Judge Dan Mancini calls Ingmar Bergman Sweden's Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Not really, but this is an uncharacteristically humorous movie from the master of the depressing.
Our review of Smiles of a Summer Night (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 2nd, 2011, is also available.
"Love is a loathsome business—in spite of everything, I still love him."—Charlotte Malcolm
As Ingmar Bergman tells it, he was reading the newspaper while sitting on the toilet when he learned Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende) had won a Jury Prize at Cannes. He hadn't even known the film was entered at the festival. He made the period comedy—set in 1901—in order to save his career after the dismal failure of his two previous efforts, A Lesson in Love (1954) and Dreams (1955). The film's success at Cannes, along with its warm reception from critics and audiences alike, probably saved Bergman's directing career and gave him just enough artistic clout to wrangle the money for his next project, The Seventh Seal.
Facts of the Case
Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand, Through a Glass Darkly) is a foppish, middle-aged attorney with a much younger wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson, Zulu), and a romantic history with an aging star of the stage, Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck, Brink of Life). Fredrik's son, Henrik (Björn Bjelvenstam, Wild Strawberries), is a young clergyman-in-training with a suppressed love for Anne, which he vents in a clumsy liaison with the Egerman's maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson, Cries and Whispers), whose earthy sexuality he finds irresistible.
Even as she considers rekindling her romance with Fredrik, Desirée Armfeldt is in the midst of an affair with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle, Fanny and Alexander). His wife, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist, Loving Couples), is aware of his affair with the actress and stokes his jealousy over Desirée's possible feelings for Fredrik, while betraying Fredrik's attempted dalliance to Anne, with whom she is close friends.
Things get interesting when, one summer night, this tangle of lovers arrives at the Armfeldt estate for a dinner party.
Smiles of a Summer Night is a rousing artistic success considering the desperate circumstances under which it was made. Bergman compromised nothing in delivering his crowd-pleasing comedy. Farce isn't what we expect from the director, but the film is otherwise Bergmanesque. At its center are the preoccupations that define the his style: the power of erotic love and lust; the childish vanity and fragile egos of men; and women who are at once long-suffering in their coddling of the men to whom they're attached by sex or love or longing, yet also capable of great cruelty because of the power they hold over the aforementioned male ego. Smiles of a Summer Night explores the tension between the characters' need to reach out for emotional and sexual connection with one another, and their fear of damaged dignity at the hands of their friends and lovers as a result of the attempts at such intimacy. In that regard, it is much like any other Bergman film.
As a comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night would be in the same droll style of E.M. Forster (A Room with a View), except the male characters' narcissism, cast through the prism of bedroom comedy, transforms them into hilarious boobs. Selfish and arrogant, yet easily wounded, it's impossible for us not to laugh at them. Gunnar Bjönstrand is particularly effective as Fredrik Egerman, exuding pomposity with his cartoonish beard, bowl haircut, and stiff carriage. The way his sexual self-assuredness melts into cowardice in the face of male competition and dread of creeping old age over the course of the film is both hilarious and pitiful. He represents a middle-ground between his son, Henrik, who is filled with self-loathing because of his too-brief dalliance with Petra, and the hyper-macho Count Malcolm, a vain and openly promiscuous dragoon whose masculinity is displayed by military uniforms and a willingness to duel over matters of honor (one wonders if Jarl Kulle's pitch-perfect comic performance was a primary influence for Kevin Kline's turn as Otto West in A Fish Called Wanda). Henrik is too weak to garner our full sympathy; Malcolm is pure comic boob. Fredrik is the epitome of the Bergman male, despicable and sympathetic, a fool whose hardships break our hearts. He is at once a comic type and a round character, making us laugh even as we share his pain. Only a director of Bergman's caliber could pull off such a delicate balancing act. It's what makes Smiles of a Summer Night such an exceptional comedy.
