SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Sommarnattens leende) A
Sweden (108 mi) 1955 d: Ingmar Bergman
After a series of financial failures, where Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) (1953) was a box-office catastrophe, Bergman created one of the finest romantic comedies ever filmed, erotic and lyrical, uncommonly wise and beautiful, all the more remarkable as it was written during one of Bergman’s darkest depressions, not only undergoing financial difficulties, but he lost weight (reduced to 125 pounds), suffered stomach pains, while his romance with actress Harriet Andersson was coming to an end (taking up instead with his new love, actress Bibi Andersson). Without his knowledge, the film was entered into the Cannes Film Festival where it received rave reviews and a Jury prize as Best Poetic Humor in 1956, becoming the first Bergman film (his 15th overall) to win international acclaim. The director discovered this purely by chance while reading the newspaper, but the film changed his fortunes forever, making Svensk Filmindustri lots of money, as the production company gave him free reign to do whatever he pleased for the rest of his career, even stimulating an interest in distributing Bergman films in the U.S. specifically an exclusive deal with Janus films (which would eventually become Criterion films) which also distributed Fellini and Kurosawa films as well. In October 1959, as many as 5 Bergman films were playing simultaneously in various New York City arthouses, while in early 1960 Bergman made the cover of Time magazine, the first foreign filmmaker to do so since Leni Riefenstahl in 1936. A sophisticated European comedy of manners, a masquerade of convention with mismatched lovers, a sex farce, battle of the sexes, and brilliant character study, Bergman delves into the lives of an economically successful upper crust social class, only to discover cracks in the fault lines, where presumed happiness is only a façade, yet this merry crew are surprisingly upbeat as they undergo a series of personal challenges, veering headfirst into the arena of sexual politics, speaking more candidly and perceptively about relationships than his other films laced with brooding melancholy and an acrid bitterness, becoming an elaborate partner-swapping bedroom farce as a summer of love and good fortune brings new erotic opportunities, given a delicious Shakespearean Midsummer Night’s Dream twist, as if all have been subject to drinking a love potion. Filled with sharp satire and flirtatious innuendo, this delightful film is one for the ages, legendary for its razor sharp wit and comic timing, mostly taking place at a Renoir-style weekend in the country, an exaggerated romp exposing pretensions and insecurities along the way (Who knew humiliation could be this much fun?), filled with a classical style of unrestrained beauty and poetic eloquence. The fact that this mirrors Bergman’s own life makes it that much more insightful, married five times, yet a serial adulterer, never one to hide his scandalously public relationships with several of the actresses in his films. The writing is exceptional, finding Bergman literally bursting with ideas, inspiring tribute works, including Stephen Sondheim’s magnificent musical, A Little Night Music, winning the Tony Award for best musical, best book, and best score, and Woody Allen’s hilarious love fantasy A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982).
Set in turn-of-the-century Sweden with legendary actress Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), anxious about her advancing years, inviting her former lover Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and his 30-years younger virginal wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), a still unconsummated marriage after several years, along with his son (of the same age) Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) studying for the priesthood, remaining virtuous yet inflamed by his growing desires, torn between carnal lust and his devotion to God, literally a walking contradiction, also inviting her current lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), basically a married man looking gallant in a uniform, and his present wife, Countess Charlotte (Margit Carlquist), looking to avenge her husband’s indiscretions, to her mother’s picture perfect country estate for some fun in the sun, bringing along the hired servants, including the sultry maid Petra, Harriet Andersson, in one of her sexiest performances on film. As it happens, the film is Bergman’s farewell to Eva Dahlbeck and Harriet Andersson, and though Andersson would reappear in later films, it would be in a distinctly different role, no longer the sexy young beauty from Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika) (1953), taking on mature roles, demonstrating more of a dramatic reach. Moving away from his exploration of women, Bergman would make a series of films dominated by anguished men tormented by religious doubt and spiritual uncertainty, never really developing Bibi Andersson’s potential until much later. Shot by Gunnar Fischer, with luminous images of a quaint country estate, placid rivers with swans, and flowering gardens, coupled with elegant costumes and décor, this film accentuates the seductive splendor surrounding the Swedish midsummer, where it could possibly affect destinies in strange and mysterious ways, becoming a morality play pitting together scheming wives and mistresses who resort to devious methods to reclaim the men in their lives who have gone astray. Fredrik, in particular, is seen at the outset as living an idyllic life with a beautiful young bride, yet love remains an illusion, as she’s more of a youthful showpiece than an actual wife, having little say in their marriage, where he makes all the decisions, and while declaring his unending love, it’s an empty and meaningless gesture. No one knows that more than Henrik, his exasperated son, who is brilliant as a student, thoughtful and well-read, but completely innocent to the ways of the world, regularly flirting with Petra, who seems to be schooling him, but keeps him at arm’s length, resorting to a quick slap in the face from time to time, but also enticing him with her sensual charms. None of this escapes Fredrik, who finds it all amusing, suggesting Petra is well-deserving of a raise. This only inflames the ire of Henrik, as his father doesn’t take him seriously, constantly reminded of his youthful innocence, despite expressing complex philosophical ideas. His mind, however, is stuck in the testosterone-raging body of an adolescent child, feeling imprisoned by his naïveté.
