Director Ingmar Bergman on the set
SUMMER WITH MONIKA (Sommaren med Monika) A-
Sweden (96 mi) 1953 d: Ingmar Bergman
Why do some people have all the luck while others are miserable?
―Monika (Harriet Andersson)
A perceptive working class dream and nightmare, all turned into one, offering a brief summer romance, as two young teenage lovers escape a claustrophobic world closing in on them and simply run away into the freedom of the open sea, set against a gritty depiction of the bleakness of city life, arguably the only Bergman film that examines working class life, though Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) (1953) made later that same year explores a more primitive variation, making this of unique interest in his overall body of work, creating a kind of contemplative cinema, with Stockholm viewed as a city by the sea shrouded in the gloom of a morning mist. The film introduces us to Harriet Andersson as 17-year old Monika, the free-spirited girl of every boy’s dreams, as she exudes eroticism and sexuality, becoming a liberated spirit that simply defies all earthly boundaries, a true revelation in an era of strict prudish conservatism. Discovered as a young variety show entertainer who Bergman claimed “radiated more uninhibited erotic charm” than any other Swedish film actress, with the director developing a personal relationship with his young star (leaving his wife and children for her), as he would later with Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Swedish films are forever associated with a liberated view towards sexuality, partially based upon this film, with its brief exposed nudity, and Arne Mattsson’s ONE SUMMER OF HAPPINESS (1951) which did the same, becoming something of an international sensation, perhaps culminating with I AM CURIOUS YELLOW (1967) by Vilgot Sjöman (initially banned in the United States) who curiously made an earlier 5-part television documentary entitled INGMAR BERGMAN MAKES A MOVIE (1963), going behind-the-scenes while Bergman was shooting Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna) (1963), the middle film in his Faith Trilogy. Just hearing about the nudity, American exploitation producer Kroger Babb purchased the rights to the film for $10,000 sight unseen in 1955, reducing it to 62 minutes, dubbing it into English, adding a jazzy soundtrack, while making sex and nudity the centerpiece of the film, renaming it Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, (More with Monika! | The Scene of Screen 13), playing across the country in drive-ins and arthouse theaters. Despite this seamy aside, it received little fanfare when it was first released, never thought of as anything exceptional until French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and his Cahiers brethren started singing the praises of the film, with Godard writing, “Only Bergman can film men as they are loved but hated by women, and women as they are hated but loved by men.” Truffaut in The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959) includes a scene of Antoine Doinel (labeled a juvenile bad boy) and his friend stealing a suggestive publicity photo of Monika from outside a Parisian theater. Today it remains the most widely seen Bergman film in the United States. Certainly in the early 50’s, no one had seen a movie like this before, much less exported it, perhaps best expressed by the fond recollections of a young and impressionable Woody Allen:
Less than ennobling was the motive for seeing my first Ingmar Bergman movie. The facts were these: I was a teenager living in Brooklyn, and word had got around that there was a Swedish film coming to our local foreign film house in which a young woman swam completely naked. Rarely have I slept overnight on the curb to be the first in line for a movie, but when Summer with Monika opened at the Jewel in Flatbush, a young boy with red hair and black-rimmed glasses could be seen clubbing senior citizens to the floor in order to insure the choicest, unobstructed seat.
I never knew who directed the film nor did I care, nor was I sensitive at that age to the power of the work itself – the irony, the tensions, the German Expressionist style with its poetic black-and-white photography and its erotic sado-masochistic undertones. I came away reliving only the moment Harriet Andersson disrobed, and although it was my first exposure to the director who I would come to believe was pound for pound the best of all filmmakers, I did not know it then.
Viewed as a follow-up to SUMMER INTERLUDE (1951), which according to Marie Nyreröd’s documentary BERGMAN ISLAND (2004), is the first film where Bergman felt comfortable as a director with the rhythms and musical nuances of filmmaking. Adapting Per Anders Fogelström’s 1951 novel, the film opens as a shadowy tribute to the city of Stockholm, with a documentary-style look of Italian neo-realism as the camera pans the bridges, boat docks, and many canals, viewed as a city that never sleeps, where the rush of morning workers setting off for their jobs replace the drunken night owls stumbling down the streets. Lars Ekborg is seen as 19-year old Harry, driving his rickety pushcart through the bustling city streets, delivering boxes of glassware from Forsberg’s, while Monika is introduced catching a glimpse of herself in the front door mirror before staring work in a vegetable market. While superiors are constantly belittling Harry, believing they have to browbeat him into being the worker they desire, subjecting him to an onslaught of criticism, men are constantly lifting up Monika’s skirt or lecherously pinching her behind, as if this comes with the territory, taking full advantage of the situation, at her expense. Both lead miserable home lives, with an uneducated Monika sleeping in the living room of her large family, with an abusive alcoholic father and a nagging mother, driven out of her mind by the constant interruptions from the noise of the “little brats” who have free reign of the place, while Harry’s mother died when he was young, raised in middle class respectability by an elderly father who can be feeble-minded, spending most of his time alone. Meeting accidentally at a corner bar, the more reserved and passive Harry is fascinated by her excitable candor, watching a tearful love story together later that night at the movies, where immediately they see exactly what they want in each other, blinded by their own youthful exuberance. “Let’s go away and never come back,” she proposes, where he’s startled to believe she actually means it just seconds after meeting her, happy to have a girlfriend, like “everybody else,” while she infers that his shy, polite manner makes him a soft-spoken romantic hero, both dreaming of a summer romance together with their one “true love.” While it’s a bit of a fairy tale romance, the film is otherwise grounded in a lower class perspective, where dreams quickly vanish by the dreary reality that awaits them. But in a mad rush of youthful excitement, they heed their initial instincts by plunging headfirst into a steamy affair, running away from all the problems at home, taking his father’s boat (with sleeping quarters) out into the remote and mostly uninhabited islands of the Stockholm archipelago, spending an idyllic summer far removed from the pressures of the real world. But for them, as long as they have each other, that’s all that matters, decades later spawning the young adolescent kids from Wes Anderson’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Moonrise Kingdom, a first love teen romance given a strangely magisterial beauty all its own.
