Sunday, 12 June 2011
Smiles of a Summer Night
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ulla Jacobson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Harriet Andersson, Margit Cariqvist
By Greg Klymkiw
“A romantic comedy by Ingmar Bergman”
So proclaim the opening titles announcing the great artist’s authorship of the magnificent movie, Smiles of a Summer Night. For those who know the Master for his trilogy of despair and agnosticism (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) or his wrenching portrayal of cancer amidst the most harrowing of sibling rivalries in screen history (Cries and Whispers) or the strange autobiography-dolloped, borderline Grand Guignol Grimm-like fairytale and Strindbergian domestic drama Fanny and Alexander, et al, the notion of a romantic comedy by Ingmar Bergman might well strike some as an oxymoron.
It makes perfect sense, though. Bergman’s picture might not seem like the bauble usually associated with the genre of romantic comedy, but it blends all the requisite tropes of the form and does so with a haunting melancholy that places it squarely at the top of the heap. While an early work from Bergman, it displays the assuredness, skill, artistry, sensitivity and poetry of a Master. It is a true delight that is as funny, frothy and entertaining as it is deeply and profoundly moving. In fact, my recent screenings of the picture on the delicious new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release might force my hand to elevate the movie to my personal Bergman favourite.
First and foremost, it presents Bergman’s unflagging talent for creating complex and compelling characters of the female persuasion. His touch for this rivalled, if not exceeded that of such distinguished fellows as Carl Dreyer (Passion of Joan of Arc) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story). Against the backdrop of early 20th century Sweden, a man’s world – as it were – we see a delightful tale unfold in which the women have the clear upper hand in their brilliant manipulations of all the dull-witted gentlemen, especially in matters of the heart (and, if truth be told, mind).
Bergman serves up a delicious stew of characters – all involved in various infidelities, yet looking for the one true love to infuse their lives with exclusive devotion. Fredrik Egerman (a shockingly funny Gunnar Bjornstrand) is a dull, middle aged, meticulously manicured lawyer who is married to the pert, nineteen-year-old sex kitten Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). He seems to have it all – except his new near-child bride who is still a virgin. The marriage has not been consummated due to Anne requiring some easing-in time. Fredrik waits ever-so patiently to dip his needy Nordic wick into his comely wifelet's burgeoning fleur de volets humide de la viande.
Complicating matters is the presence of his dour son Henrik (Bjorn Bjelvenstam), fresh from the seminary and on the verge of taking his oath of chastity. Henrik is constantly the target of the household’s sexy maid Petra (Harriet Andersson) who seeks to corrupt his aching appendage. At the same time, the son who clings to his virtue is madly in love with his Dad’s young bride. Henrik is torn between carnal lust, true love and devotion to God. Dad, of course, can see the attraction between his son and wife and knows he must act fast to make Anne all his before Sonny Jim manages to slide in his Swedish schwance and burst the hymen he longs to perforate.
Fredrik enlists the services of his former lover, the staggeringly gorgeous and popular stage actress Desiree Armfelt (the uber-radiant Eva Dahlbeck) to assist him with deflowering his bride. Desiree has always had a soft spot for Fredrik and agrees to take the mission, but is armed with a secret plan to get back her beloved Fredrik.
To further complicate matters, Desiree is having an ongoing dalliance with the married military man Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jari Kulle). Malcolm’s wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is aware of her hubby’s infidelities – even engaging in open discussions with him about them. She wants her incorrigible hubby exclusively to herself and teams up with Desiree to make this a reality. Two scorned women are a veritable army of love.
The rest of the comedy takes place on the estate of Desiree’s mother Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wilfstrand) who agrees to set the stage for a magnificent coup de l’amour. Fredrik, his wife and son, Carl-Magnus and Charlotte and even the Egerman housemistress Petra are all invited for a weekend frolic on the grounds of the majestic sun-dappled Armfeldt manor in the country.
Here, the magic of love must, during a summer night, work overtime to bring the right combinations together. According to the Armfeldt groom Frid (Ake Fridell), the summer night is endowed with three smiles. The first is when young lovers open their hearts and loins – this, is when true love occurs. The second smile is reserved for jesters and fools – when love strikes those unable to truly experience love – where the mask of seeming mirth and/or ignorance provides a solace that is fleeting, ephemeral and ultimately intangible. As the dawn begins to peek from the out of the horizon, the final smile of night is reserved for the rest – the sad and dejected, the sleepless, the lost souls, the frightened and the lonely.
This is the love that the majority of humanity must settle for.
