I’m continuing on in my Ingmar Bergman studies with an ultimate goal of devouring the man’s complete filmography, and as such, took in what critics believe to be his last “comedy”, the 1955 “SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT”, the other evening. I enjoyed it immensely – it’s one of those “foreign films” that helped put foreign films on the map for legions of 1960s college kids, film studies clubs and so on. Expecting it to be exceptionally different from the inward-looking, relationship-dissecting, talk-heavy Bergman films that make up many of his most famous works (PERSONA, WILD STRAWBERRIES, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE etc.), I instead found a heavy commentary on male and female relations masked in a very light, deft, airy touch.
“Smiles of a Summer Night” is set at the fin de siècle of 1900 or so, which would explain the fluffy dresses, horse-and-carriage mode of transportation and so on. If Bergman is to be believed, turn of the century Swedes were very open in discussing sex, adultery and feelings of passion and loss with friends, lovers and even with their mothers. The film features four incredibly beautiful women, including Eva Dahlbeck as Desiree Armfeldt, a sort of “mother hen” who’s both lusted after by every man in the film and who also cunningly puts relationships together, “Amélie”-style. It also has Harriet Andersson, who was one of Bergman’s lead actresses up into the 1970s, as young Petra the Maid, herself a figure of lust and comedy at every turn, especially when she seduces a young would-be minister. A farce ensues rather quickly, when it becomes obvious that each of the couples in the film is matched with an inappropriate partner that they’re either bored with or can’t stand in the first place.
This being an Ingmar Bergman film, it doesn’t always have the clipped, fast-paced dialogue of a typical comedic farce. A scene might start that way – say, the flirtation between Armfeldt and the male lead, a wealthy rogue played by Gunner Bjornstrand who was once her lover and would like to be her lover again – but then evolves into theoretical, intense discussions on the nature of love, of men and women and of life itself. Cameras pan into warm, beautiful faces, particularly at moments of shock and surprise – a method of emotional manipulation Bergman perfected in the 1960s and was once just getting off the ground here. Yet the music, the pacing and much of the acting is fun, light and even silly, so even when the film is weighted with a certain heaviness of dialogue, one still feels like wacky hijinks are about to ensue – which they do, including a mechanical bed that conveniently appears with a beautiful sleeping woman on it when a lever is pushed, just in time for the minister to “consummate a relationship” with her. You’ll have to watch it see what I mean, but it totally works.
It’s easy to see why Sweden was thought of by so many Americans around this time as a land of free-spirited sin and vice. While exceptionally tame by today’s standards and even by those of fifteen years later in the US, “Smiles of a Summer Night” reflects a certain Swedishness which is carefree, libidinous and extremely intellectual. It’s also a lot of fun in its way – something I’m not sure I’ve ever said about an Ingmar Bergman film.