When Fredrik obtains theater tickets for the traveling theater troupe, it reignites desirous thoughts of Desirée, who broke up with him years ago, but she was once the love of his life. This quickly becomes apparent to Anne, who finds the salacious stage material too close to home, feigning illness, requiring a quick exit from the theater. After putting her to bed, Fredrik sneaks back out to the theater, greeting Desirée at her final curtain call, where she eagerly grabs him and invites him backstage. Both the same age, their easy rapport with one another is apparent, as she openly mocks him, bosses him around, yet also smothers him with affection, amusingly taking a bath in front of him, reminding him what he’s missing, before taking an evening stroll together with a glass of wine. But their evening soirée is hilariously interrupted by her handsome young lover, Carl-Magnus, an army officer who pretentiously views everything in purely militaristic terms, with one party dominating another, winners or losers, overdramatizing his bitter jealousy felt towards any man who dares interfere in his sexual affairs, though the cigar-smoking Desirée (who shows uncanny awareness) is overly amused at this highly charged spectacle, believing something good can come from it. Losing all interest in the Count, she quickly changes her focus, asking her elderly mother to host a formal weekend gathering at her luxurious estate (given to her to stay quiet and never reveal her precious secrets in a tell-all memoir), bringing together the offended parties, hoping for spectacular fireworks. Furious at her husband’s open display of infidelity, the proud Countess (whose contempt for men is priceless) pays a visit to young Anne, hoping to embarrass her about her husband’s late night prowl, but she takes it all in stride, pretending she knows all about it, though it infuriates her as well, as social manner is always about saving face. This is exactly the kind of behavior that upsets Henrik at the weekend dinner table with all the invited guests, refusing to hear any more of this cynical conversation, where meaning is shrouded by polite manner meant to disguise the barbs and arrows of sarcastic assertions. While he runs away in a dejected state, actually contemplating suicide, the fates are with him, along with a special potion of wine served at dinner, as miraculously, the push of a specially-engineered knob causes a wall to raise allowing a bed from the room next door to enter his bedroom chambers (to the accompaniment of music-box chimes), and lying upon it is Anne fast asleep, which intoxicates his soul, awakening her with a kiss, immediately declaring his love, with the two lovebirds running off, together at last, in a state of ecstasy, setting the stage for more to follow. To preserve his honor, the Count challenges Egerman to a game of Russian roulette over a bottle of aged brandy, though pulls a prank instead, thoroughly humiliating his rival in love, and Egerman is such a stuffed shirt that audiences love to see him take the fall, with the comforting Desirée at his side to “soften the landing.” The Count goes back to his Countess, where he will invariably stray once again, believing it’s a rite of conquest (unable to fathom the emptiness this behavior brings), and even Petra takes solace in the arms of Frid (Åke Fridell), her male counterpart coachman, as both spend a night romping in the haystacks, magically transformed, suffering the same fate as “the clowns, the fools, and the unredeemable,” where by morning she compels him, in her own assertive way, to take the marital vows, all in good fun, with the sun rising over the summer night, where this is one of cinema’s great erotic comedies, one of Bergman’s most perfect films, and easily the sunniest work he ever created.