And this is the Bergman we’ve come to know and love – a man who investigates humanity with an eye of unwavering truth, melancholy and raw emotion.
Smiles of a Summer Night is an astonishingly universal work and has as much relevance to the present, and no doubt the future, as it did upon first release. It wasn’t the first romantic comedy Bergman made – he’d dabbled in it a few times prior to 1955, but those works, while modestly entertaining, are slight in terms of their ambition and I suspect work less successfully because of their contemporary settings.
The turn of the 19th to 20th century seems an ideal context to present a tale for all times. I will always recall Norman Jewison discussing his use of the diaphanous, near Ancient-Roman costuming of the female characters in Rollerball in order to present his sci-fi future in a futuristic world that would not seem dated. And Damn, Uncle Norman succeeded in spite of the male characters’ 70s sideburns – because of this introduction of elements of the past. The past makes all that is old new again.
There, I’ve finally done it. I’ve mentioned Rollerball in a review of an Ingmar Bergman movie. But bear with me – it makes sense. I’ve often found that rooting about in the past (or elements of it) allowed for an excellent looking glass into our own time and, by extension, the future. With Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman’s use of an earlier age is what contributes to his ability to oddly contemporize, if not outright universalize this comic tale of love, infidelity and the power of female sexuality.
It is, of course, the wits and wiles of Woman that Bergman places his faith and trust. It is Desiree who notes that men “never know what’s best for them” and how women must “set them on the right track”. What, however, is the right track? Since pure, unbridled love – according to Bergman – can only be celebrated by the very few, then it stands to reason that the rest are the deluded, the pawns of the summer night and the smiles of Heaven, or, if you will, fate. This is what has the final word over all who populate the Earth – that power which can never truly be wrested away from the force of nature itself.
Bergman is, however, a formidable force of nature, of art, of the magic of cinema. His deft handling of this gorgeous, moving and funny romantic comedy is exquisite. Often, Bergman will settle his camera on a lovely eye-level medium composition – one that rivals and ultimately bests Howard Hawks, the master of 20th century romantic comedy himself.
A sequence that is perhaps the single greatest example of the genre in terms of writing and staging involves Fredrik, Desiree and Carl-Magnus – wherein our unlikely romantic hero, the dullard man of law declares, “A gentleman doesn’t face his rival deprived of his trousers.” Here, Bergman presents a long series of magnificent frames with very few cuts and where the actors deliver rapid-fire verbal exchanges within a fixed point of perspective. Upon the unexpected arrival of Carl-Magnus who has a mere 20-hour leave from military duty (6 hours for travel to and from, 9 hours with his mistress and 5 hours with his wife), a terrified Fredrik opines to Desiree: “Perhaps I could hide.” Her response: “We are not on a stage, dearest Fredrik.” In reality, it is not a stage of the theatre, but it is certainly a stage of life wrought by the Master that is Ingmar Bergman.
Fredrik sums it all up: “But this is still a damned farce”.
And so it is – a farce a la Bergman.
The sequence features several lengthy two-handers and three-handers – often lasting a full two minutes or longer where there are no cuts. In spite of this, the screen is awash in action and movement – pure cinematic expression.
Not only is Smiles of a Summer Night a perfect example of Bergman’s mastery of cinematic language from the perspective of camera but also his screenplay is complete and utter perfection as he juggles and finally fits together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is love. A great sequence involves our near-child bride Anne as she restlessly moves from room to room in Fredrik’s home – desperately searching for something to do and meeting both resistance and failure to make something, anything out of her daily existence until finally, sadly and with profound humanity, she settles in a room with her beloved budgies – beautiful, delicate, twittering creatures that, under her gaze, continue to live and breathe inside a cage. What might have been heavy handed symbolism in the hands of virtually every screenwriter or director is rendered fresh and moving in the hands, pen and eyes of Bergman.
Smiles of a Summer Night might well be the greatest of all romantic comedies – a pinnacle ascended at the half-century mark of cinema’s history and one that has never and will likely never be reached again.
At the halfway point of this truly majestic work, Desiree’s mother, invalided in her bed, but replete with all the experience that life has offered and that she has taken willingly, openly and greedily, looks to her daughter from a heartbreakingly, breathtakingly gorgeous long shot and says – to both her daughter’s POV and, by extension to us and the world:
“I am tired of people, but it doesn’t stop me from loving them.”
Bergman has delivered perfection.
He has delivered love the way only the medium of cinema can.
He loves his characters, he loves humanity and he loves us.
This is what greatness is.
This is art.
Smiles of a Summer Night is available on Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection in a gorgeous high definition transfer with a fine selection of extra features.