For those accustomed to Ingmar Bergman’s more serious fare, such as the austere Winter Light or his foreboding The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night is a light-hearted, utterly amusing antidote. It is the Bergman film for people who don’t like Bergman. Of course, the film has some of the usual touches of the Swedish director: familiar actors such as Gunnar Bjornstrand and Harriet Andersson, a theater scene within the film, characters revealing their most intimate thoughts to others, etc. However, while Bergman typically dedicates an entire film to the intense inner turmoil of one or two characters, in Smiles there are many characters struggling with anxieties that are often exploited to a farcical end.
That Smiles of a Summer Night is a tale of romantic folly is evident as the plot develops in the first third of the film. All the characters, it seems, are in denial about their romantic attachments. Fredrik Egerman, the film’s protagonist, is married to a much younger woman, yet still harbors secret feelings for his former lover, an actress whose play he and his wife go to see. Fredrik’s wife, Anne, wants to please him, but is intimidated by their age difference and clearly affectionate towards Fredrik’s grown son, Henrik. Henrik is set on becoming a minister, yet displays tendencies of a hopeless romantic, especially towards Anne. Desiree, the actress and Fredrik’s ex-lover, has always had a soft spot for Fredrik, although she is now having an affair with a military dragoon, Count Malcolm. This tangled web slowly is unraveled by the film’s resolution, in part thanks to the machinations of the film’s secondary characters, who have a firmer grip on the way things ought to be.
The principal characters show their folly throughout Smiles mainly through the contradictions between their words and their actions. In an early scene, Henrik reads a passage on temptation aloud from Martin Luther, “You cannot stop the bird from flying over your head, but you can stop it from nesting in your hair.” As with many of the pithy wisdoms that characters spew in Smiles, this one is quickly subverted. Henrik takes no serious measures to control his amorous energies, first fooling around with the household maid, and then continuing to spend time around his father’s house, where Anne resides. Another sage reflection that goes to pot is Desiree’s speech on how women always suffer for offending men’s dignity. A few scenes later, Desiree has Fredrik meet Count Malcolm, her lover, while Fredrik is wearing Malcolm’s robe and nightcap, at her suggestion and despite Fredrik’s protest that “a gentleman does not face his rival deprived of his trousers.” Desiree does not lose the affection of either man as a result of this (humorous) affront to their dignity, proving her previous words untrue.
For all the laughs the audience has at the ridiculous scenarios in the film, Smiles of a Summer Night is at its best when it captures the subtle emotions lurking under the surface of each character. The repartee between Fredrik and Desiree backstage after her performance is one of the highlights of the film, and should be mandatory viewing for all romantic comedy writers of today. Actors Bjornstrand and Eva Dahlbeck perfectly capture the range of emotions and insight these two former lovers often display towards each other, not the least including tenderness, regret, playfulness, and anger. But it’s Ulla Jacobsson’s turn as Anne that serves as the emotional core of the film. In a fantastic scene following Fredrik’s night out with Desiree, Bergman gives us a glimpse into Anne’s typical day by following her around the house. The frustration and boredom of a turn of the century upper class woman’s daily routine can easily be seen through Anne’s activities. Her only chore for the day, watering the plants, has already been done by the cook, which leaves her feeling useless. Wanting to feel some measure of authority, she goes into Henrik’s study and berates him for wearing smelly clothes, confiscates them to burn, then slaps him for flirting with the maid for good measure. Her sense of betrayal by his flirtation is evident in the tear running down her face. Subsequently, she goes to her husband’s study in search of attention, only for him to be stiff and undistracted from his work. She leaves his room and stares at her pet birds in their cage. The visual metaphor could not be more obvious.
Ultimately, Smiles of a Summer Night ends on a satisfactory note, with all the characters ending up with their preferred partner. Though viewers probably anticipated this ending, it is Bergman’s talent as an auteur that lends wit, originality, and pleasure to the journey to romantic relief.