Ingmar Bergman looms so large in the cinema that we tend to forget he didn’t simply arrive a fully-formed artist, turning out ruminative, allegorical, emotionally intense masterpieces like The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958). Bergman found his first success on the stage; his first original screenplay, Torment, was produced in 1944 under the direction of Alf Sjöberg, a fellow stage veteran and a major influence. He directed his first feature, Crisis, in 1946. The man of the theater embraced cinema, but it took time to learn the expressive qualities of cinema storytelling, and moviemaking was his classroom.
With his tenth feature, Summer Interlude (1951), we can see the development of the mature Bergman, and with his twelfth, Summer with Monika (1953), his filmmaking sophistication catches up with his artistic ambition. Together they make a fine set showing the two sides of Bergman as a serious filmmaker: Interlude, steeped in metaphor and allegory and myth, and Monika, his first triumph in the psychological cinema of troubled souls and broken marriages.
Summer Interlude (Criterion) and Summer With Monika (Criterion), the tenth and twelfth films (respectively) directed by Ingmar Bergman, make a fine match set showing off the two sides of Bergman developing in his early years as a filmmaker.
Summer Interlude (1951), the story of a summer romance between a sunny, confident young ballet student (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and a shy scholar (Birger Malmsten) on the lush vacation islands of the Stockholm archipelago, is a memory film. The older ballerina, now emotionally cocooned in regret and loss, is sent back to those free and easy days when she receives a handwritten diary, and she revisits the island, now a cold, foggy corpse of its summer lushness, to come to terms with her past.
Lovingly shot by Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s first great cinematographer collaborator, the film is steeped in metaphor: a philosophical rumination on love and loss staged as a story, with characters more like archetypes in a theatre piece. Summer is the charge of youth in the idealism of eternal vacation and the innocence of young love in all its dimensions.
Summer with Monika (1953), starring Bergman’s first acknowledged muse Harriet Andersson as the impulsive, anxious, immature young Monika, is more about the complications, the rough edges, the unseen complications in a young couple after the bloom of sexual charge gives way to living in the real world.
Here, summer is less a metaphor and more of the literal time of year that allows these working teenagers to flee the city and live on the islands of the archipelago without a care. For Monika, it is an escape from the reality of the city – her family, her job, the dull life of a working class girl – and only the reality of supplies and food and the onset of autumn’s cold weather drives her back from this ambivalent self-made Eden and back to the material world of Stockholm.
Both are miniatures, studies in character and idea, small in scope and ambition, full of lovely moments and delicate performances. Bergman is finding his themes and learning to express himself and they both feature with moments of grace They don’t have the depth or the breadth or the richness of his great films, but his growth as a filmmaker is apparent in these jump between these two films. Where “Interude” is lovely but sophisticated sketch for films to come, “Monika” brings the real world into Bergman’s world and the tensions create a more powerful and resonant film.
Both debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. Summer Interlude features no supplements beyond a booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie. Summer with Monika features an introduction by Ingmar Bergman (recorded in 2003), a new video interview with actress Harriet Andersson conducted by Peter Cowie, half-hour documentary Images from the Playground by Stig Björkman (featuring behind-the-scenes footage shot by Bergman), and an interview with film scholar Eric Schaefer discussing the original American release of Summer with Monika as an exploitation film, cut down and dubbed by Kroger Babb and released as Monika: Story of a Bad Girl.
Ingmar Bergman’s reputation is built on a foundation of introspective human dramas and personal crises steeped in philosophical discussions, conversations that scrape tender emotions and troubled relationships laid bare. And yes, his career is filled with such cinema, much of it dark, most of it very serious and all of it (to a greater or lesser extent) exploring his ideas of drama, art, love and the complexities of human existence.
Yet the film that first brought Bergman to international attention in 1955 was neither dour nor dark. Smiles of a Summer Night is a light, sunny, airy sex comedy, like a Swedish version of a sly Lubitsch satire of love and class and sex by way of a Shakespeare comedy of mismatched couples reshuffled through the course of the film. It largely plays out at a weekend retreat in the country manor of beautiful (and somewhat notorious) stage actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), or rather her worldly mother (Naima Wifstrand), something of a social courtesan in her day (“My dear daughter, I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).
She invites Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), an old lover who has recently reconnected, along with his much, much younger wife (Ulla Jacobsson) and troubled son (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a divinity student with very worldly concerns, notably a tormenting attraction to his stepmom. To stir it up, she also invites her current lover, the married Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), and his wife (Margit Carlqvist), who connives to help Desiree reshuffle the pairs to their desired outcome. Bringing the sextet up to an octet is Fredrik’s earthy young maid (Harriet Andersson) and Desiree’s hearty groom (Åke Fridell). While Desiree’s mother provides the witty commentary to the awkward dance, the unfettered attraction and physical indulgence of the servants offers a refreshing simplicity to love and sex beyond these social creatures.
It’s all very warm and witty and played like an elegant stage farce, with Bergman’s usual introspection recast through witticisms and banter. The men are egotistical fools (“I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger”) and the women worldly veterans of disappointing loves (apart from the girlish young wife, still a virgin and an optimist). But there is also a vulnerability in the aging Fredrik, who adores his young wife but yearns for a grown-up relationship (and a sex life), and to Desiree, tired of a life of temporary affairs and shared lovers. While she’s the glamorous (and perhaps notorious) star on tour, she seeks stability and comfort at home, where she is also mother to a young son (named Fredrik, much to the adult Fredrik’s alarm… and perhaps pride). It’s a very human comedy, built on the fragility of ego, the confusion of desire and the wonderful illogic of love.
Criterion originally released the film to DVD in 2004. The Blu-ray debut includes the supplements originally presented with that release: a video introduction by director Ingmar Bergman, a video conversation with film historian Peter Cowie and writer Jorn Donner (who was the executive producer on Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander’) and the original Swedish theatrical trailer. The 24-page booklet features an essay by theater and film critic John Simon and a reprint of Pauline Kael’s 1961 review. You can read them both in their entirety at the Criterion Current: John Simon here and Pauline Kael here.