Tuesday, 5 June 2012
Wow, just when I thought I knew Ingmar Bergman, the master of Swedish cinema known for often impenetrable art house elegies on life and death, the rediscovery of 'Summer Interlude', an early masterwork from 1951, shows us a youthful energy and remarkably taut pacing not present in his more formal and refined works. The story of a professional ballerina looking back on a romantic summer has the brooding rigorousness of 'Black Swan' and the melodramatic pulpy brilliance of 'Mildred Pierce'.
Summer Interlude (1951) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin, Georg Funkquist
Tragic and beguiling, Summer Interlude is definitely Swedish and all Bergman. Yet his remarkably accessible storytelling methods could have easily been mistaken for a populist Hollywood production.
In the present, Maria (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is a famous ballerina rehearsing for Swan Lake, exhausted from the rigors of the play and the backbreaking demands of her director. When she receives a mysterious package containing on old diary, she's brought back to one of the few moments in her life when work didn't dominate, a brief 'interlude' of pure unbridled passion, a romantic free spirit broken by a sudden tragic ending.
Summer Interlude fits in with a number of Bergman films from the '50s, including Summer With Monika and Wild Strawberries, which use the Swedish summer vacation as their backdrop. It's not an arbitrary period either as, unlike North American society, summer vacation in Sweden means a two-month break during which citizens free themselves from the shackles of everyday life for the pastoral serenity of the country.
Maria's vacation takes place in a stunning rocky archipelago, and while frolicking in her bikini she meets her romantic partner, Henrik, an idealistic student entranced by Maria's gracefulness and beauty. Their time together is blissful until Maria's devotion to her dance interrupts their impenetrable bond. Bergman intercuts Maria's solemn recollections strolling through the people and places of her past with these dreamy flashbacks of romance. It's a devious narrative arc, taking us from the highs of summer passion to gradually disintegrating their relationship when they eventually come to terms with the fact that their careers will prevent them from going any further than a summer tryst to a tragic conclusion that continues to haunt Maria in the present.
These emotional layers are masterfully controlled by Bergman. If you ever had preconceptions of him as a solemn filmmaker with a methodical style just watch the energy of his mise-en-scene - his compositions and camera movement and the choreography of his actors within the frame. The present day sequences in the ballet are choreographed with remarkable energy. His camerawork is fresh and as lively as the Hollywood studio master of this style, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). Of course, Bergman was famously influenced by his family's career in the theatre, and so his visualization of this world is strong and dynamic.
With the use of Swan Lake and the attention paid to the half-dozen dance sequences, the intensity of which contrasts with the serenity of Maria's summer interlude, I can't help but be reminded of Darren Aronofsky's use of the same material in Black Swan.
Other stylistic flourishes which draw attention to Bergman as director and auteur include the use of long dissolves moving us elegantly between time frames, but in a way that's more than functional, bringing us into the introspective regret of the lead character. There's even a headscratching animated sequence, hand drawn stick figures that come to life on a record listened to by Henrik and Maria.
The emotional journey and the pulpy and passionate treatment of this kind of tragic love story at best showcases Bergman's tremendous cinematic arsenal and power over the medium, even at a young age. He's a true cinema master who can beguile us with intellectual dissertations such as The Seventh Seal and Persona but also titillate us with romance and Hitchcockian mystery like Summer Interlude.
Summer Interlude is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.