A bittersweet study of a doomed love affair, given an impressionistic brush, showing greater use of camera angles and range, hopping from island to island, becoming a naturalistic documentary of a sensual awakening, creating a Edenesque beauty charged with sexual power, in particular Andersson’s stunning breakout performance, edging more towards an all-or-nothing, completely uninhibited freedom, where nature is an escape from the restricted confinement of the dreary working class doldrums of the city, becoming utterly liberating, where Monika goes topless and even runs completely nude across the rocks towards the edge of the sea, splashing herself in tidepools, an almost mythical experience that in the early 50’s must have taken viewers’ collective breath away. (Incidentally, according to film historian Adrian Martin Summer with Monika - Adrian Martin, the latest film restorations eliminate a single shot of Monika lying down baring her chest, which was included in the original theatrical version, but didn’t make it into Criterion’s restoration). It’s a potent illustration of femininity that doesn’t age, a perfect expression of youthful exuberance, where at the time neither one had a care in the world. Lost in this dreamy landscape, summer feels like it will never end, but Monika announces she’s pregnant, with Harry thrilled, thinking he immediately needs to return home and get a better job to support her. In celebration they’re dancing along the shoreline to a portable record-player while a disgruntled nearby camper burns their clothes and sends their provisions overboard, ending up in fisticuffs, with Monika banging this intruder over the head with a frying pan, eventually driving him away, like a pestering nuisance, but their food supply is gone. She has no interest in going back, but their appearance changes, no longer the picture of the innocent beauty of youth, with hair unwashed and unkempt, clothes filthy and worn out, becoming more and more grumpy and desperate over time. When they decide to raid an orchard seen nearby, Monika gets caught and promptly marched into their immense island home, where it may as well be another planet. The immaculate furnishings and abundance of food suggests this is the wealthy class, immediately calling the police, but also politely offering her some food, which she disdainfully rejects. It’s a telling sequence, as she’s only viewed as a criminal, representative of her lower class, where it’s really this distinction that makes her a criminal in their eyes. Having no other options, she steals a roast sitting on the table and runs away, like a thief in the night, cowering in the weeds afterwards, reduced to animalistic survival instincts, with Bergman providing spider imagery of insects getting caught in a web, matching her predicament. By the time she reunites with Harry, they escape back into the open freedom of the sea, but she suffers a narrow escape, a sign of feeling caged-in that will follow her long afterwards.
Retreating back to the safety of the city, the German Expressionist cinematography from Gunnar Fischer is everpresent, revealing a darkly shadowed world that is in utter contrast with the sunny paradise where they’ve been, never more impersonal, foreshadowing signs of what’s to come. Cutting almost immediately to a hasty marriage and the hospital, Monika delivers a healthy baby girl, but is trapped once again by an unbearably dull life afterwards, stuck in a cramped room with drab furnishings, showing no maternal instincts, yet having to spend all day alone with the baby while Harry is at work, then spending evenings at night classes, thinking this is helping his family, but it places enormous pressure on her shoulders, which she takes out on Harry, becoming a constant nag, just like her mother, literally smothering him from the moment he walks in the door. Her caged ferocity is an entirely new element introduced by Bergman, as Andersson, never more striking than she is here, brings a whole new range of possibilities to his work, displaying a free range of emotions where she literally inhabits the utter suffocation of an imprisoned character onscreen. While Harry tries to be reasonable and do the right thing, as he’s the one comforting the baby at night, singing little songs, Monika is on a downward spiraling rampage, buying a new outfit instead of paying the rent, leaving them in a precarious position, becoming a slowly disintegrating ode to the death of love, as the shattering intrusion into their lives is life itself, which can become unbearable. The Hollywood marriage that she imagined for herself with all the glamor was simply not to be on so little income. When Harry goes out of town for a few days on a special assignment, Monika enjoys the night life, returning to bars and music halls, picking up men, with her once defiant face turning to the camera for a confrontational lingering pause, staring straight us with a haunting look, as if asking viewers to think before passing judgment upon her, “This is the saddest shot in the history of cinema,” wrote a young Godard in his 1958 review. It’s a searingly intense moment, one fraught with dramatic ramifications, but it’s an extremely innovative device, as it only adds to Monika’s legendary infamy, refusing to compromise even an inch. The same can be said for the way Bergman films these final scenes, as there’s not an ounce of sentimentality. When Harry returns home sooner than expected, he’s surprised to find Monika with another man, all but crumbling any last hopes of sustaining their relationship, which quickly becomes unraveled and forgotten as she disappears out the door, while Harry is left with the consequences, which includes a divorce, a baby in his arms (ironically looking into that same mirror as Monika does opening the film), and a return back to the home of his father (just like his father, he is a single parent), where the child is welcomed into an all but uncertain future. Monika meanwhile remains an elusive and unseen force at the end, completely out of the picture, like a distant memory, almost like a mythical spirit, where a mother abandoning a baby was especially then considered scandalous, leaving her morally condemned, yet her fickle character is so well developed that she still manages to maintain viewer sympathy, as her all-but-certain economic reality placed her in a box with no hope for a better future, with escape her only outlet from the drudgery of daily life, yet acrimony is not likely to represent Harry’s feelings, more bittersweet, pained and damaged to be sure, yet also grateful for at least one idyllic summer together with Monika.