Perhaps the most influential film of Bergman’s early work, the one often cited as launching his international career, and certainly one of Woody Allen’s favourite films from the director he famously idolizes. The liberal and frank attitudes toward sex, nudity and its association with violence gained some notoriety in the day, but it's the enthralling dramatic arc of its rebellious lovers-on-the-run characters that resonates so strongly with today’s eyes.
Summer with Monika (1953) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg
By Alan Bacchus
Like Bergman’s previous Summer Interlude, we’re back in the Swedish archipelago summer vacation spot charting the course of a romantic adventure, which starts out as freewheeling love but devolves when reality crushes their naive dreams of romantic grandeur. While this is Swedish bleakness at its best, it's not the art house alienating kind like much of his mid- and late-career works.
Bergman begins with one of the quickest courtships in cinema history. Harry and Monika are underachieving teenagers, working dead-end jobs with no career prospects. They happen to sit near each other at a local café. It takes no longer than a minute of conversation before Monika asks Harry to run away with him. Monika is escaping her drunken father, who beats her at night, and the sexist ogling of her chauvinist male co-workers. As for Harry, he has a feeling of not fitting in, being ridiculed for dating the town 'slut' and an overall emasculation from his peers. This kind of teenager trauma bonds the two causing them to run away like Bonnie and Clyde.
It’s the start of a long emotional and adventurous journey, which takes them to the Swedish countryside, living an idealistic life off the grid and away from the evils of society. We see Monika and Harry frolicking in the nude, making love whenever they want and living a free life. Eventually, food runs out causing Monika to steal some at a rib roast – a wonderful scene not unlike Jean Valjean stealing his loaf of bread. Bergman has Monika stealing the meat from another vacationing family and running off into the woods eating it like a rabid starving animal. This scene dramatically begins the downfall of the couple. And when Monika gets pregnant they’re forced to move back to the city and assimilate back into the world they so greatly rebelled against.
There’s a strong influence on Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven in this film. They share the lovers-on-the-run theme for sure, but also the dreamy romantic idealistic view of life with a strong emphasis on nature, landscape and an untainted environment.
The flashes of nudity, tongue-kissing and frank references to sex are impossible to ignore. It helped make the film and Bergman a cause-celebre in the day. The film might also have some notoriety for having one of the worst fight scenes ever. It's the culmination of a territorial battle with a neighbouring camper. After catching his rival trashing Harry's boat, the two engage in a ridiculous slapping fight, which looks more like two dolphins flippering each other than violent fisticuffs.
Bergman take his characters to task in the third act by bringing them back to the city, which wonderfully bookends the opening act. New conflicts arise as they try to keep their new family together. Monika's dilemma is visualized with an amazing shot that breaks the fourth wall (a great Bergman moment). The scene involves Monika in a conversation with Harry in a cafe, at the end of which she turns toward the camera and stares right into it. It's not so much a gaze into the audience, but rather the effect of watching Monika looking into a mirror at herself as she contemplates her new life as a mother and adult. It's a shot nothing short of greatness and the mark of a new cinema master.
Summer With Monika is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.