As with most of Bergman's films, the wealth of our sympathy is reserved for the women because they're far more aware of their own plight in matters of love. They know the male ego must be pampered, yet they're also aware of the emotional risks they face in such pampering. Near film's beginning, Desirée performs a scene in a play in which she plays a countess. Her speech sums up the paradox the film's women face. "Love is a perpetual juggling of three balls: heart, words, and loins. How easy it is to juggle these balls, and how easy it is to drop one of them," she says. Later in the movie, Charlotte Malcolm—the real countess—expands on the fictional countess's observation when she confesses to Anne that she loathes men, finds them brutish with their "hairy bodies," but that Malcolm's gentle bedchamber words and caresses, however self-serving, leave her hopelessly in love with him. These are true Bergman women, deserving better from their men, but unlikely to get it.
Charlotte's confession to Anne is played out with Margit Carlqvist looking directly into the camera with her back to Ulla Jacobssen. The odd blocking creates a stagy effect, and links the scene to the earlier play within the film. In fact, Bergman brings many stage elements into his construction of Smiles of a Summer Night. Characters look into the camera a number of times as though delivering speeches out to an audience (they never speak to us, only in our direction; it's the age-old theater conceit signifying deep rumination, the revelation of the innermost workings of a character's heart). The blocking is sometimes rigidly artificial for cinema, characters in conversation framed in two-shots, facing each other in perfect profile, like thespians meticulously hitting marks so that neither upstages the other. The comedy relies heavily on bits of acting that are broadly theatrical, as if played to an audience watching and listening from a distance; these punctuations of farce blunt the poignancy of the film's contrasting emotional realism. And Erik Nordgren's (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly) score is pure theater music, not only in its lavish orchestration but also in the sparity with which it is used. Unlike a typical film composer, Nordgren remains almost entirely silent as the characters interact with one another, adding only brief punctuations to moments of comedy or high drama. His work asserts itself during scene transitions, like interludes played while sets are changed.
All of this self-conscious theatricality enables us to endure the characters' suffering—rendered through Bergman's astonishingly concrete grasp of human emotions—while fully enjoying the comedy. As in Shakespeare's comedies, we never lose sight of the fact that the characters' travails are only way stations on the journey toward an inevitable happy ending.
In bringing Smiles of a Summer Night to DVD, Criterion's done a fine job with a source that appears to have been slightly problematic. Overall, the video quality is a stunner. The black-and-white image is mostly characterized by velvety blacks, sharp whites, and a fine scale of grays. Some scenes in rooms with low lighting come across a bit muddy, however, and grain is occasionally coarser than ideal. These are minor quibbles, and probably attributable to the age of the source material. After all, Bergman has approved the transfer, and Criterion's digital restoration has removed all but the most minor of dirt and damage.
Audio is restored 1-channel mono in Swedish. It's basically flawless for what it is.
Supplements are extremely thin on this single-disc release. Bergman provides a three-minute video introduction, shot in 2003 on his island, Fårö. In it, he tells the story of reading about the Cannes win while on the toilet, and gives an overview of the film's context within his body of work.
With the exception of the original Swedish theatrical trailer for the film, the only other extra housed on the disc is a 17-minute conversation between film scholar Peter Cowie (Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography) and longtime Bergman friend, and executive-producer of Fanny and Alexander, Jörn Donner. The two discuss the genesis of the film, as well as Bergman's themes and techniques. Both are insightful, though the piece is far too short to provide much substance.
This release is a rare example of the insert booklet providing far more satisfying supplemental material than anything on the disc itself. Pauline Kael's 1961 review of the film is reprinted inside, as is a lengthy and detailed essay by John Simon, who is currently the theater critic for New York magazine, and was formerly a film critic for the National Review. It's too bad Simon (or Cowie) weren't tapped for a commentary track.
Sometimes different is good. Smiles of a Summer Night is a different kind of Bergman film. It's also a good one.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Introduction by Ingmar Bergman
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