Ingmar Bergman: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYIf you've been following my writings on Ingmar Bergman, or were a Bergmanophile to begin with, chances are you wouldn't expect a breezy, witty, wonderfully paced comedy from the man.  I mean, this is the director that envisions the soul as a blood red vein in which we all live our experiences through.  His typical philosophy isn't one that lends itself easily to comedy yet, here we are, at Smiles of a Summer Night, the film that really launched his career.

Smiles of a Summer Night is something of an anachronism in Bergman's career.  As noted, it's a comedy, a genre that he played very poorly in and would hardly revisit.  It was made during a time in the man's life when he was bankrupt, between wives, and nearly starving to death because of a self-diagnosed stomach cancer.  All factors being equal, it's highly unlikely that a comedy would result from these conditions.  But a comedy he made, and one that balances the wire between being funny as well as containing his signature themes of isolation and humiliation.

The film has to balance a central cast of eight characters, all related to each other in some way, and all needing to contribute something meaningful to the plot.  Bergman does not work well with large casts, but he strikes a magnificent chord between everyone.  The plot is convoluted, but since the central theme is love and it's transient nature, it's ok that the film is a bit bungled in the who and what.  Love is a messy endeavor, and one that many in the film are trying to drag themselves out of.

With one still from a croquet game, Bergman tells us almost everything we need to know about these characters.

So now I must make sense of the plot, which plays out wonderfully in visuals, but less so on page.  The film takes place in a charming Swedish villa in the early 1900's.  Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand) anticipates a play that he will take his young wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) to.  Unfortunately for Anne, the play stars Fredrik's old mistress, Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), who he still desires.  Orbiting around Anne and Fredrik is Henrik (Bjorn Bjelvenstram), Fredrik's son from another marriage.  Henrik wants to be a preacher, but has to find a way to deal with the sexual impulses that he carries for his "mother" Anne.

Complicating their arrangements further are Desiree's lover Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), and his wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), who is friends with Anne and familiar with Fredrik's late night shenanigans.  Orbiting everyone are the servants of the Egerman's and the Armfeldt's, Petra (Harriet Andersson) and Frid (Ake Fridell), who are sexually liberated and love tempting others with their prowess and bodies.  Sketching out the basics of each character's plot would take quite some time, so let's just say that things have a way of working out in strange ways.

The film is joyful in a way that no other Bergman film is.  These characters are so filled with passion in various states of expression and denial.  Some, like Henrik, deny themselves love for a greater calling.  Others, such as Petra, revel in their sexuality and use it as a tool for fun and personal advancement within the homes.  The passion leaps off-screen and worms it's way into our collective loins.  The combination of restraint and oppression entice some of the same lustful feelings being examined.  This, my friends, is very difficult for a film to pull off well and have it not come off as funny.

But we're not laughing at their desires, we're laughing with the witty way that they present themselves.  Bergman scripts are special pieces of writing, but never again would he be as funny as he is in Smiles of a Summer Night.  The various verbal duels between the sexes leaves him plenty of room to air out his arsenal of fun repartee.  For example Desiree, when greeting a Frederik who has some obvious needs that need attending to, utters "It is always your noblest parts that bring you to Desiree".  Then there's Frederik himself, who mutters "A gentlemen does not face a rival deprived of his trousers" when he is in a very tight spot with Carl-Magnus.  It's a fun script in a blissful film.

Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm give off the strong impression that there are a few bondage tools at play when the lights go out.

But still the Bergman themes wiggle their way in.  The constant ticking of time and fear of death is always looming; be it from Fredrik's constant need for a younger woman, Anne's desire to lose her virginity to become one, Desiree's jealousy of Anne's youth, and so on.  Visually the film plays with this quite a bit, hiding clocks in many corners of the screen and, in one effective moment, interposing the start of a new day with a figurine of death chasing people around a clock.  Time marches on, and we all need different forms of vindication to justify our lives on this mortal coil.

There's so much more to Smiles of a Summer Night that I can spin off for paragraphs.  There's the sadomasochistic relationship between Charlotte and Carl-Magnus, the heavily implied lesbian subtext between Petra and Anne, or the many quick religious critiques that litter the film.  But those are my observations, and with a film this rich I encourage you all to watch it and find your own.  It's got the air of a light comedy, but it hides depths that launched Bergman's career into the stratosphere as an international success.

Next week I'll be tackling what many consider to be the single most iconic film of his career, The Seventh Seal.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Gunnar Bjornstrand and Ulla Jacobsson.

Posted by Andrew

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