes sense to talk about Bergman as a major talent as both a writer and a visual storyteller.