Criterion // 1955 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 2nd, 2011
A sexy frolic about the sport of love.
Mrs. Armfeldt: "Your children are very beautiful, especially the young
Fredrik Egerman: "The young girl is my wife, Mrs. Armfeldt."
Mrs. Armfeldt: "I believe you lead a very strenuous life, Mr. Egerman."
Frederik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand, Winter Light) is married to a very young woman named Anne (Ulla Jacobsson, One Summer of Happiness) and has an adult son named Heinrik (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam, Wild Strawberries) from a previous marriage. Despite this, Fredrik is still very much in love with Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck, A Day at the Beach), an actress he had an affair with years ago. Unfortunately for him, Desiree is now engaged in an affair with Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle, Fanny and Alexander), a powerful man who is married to the frustrated Countess Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist, To Joy). Meanwhile, young Heinrik is developing feelings for a maid named Petra (Harriet Andersson, Through a Glass Darkly) while Anne is quietly beginning to acknowledge her buried desires for Heinrik. All of these romantic complications come to a head over the course of a weekend at a lavish country estate.
If one were to describe something as, "Bergmanesque," you would probably envision something grim, tormented, and/or philosophical. It's no secret that the filmmaker is best known for some rather downbeat works, but it's easy to forget what a terrific entertainer Ingmar Bergman was. Even in some of his bleakest films, Bergman managed to deliver moments of delightful wit and comedy. Ironically, it was usually in the dramas that Bergman's comic gifts were best spotlighted; most of his full-blown comedies were poorly-received and lacked the memorable qualities of his best work. For that reason (among others), Smiles of a Summer Night stands out on Bergman's resume as his one unqualified comedic success; a delightful romp of a film which instantly transformed Bergman from an obscure Swedish director into an international success.
This is such a jolly film, and Bergman spends a good hour or so simply playfully laying the groundwork for this merry-go-round of heartbreak and romance to commence. Everyone is desperate to be with someone, and no one is truly with the person they really want. It's the sort of theme that Bergman might have used for another of his mournful meditations, but in this case he often pulls back from the very real pain of these experiences and instead offers a loud, sympathetic laugh at the miseries of these terribly discontented, frustrated, horny people.
Still, it's the moments when Bergman does acknowledge the bitterness and heartache fueling these events that give the film a welcome resonance. Don't get me wrong; this is a giddily entertaining film and one that will most assuredly leave a smile on your face. Even so, there are surprisingly naked moments which are given just enough weight to sink in but not enough to derail the film's sense of comic momentum. Consider the scene in which Charlotte suddenly looks directly into the camera and confesses her hatred for men ("Men are horrible, conceited and vain. They have hair all over their bodies."), or the moments of Heinrik's bitterness towards God for making something so wonderful as sex a sinful activity. One senses real pain in Bergman's writing in these moments, but he's quick to follow them with something so charming that we're immediately sucked back into the film's playful proceedings. This is particularly notable during the scene in which Heinrik decides to hang himself; a dark moment which receives one of the film's funniest, sweetest punch lines.
While the film's Rube Goldberg-ish plotting is fun, it's the dialogue and the performances that are responsible for so many laughs. The countless witticisms and fine-tuned verbal duels are delivered with joyous expertise by Bergman's troupe, led by the always-spectacular Gunnar Bjornstrand as the discontented Fredrick and Eva Dahlbeck (a superb actress; it's too bad Bergman didn't use her more frequently) as Desiree. Bjornstrand hits such an amusing note in the way he demonstrates the manner in which Fredrik's sophistication fails to conceal his more primal desires, while Dahlbeck has a lot of fun as the character pulling many of the strings behind the scenes. Harriet Andersson is gleefully lusty as the worldly maid, while Bjorn Bjelfvenstam turns in a very subtle brand of comedy as the mopey Heinrik.
Most romantic comedies conclude with a validation of True Love, and Smiles of a Summer Night is no exception. However, Bergman makes the playfully antagonistic yet genuinely thoughtful observation that the majority of people will never find such a thing, and that we must content ourselves to find some measure of happiness while continuing our fruitless search for it. "I shall remain faithful until the great yawn do us part," one character declares. Some couples get to live happily ever after; others get to live happily until things get dull.
Criterion has done a spectacular job in terms of delivering strong hi-def transfers for Bergman films thus far, and I'm pleased to report that Smiles of a Summer Night is another winner. Boasting a very sharp 1080p/Full Frame transfer, the film offers vivid detail that allows viewers to fully soak up the rich atmosphere the movie has to offer. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer (an underappreciated genius) delivers one striking sequence after another; it's far better-looking than most comedies of the era. Blacks are deep and shadow delineation is superb. Audio is also strong throughout, with crisp, clean dialogue and a robust musical score. My only complaint would be that the music is sometimes overpowering in contrast to the dialogue. The extras from Criterion's DVD release are recycled for the Blu-ray, and once again they're disappointingly thin: an introduction to the film from Bergman (4 minutes), a conversation about the film between Peter Cowie and Jorn Donner (16 minutes), a trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Pauline Kael and John Simon.
Even those who find Bergman's dramas tiresome (a point-of-view I'll never understand, but to each their own) should consider giving Smiles of a Summer Night a look. This is a joyous romantic comedy and a delightful change-of-pace from one of cinema's greatest directors. Criterion's Blu-ray release is light on special features, but the terrific transfer helps offset that problem considerably.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated