Like most cinephiles, I went through a major Ingmar Bergman phase. I devoured a chunk of his films from the classic (THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY) to the obscure (THE PASSION OF ANNA). Four films of his, however, will always hold a special place in my heart: SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, THE VIRGIN SPRING, WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE SEVENTH SEAL. Admittedly, those are probably Bergman’s most famous films. These four films, a sex comedy, a rape/revenge thriller, a redemption drama and an allegorical seriocomedy, provide a quick glimpse of Bergman the filmmaker and Bergman the person.
On the surface, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is perhaps the least Bergman-like film from his career. It’s a jolly good time and hugely enjoyable on a visceral level. The dialogue is crushingly sarcastic. The costumes are scrumptious. The music is romantic. This film features four couples that are mismatched and their romantic escapades are humorous. The plot features the actress Desiree and her love triangle between Count Carl Magnus Malcolm and Fredrik Egerman. Then there’s Malcolm’s wife Charlotte, seething with hatred. Henrik’s young second wife Anne, is falling for her stepson, Henrik. Then there’s the maid Petra and the groomsman Frid, rollicking in the fields. As these characters come together for an overnight holiday, lust, jealousy and masculine pride fill the air.
Bergman’s films often struggle with complex moral and religious dilemmas. His characters grapple with intense questions about life. Even in his early films, there were high stakes, at least figuratively. So how did a film like SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT come about? Bergman was suffering from depression: he had major money issues, health problems (rumor has it that he weighed only 125 lbs.) and his romance with actress Harriet Andersson was on the rocks. A producer at Svensk Filmindustri told him that if this film wasn’t a hit, then his career would be over. Life was so rough for him at this point that he was even considering suicide. But then this film came along and, at the risk of being hyperbolic, saved his life.
That a film so charming, romantic and magical could come from such a dark place is amazing. Not that SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is a meaningless exercise in frivolity. The film does highlight oppressiveness in 19th century Sweden. There is a lot of pain, anger and resentment within the film under the witty barbs and romantic mishaps. Bergman masks these darker themes with smart dialogue, with people saying one thing and meaning another. It’s a master display of screenwriting because each character is unique, with his or her own worldview and language.
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is the film that brought Bergman to a wide international audience. Not surprising, considering this film is a major crowd-pleaser. Reportedly, the film was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival without Bergman’s knowledge. He found out through the newspaper that everyone was talking about his own film. Bergman used his capital well, making a large number of personal projects. His whole career is full of personal projects, which went on to become either financial successes, critically acclaimed, or both. The influence of SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT on his career is really felt. This was the first of Bergman’s “stripped-down period pieces,” and the film is appealing in its low-key production and costume design. This film, and others like it including the three mentioned above, do not feel stuffy or pretentious. Even FANNY AND ALEXANDER, his most elaborate film, is pure emotion laid bare. Bergman does not get lost in period details.
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is not a perfect film. At 108 minutes, it does tend to wear out its welcome, as scenes go on a little longer than necessary. The movie should have been a snappy 95 minutes long. As much fun as these characters are, their childishness gets tiresome. I’ve seen the film many times and I think the problem is that there’s no straight man. Every character is neurotic and ridiculous, so there’s no anchor for the crazy. Perhaps Desiree’s mother, the formidable Mrs. Armfeldt, qualifies. But even she has her moments of backwards thinking.
Anyone looking for a place to start watching the movies of Ingmar Bergman should start with SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT. It’s accessible but not in a pandering way. It’s a really fun film and it offers some insights about the immaturity of people in love and lust.