Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, Ingmar Bergman)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The popular conception of Ingmar Bergman is of the most dour kind of cinematic auteurism: movies you watch in school, movies that are artistically admirable in a cerebreal sort of way and make you feel bad. The truth is that even many of Bergman’s most ambitious and serious efforts, like The Seventh Seal, are too lively and full of vibrancy to fit this stereotype, and even at his most humorless (Cries and Whispers, say, or Persona or Scenes from a Marriage) his films come about their moods through raw, humane emotional outpourings; they are not pretentious or difficult to follow, enjoy or understand. But to the individual who happens to see Smiles of a Summer Night — the film that secured Bergman’s reputation as a major filmmaker in Europe if not on the world stage, which would come soon enough — before any of the director’s other immortal classics, the accusation seems especially absurd on the face of it. What person could walk away from this film without feeling elated, affirmed and overflowing with love? It’s a delight in the purest, most unadulterated sense, full of warm humor, caustic wit and unrelentingly frank but sweet-natured eroticism.

Retroactively, Smiles has faded slightly in the critical interpretation of Bergman’s canon, the study of which it essentially inaugurated (the Bohemian melodrama Prison from 1949 is probably his most celebrated prior work, at least today); the argument is that it’s so atypically conventional, light and airy, even — after a fashion — innocent. However, this is a short-sighted view of the work unfair both to the film itself and to the immensely pleasing ambiguity within Bergman’s overall view of the world, which is much less unremittingly dark than is credited. The movie has precedent in the stage comedies of Molière and even, in a sense, Shakespeare; and, slightly, within the remarriage comedies of 1930s Hollywood cinema from Lubitsch to The Philadelphia Story, but on the whole has proven both strikingly singular and broadly influential, inspiring musicals and remakes and farcical send-ups both credited and non. There is nothing else quite like it in Bergman’s filmography, and more importantly, there’s probably no other film that quite provides the feeling of bliss and exuberance it emanates, seemingly almost effortlessly. In the way that certain movies seem drunken on the camera and its transcendent possibilities, Smiles of a Summer Night is intoxicatingly over the moon about nothing more or less than life at its essence: a beer at sunrise, a literal roll in the hay, a midnight elopement, a moonlit field, a house full of couples romping far less discreetly than they think they are, the impermanence of a youthful tryst or the unexpected revival of one that long lived only in distant memory.

Bergman spends much of Smiles of a Summer Night describing and defining love, which by turns is presented as tragic, as “perfectly imperfect,” then bombastic, quiet, glorious, mistakenly ignored. These contradictions fall upon the weekend occupants of a country castle presided over by a once-great actress (Naima Wifstrand), now wizened and retired and completely disinterested in the follies of the guests invited by her daughter Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), a well-established actress as well who toward the beginning of her career once enjoyed an ill-fated affair with a dour and self-important attorney, Fredrik Egerman, portrayed by Gunnar Björnstrand as the sort of stuffed-shirt whose entire personality changes depending upon how sexually interested he is in the person he is talking to, dripping with condescension toward the excessively young wife he lusts after but will not touch (Ulla Jacobsson as Anne) — he claims she is frightened of him and that he wants her to assert her desires to him, but then never displays anything like genuine affection toward her — but intimidated and chastened by Desiree whom he respects and still has sexual dreams about. Desiree now regularly makes time with a jealous boor known as Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose violence toward every perceived threat to his masculinity is matched only by his apathy toward his gorgeous and bitterly bored wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist). Thrown into this mix is the happily slutty maid Petra (Harriet Andersson) who approaches life with lust, verve and spontaneity and seems the most fulfilled person in the film for most of the running time; and Egerman’s tortured son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a moralist punishing himself through a religious education but aching with unrequited passion for his stepmother, who’s much more appropriate in age for him than for his father — and is clearly more attracted, in turn, to the younger man. The party is a scheme by Desiree and Charlotte to form three happy relationships from all this morass, with a bit of gleeful partner-swapping along the way.

If all this sounds overcomplicated — less a love triangle than a love dodecahedron — with the interpersonal ins and outs of an Austen novel, not that there would be anything less than fascinating about Bergman approaching such a narrative, it doesn’t feel that way in the presentation, with the characters and their relationships flowing out organically from the film, and all of them defined beautifully by the script and actors. It can be pared down in the end to the story of two or three couples finding happiness by escaping from self-denial; as a neat by-product of this structure, it also places young Henrik and Anne as a proper unit, the self-hating and egotistical Fredrik away from nineteen year-old Anne and with his peer Desiree who so can so much more deeply understand him, and vice versa.

