Criterion // 1953 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 4th, 2012
A film for wide screens and broad minds!
"You're not like the rest."
Harry (Lars Ekborg, The Magician) is an ordinary young man who spends his days working hard at a dreary job in a small Swedish town. His life has perked up in recent days as he's struck up something of a romance with the charming Monika (Harriet Andersson, Smiles of a Summer Night), who's regarded by the townsfolk as a floozie but by Harry as an incomparable treasure. After a while, the casual romance transforms into something serious, inspiring Harry and Monika to throw caution the wind and run off together. They quit their jobs and immediately begin a carefree life of sailing, swimming and extended make-out sessions. However, before long the realities of life begin to creep back in, forcing the two young lovers to begin thinking seriously about their future.
Ingmar Bergman's thought-provoking Summer with Monika was released to a positive reception in Sweden in 1953, but it didn't reach the United States until 1955. Bergman had crafted a complex meditation on the conflict between romantic fantasies and the realities of life, but the film's U.S. distributor Kroger Babb (a cinematic traveling salesman of sorts who snatched up anything he could sell as a piece of sensationalistic exploitation) latched onto the fleeting sexuality/nudity featured in the film (which might even get away with a PG-13 by today's standards, but was quite salacious at the time) and made it the film's central selling point. The movie was re-cut, given a handful of additional nude scenes and re-titled Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl. It wasn't until after American audiences "re-discovered" Bergman through such great films as Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal that they were exposed to the original Summer with Monika and given a chance to fully appreciate it as an ambitious, nuanced work.
At a glance, Criterion's cover art might look as if the esteemed company is making a nod to the film's sexually suggestive reputation. That may well be true, but the image chosen is also an important one that occurs at two significant points in the film. The first time it turns up, it feels as if the film is indulging in a bit of paperback novel fantasy. The second time it appears, it's a heartbreaking reminder of shattered dreams. Summer with Monika feels as if it covers an eternity in its brief 97-minute running time, as Bergman is so skillful at efficiently capturing the assorted stages of the turbulent journey Harry and Monika go on.
At a glance, it may seem as if the film is making a somewhat chauvinistic and puritanical statement, a predecessor of the slasher-film mentality that engaging in a bit of fun with loose women can only lead to misery. However, despite Bergman's complicated relationship with women (both onscreen and off), the movie runs deeper than that superficial reading. It's not cautioning men against sexually active women; it's cautioning human beings against thoughtlessly embracing romantic fantasies. Despite the rather thin foundation their relationship is built upon, Harry is eagerly willing to buy the idea that Monika is the love of his life because...well, because she's willing to have him (he's far less experienced in the romantic department than she is). Monika's decision is rooted in fantasy as well: she finds inspiration in a Hollywood melodrama (the brief, overheated clips we see from the fictional film are hysterically awful) and determines that her life of sexual exploration is no match for having One True Love. In the days that follow her viewing experience, Monika seems to go out of her way to see the best in Harry in order to build him up in her mind as the ideal lover.
Bergman does such an effective job of selling the couple's lovestruck bliss early on that it almost comes as a surprise when the milk begins to curdle. Suddenly, a romantically bohemian lifestyle begins to transform into feral survival, and later the comforting fantasies of home and family become the ugly realities of being chained to a spouse and child. Again, it's important to note that Bergman isn't specifically condemning or endorsing any of the lifestyle choices his characters engage in, but examining the flawed motivations which got them into this mess in the first place. As with so many Bergman films, things turn harsh but maintain enough of a sense of tenderness and humor to avoid turning into cheap miserablism. It's a remarkably assured piece of storytelling which somehow becomes more gripping and surprising as it progresses (don't be fooled by the relatively uneventful opening act, which might initially convince viewers that they're in for a reasonably well-crafted but conventional slice-of-life drama).
Summer with Monika (Blu-ray) has received a gorgeous 1080p/Full Frame transfer. You might not regard Bergman as a great visual filmmaker (even if you probably should), but the depth and richness of his compositions (particularly during those early collaborations with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer) tend to benefit immensely from the hi-def treatment. While the footage here is just a hair or two below the jaw-dropping work Criterion did on The Seventh Seal, it looks pretty terrific considering the film's age and relatively small budget. The original grain structure is left intact, depth is spectacular throughout and the level of detail is excellent. You really couldn't ask for more. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track gets the job done nicely as well. As usual for Bergman, the music is very spare (though the aching melody which plays near the film's conclusion plays like a superb precursor to Nino Rota's work on The Godfather) and sound design isn't too complicated, but the dialogue is crisp and clear throughout. Supplements are fairly generous considering the film's status as "minor" Bergman: an introduction from the director (5 minutes), an interview with Harriet Andersson conducted by Peter Cowie (25 minutes), a half-hour documentary entitled "Images From the Playground" which offers a behind-the-scenes look at this film and a handful of other Bergman works, an entertaining featurette entitled "Monika Exploited!" (13 minutes) which covers the film's startling U.S. release, a trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Laura Hubner and Jean-Luc Godard (!), plus a hilarious tongue-in-cheek piece in which Bergman interviews himself.
Summer with Monika is a riveting early effort from Bergman that manages to shift from dreamy lyricism to chilly realism without missing a beat. Criterion's Blu-ray release looks and sounds terrific and features a selection of engaging bonus features. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated