Ingmar Bergman directed two films released in 1960, and despite all the visible evidence, they're a matched set. The Virgin Spring is a brutal, heavy, cosmically miserable story of murder with one of the most disturbing rape scenes in cinema history up to that point; The Devil's Eye - our present subject - is an extremely silly, tossed-off sex comedy with jokes about theology (unless we would call it a theological comedy with jokes about sex); and neither one would exist without the other. Basically, as had already happened once before, after making a string of extremely grim dramas full of human suffering, Bergman wanted to get even grimmer, while Svensk Filmindustri wanted him to make something that would actually be light and appealing to audiences, just once, for God's sake. So they made a swap: The Virgin Spring was the quid, and The Devil's Eye was the quo.

We have, in other words, a work of pure, resentful obligation, that Bergman openly disdained, and it would make perfect sense for The Devil's Eye to be, accordingly, a miserable, crabbed little, indifferently hacked out with a minimum of artistry or care. The surprising good news, then, is that it's actually a delightful little lark, cleverly plotted and quick-moving. And it doesn't even sacrifice Bergmanisms; it's a thoughtful poke at middle-class sexual mores (I cannot bring myself all the way to dignifying it with the word "satire"), and it enthusiastically speculates on the spiritual nature of the cosmos. I believe, in fact, that this is the last of Bergman's films to present a world in which God definitely exists, and it is maybe part of the gag that he's inviting us to understand that it is not our own world.

The opening credits describe the film as a rondo capriccioso, that is, a piece on a repeating central theme, played in a bright and lively fashion. The conceit of naming his films after musical forms was one Bergman hadn't used in years (the film also breaks with his new habit of opening credits written in spindly white text over a black background), and this feels like the right time to bring it back: it's kind of a direction, right at the very start, that we are hear to enjoy the spirited giddiness rather than to take any of this seriously. It's a trifle that tells us within seconds that it's a trifle; the irony being, then, that it actually has more going on than that. But it never weighs itself down trying to smuggle serious philosophy into its smutty hijinks. It takes the business of goofy comedy very seriously, if you will.

The film is an uncredited adaptation of Oluf Bang's radio play Don Juan Returns, based on an ostensible Irish proverb, "A woman's chastity is a stye in the Devil's eye". I can't confirm whether any Irishman on record ever said such a thing, but it leads to a playful scenario in which Satan (Stig Järrel) wakes up one morning to find that he does have such a stye, and the chaste woman responsible for it seems to be a vicar's daughter in rural Sweden. After consulting with the fallen souls of crafty 18th Century politicians the Count Armand de Rochefoucauld (Georg Funkquist) and the Marquis Giuseppe Maria de Macopanza (Gunnar Sjöberg), Satan decides to send the 300-years-dead Don Juan (Jarl Kulle) back to Earth to try and seduce the young woman in the short time remaining before her marriage. Don Juan, whose eternal torment has been to successful seduce an easy mark only to have her vanish the moment before they consummate, is happy enough to have a chance to leave Hell and actually have sex, but upon arriving - backed up by his seedy servant Pablo (Sture Lagerwall) and observed by one of Hell's top-ranking demons (Torsten winge) - he discovers that the young woman, Britt-Marie (Bibi Andersson) is far too happily in love with her fiancé Jonas (Axel Düberg) to ever thinking about being unfaithful to him, though she's not above a bit of flirtation. Pablo, meanwhile, has discovered that Renata (Gertrude Fridh), the wife of the cheerfully clueless and sexless vicar (Nils Poppe), is substantially more open to sexual dalliances than her daughter is.

By the time the film ends, it will have done an excellent job of making fun of the sexual behavior and hang-ups of several of these characters while also managing to generate rather a great deal of sympathy for them; the marriage of the vicar and his wife ends on a note of surprisingly hard-won sincerity, while Don Juan is the butt of a cruel joke that's both funny in its own right and kind of genuinely sad and unsettling in what it suggests about the true nature of eternal torment. By this point, Bergman wasn't going to just abandon well-made character dramas, even if the bulk of the running time is spend laughing our heads at the nasty behavior of those characters. It is definitely a meanspirited comedy, and this is what mostly separates it from the bittersweet Smiles of a Summer Night, the one Bergman comedy that people have, by and large, actually seen. There's a pointed sarcastic streak in the film, even when it's presented with a big smile and high energy.

This shows up almost immediately. The film is presented through a wonderfully arch theatrical frame, in which an unnamed man played by Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand greets us on an empty stage to welcome us to the fun. Basically the first thing he says is that he must apologize, but we must begin by discussing Hell. It's a cheeky start to a movie that explicitly exists only to let people have a fun, relaxing time untroubled by heavy thinking and philosophy, and the ironic twinkle in Björnstrand's eye is unmistakable as he greets us. He'll show up again at the act breaks to do much the same thing, and with much the same shit-eating grin, and this little bit of artifice is perfect for letting us approach the plot from the correct distance to enjoy the travails of the characters without worrying much about them. There's also a little theological bite, when Björnstrand assures us that, despite the recent debate in the post-war world as to whether God is dead or never existed, he definitely exists for the purpose of this plot, letting us make up our own minds if that means he doesn't otherwise.

Bergman's ongoing, and soon to be very explicit fascination with life in a Godless universe notwithstanding, The Devil's Eye isn't really interested in challenging us on those terms, though. It's still mostly a big, snippy comedy, full of dumb zingers like "What would Hell be without marriage?", and some of the smuttiest humor in a generation of art cinema.  Sometimes, it's buried in innuendo, as when Pedro's attempts to seduce Renata include his promise that "My soul is so inspired, I can barely stand up straight." Sometimes, it's pretty much just right there being dirty, as when a demon with huge ears (Allan Edwall) gives us a play-by-play account of two people having noisy sex ending in a rip-roaring orgasm. The contrast between the blue humor and the stateliness of the production should feel cheap, but somehow, it never does; at only 87 minutes long, The Devil's Eye has the good sense not to overstay its welcome and wear out its jokes.

And it really is stately, too. This was Bergman's last film to be shot by his first great collaborator behind the camera, Gunnar Fischer, and it's not that man's best work: it's bright and flat in the way that so much comedy is, with the tell-tale multiple shadows that let us know that a set was lit for exposure rather than texture. But the rural hamlet where most of the action takes place still feels like a quintessential art cinema location, and the exteriors are very handsome and rich in capturing that space. The best part of the film, though, is obviously its ridiculous, jokey portrayal of Hell, which resembles the sprawling estate of an 18th Century prince, with scrawny little fires visible through every window as smoke machines busily fog up the backgrounds. It is a vision of Hell not as a place of eternal torment, but of the eternal tetchy boredom of louche aristocrats, with Satan himself more of a easily-annoyed middle-aged man than the corrupted man-goat and unutterable Prince of Darkness. It's a very odd, non-threatening vision of damnation that seems to be lightly mocking the ideas of Heaven and Hell as basically the games of bored sophisticates, not especially connected to the daily life of normal human beings, who are better off just going about our business as best we can.

It's all very cynical, I suppose, but without the existential horror that would drive so much of Bergman's filmmaking in the immediate future. In the absence of that, the cynicism ends up feeling witty, charming, and playful. Even with the evidence of Smiles of a Summer Night, I would never have expected to report laughing out loud at a Bergman comedy, but The Devil's Eye manages to do just that, sometimes with some extremely corny jokes, too. We'd do well to remember that the director adored Molière, and the film's love of old-fashioned theatricality in the sets, the sex farce, and the harpsichord music used to punctuate plot beats, all of it taken from the 18th Century Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti. It is, in effect, Bergman's version of a light opera: a little dirty, a little silly, and concerned with serious themes but not looking to crush us with them. I suppose one has to consider it a minor work as a result of all that, but it's a minor work that only a skilled filmmaker and a cast of committed actors could knock out; it has a careless breeziness that couldn't ever be so effortless if Bergman really hated this project as much as he professed. At any rate, it's delightful as Hell, you should pardon the expression.