Bergman’s masterful direction of the picture is largely quiet; the photography only sharply asserts itself in some of the night scenes that show Petra cavorting around with her latest spirited conquest Frid (Åke Fridell), who waxes poetic about the summer evening underneath a windmill, outside a barn and in a haystack as the sky seemingly does his (and the director’s) bidding. Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer’s camera also clearly loves the ornate nooks, crannies and marvelous grounds of their main location, Jordberga Castle near the southern coast of Sweden. But the point is the people themselves, the script and performances, more than the aesthetic and stirring boundary-breaking of Bergman’s more obvious masterpieces. He shirks any Rules of the Game-like class commentary here; there is no combative relationship to speak of between the moneyed and the servants. In one memorably sensual sequence, Petra and Anne even briefly roll around in bed together, the suggestiveness of the moment neither underlined nor ignored by Bergman, whose chief fixation is the unforced naturalism of their brief moment of wildly expressive freedom: they are so young, it’s implied, that the possibilities are still endless. The writer-director’s overall interest in these people, however privileged and oblivious they may be, is purely down to their inner lives. By setting the film in 1901 and among lawyers, soldiers and artists, he creates a bubble in which his primary pursuit is the wickedly funny and heartfelt essence of matters of the heart: in this conception there is nothing more important, and there doesn’t need to be.

Having said all that, the film is not lacking in depth; if anything, its commentary on meaningful and empty — and cheerfully frivolous, which isn’t the same thing — romantic relationships is far more forward-thinking than could be found in any Hollywood comedy of this specific vintage (a decade or two earlier, it was a different situation), and not merely because it’s so much more explicit than those could be. Though there is a touch of the deliciously stagy and supernatural in the presence of Mrs. Armfeldt holding court at the dinner table surrounded by grapes, or of sheer absurdity in the broad characterization of the amusingly hair-triggered Count, the angst and desire of these people is as vividly rendered and believable as that of the much less upper-crust occupants of Prison: the film ridicules Fredrik, but it also understands him… and it expects us, generally correctly, to do the same. Perhaps more to the point when taking all of Bergman’s greatest work of the ’50s into account, his ability to capture the sheer splendor of living — the open country, the eyes and the hips of a lover, the appearance of the youth to the aged and the other way around, the commingling of life and death, land and sea — would find similarly poignant, much more solemn but no less life-affirming outlet in The Seventh Seal and particularly Wild Strawberries; even more than Bergman’s profound and provocative later works, these films leave one with the fervent desire to leave the theater and embrace the world in unambiguous totality. Would the Black Death’s coexistence with roadside picnics, young love and strong marriage in The Seventh Seal feel so cozy yet inherently tragic without Smiles of a Summer Night as its road map, as the establishment of its irresistible language?

All of Bergman’s films are philosophical, which perhaps is what has given him his exaggerated reputation as a figure of snobbery outside of cinephile circles. In his early major films, cynicism and humanism coexist almost interchangeably; unanswerable complexity is embraced and adored. Love and theology and, especially, sin are all examined with equal weight and no condemnation; indeed, “sin” itself becomes a source of redemption: not just sex, but (twice) attempted suicide. What Bergman adds to his forebears, Renoir in particular, is both the unapologetic overcommunication of emotional anguish, overblown and otherwise, and the unflinching before embarrassment. As The Seventh Seal encourages dance and laughter in the face of death, Smiles of a Summer Night posits the same response to the doomed, inevitable self-tortures of love and sex. Go ahead and laugh at these things, for they will laugh at you.

Bergman wrote this film in a period of grave depression and credited it with saving his life. Never one to apply such vast platitudes to any kind of creative work, I believe his romantic anecdote in this case. There are countless moments in Smiles of a Summer Night that can make you just marvel to yourself with a sigh of laughing recognition. Virtually everything that happens in its final third is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, the emergence of a bed from a wall after a slapstick pratfall offering one of the most unabashedly sweet moments in any great film. And it’s sweet in a bizarre fashion: neither an intentional product of any character or even something that in and of itself would mean much — because the incredible warmth felt from it is really felt for the movie itself, not for any of those within it, engaging as they may be. Bergman’s output in this period expressed both despair and wonder at the world, and what makes this his most accessible work is the way that he persuades us to consider the blurred boundaries between the loveliest and saddest aspects of being alive. It’s not quite even-handed though, with “sin” far more deserving of celebration than of scorn — and sixty-five years later, he is still correct that sin in this definition is what makes the entire game worth playing.

***

[Includes a few short passages from a review posted in 2005]

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