Smiles of a Summer Night.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Criterion Collection. 2004.
Ingmar Bergman's 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende) was the film that first garnered him international recognition. It would be a couple of years before The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries cemented his reputation as an international film auteur, but looking back on this film half a century later and half a world away only shows how different tastes in humor can be. Compared to today's better film comedies, this film is both more mature and more puerile in its approach to sex, in that it treats its characters as intellectual beings, yet also shows them as somehow reserved. Granted, the film is set in turn of the 20th century Sweden. Yet there is still an element missing, especially when compared to later films in the Bergman canon. That missing element would most likely be depth.
Compared to even more "intellectual" Hollywood comedies of recent vintage, like Sideways, Smiles of a Summer Night is far deeper, but there is truth to the old Woody Allen claim that drama is "sitting at the grown-ups table." In fact, Allen was so smitten with this film that he tried to do his own version of it a quarter century later, in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. Of course, his own film was one of Allen's lesser works, yet, so too is this film one of Bergman's lesser works. Stephen Sondheim also based his musical, A Little Night Music, on this film.
The camera work, by Bergman's first collaborating cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer, is stellar, especially in the interior scenes, where the whites radiate like novae in comparison to the pitch hues, but the film is at its weakest in the characterizations. Unlike most modern fiction in film or prose, it is not a failure for its reliance on the trite, but for its simple lack of detail. The viewer is never drawn into the characterizations or dilemmas of the main protagonists. This is certainly a flaw that dogs most comedies. Even the comedies of William Shakespeare are notably deficient in this area—most especially his appropriately wretched A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yet, even though this is the only real failure of the film, it is enough to make this a rather tepid viewing experience, especially for the refined Bergmaniac.
The story follows a middle-aged fop and lawyer named Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), who is a few years married to a teenage wife, Anne, (Ulla Jacobsson) with whom he has yet to consummate his relationship. His son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam ) has recently returned from divinity school, and is staying with his father. He secretly lusts for his stepmother, who shares his unspoken desires, in a situation eerily reminiscent of Carl-Theodor Dreyer's far more serious Day Of Wrath, yet he is carrying on his first liaison with the family maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson). One night, Fredrik takes Anne to the theater, where she sees his former lover, whom Fredrik whispered of in his sleep, Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress, blow a kiss to him from the stage. Anne is sickened, she returns home, and Fredrik confronts his former lover with the news that he loves his wife, but feels in a rut. Desirée really loved Fredrik, but feigns indifference, and when he falls in a puddle while escorting her home, she puts him in the clothes of her current lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), an even more foppish rogue than Fredrik ever was, whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), is friends with Anne.
Desirée schemes to manipulate her aged mother (Naima Wifstrand) to invite all the parties to a weekend retreat at her huge country estate. She then makes a pact with Charlotte that she will renounce the Count if Charlotte helps her steal away Fredrik from Anne. After much subterfuge, some good one-liners, and a few mild chuckles, Anne runs off with Henrik, the Count and Charlotte reconcile, Fredrik ends up with Desirée, and even Petra ends up forcing a proposal from Frid the Horse Groom (Åke Fridell). To those who have grown accustomed to Bergman's supposed 'downer ends' in his serious works, this film's light tone will come as a bit of a relief, but only if one is in the middle of watching a Bergman marathon. By itself, the ending, and the whole film which precedes it, seems a bit of a pointless exercise. Again, compared to the more frivolous Billy Wilder or Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies coming out of contemporaneous Hollywood, Smiles of a Summer Night does pack more depth, but not as much as a true cinephile might hope.
Retrospectively, this film is certainly several notches below the sorts of comedies Bergman's disciple, Woody Allen, made in his Golden Age, from 1977's Annie Hall through 1992's Husbands and Wives. But it is in line with some of Allen's lesser early comedies, and those passable ones from the 1990s. That the film was scripted, as well as directed, by Bergman, is a surprise, for its few moments of gravity, such as when Charlotte misanthropically rages against the male sex and their body hair, seem wholly out of place with the rest of the film, as if some remnant Freudian jab or twitch that Bergman could not help to totally eliminate from one of his works. At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, however, it won the Golden Palm for Best Film and the Award for Best Poetic Humor. And, in retrospect, that very award may be the best way to describe this film's comedy.
One does not laugh out loud at a film like this, the way one might at a classic Abbott & Costello romp, or a film like It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Rather, the humor comes from the slightly exaggerated bumbling of its protagonists, such as the Count's twin declarations of first denouncing men who dally with his mistress, while not caring of those who dally with his wife, then uttering the exact opposite sentiment later in the film. There is a sort of comic realism, at the film's end, when all the romantic protagonists, save possibly Anne and Henrik, realize that love is about compromise, and that there is no idyllic love. This is a good point, and well done, but the film simply lacks anything particularly memorable. There is no standout in the cast, the script, nor even the camera work and direction. It is a supremely well-made comedy of manners, in the Wilde and Moliére tradition, if a bit too long at 108 minutes. As in the rest of the Bergman cosmos, men fare worse than women. They are idiots, doubters, cheats, and rogues, while the women are more self-defined, responsive, and truly passionate. But, such well boxed toys rarely can do anything else. They are like well-made dioramas, but after a few glances, they are put away to gather dust.
The Criterion Collection DVD of the film regrettably lacks English language dubbing, but since the film is so light, there is no great need to pay attention to the images, as in so many other symbolically laced Bergman treats. The DVD does, however, come with an introduction to the film, which Bergman recorded in 2003 for a European DVD release of the film, as well as the Swedish theatrical trailer, a quarter-hour video conversation with film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and writer Jörn Donner, and a 24-page booklet featuring essays by film critic Pauline Kael, and drama critic John Simon, who wrote Ingmar Bergman Directs. It is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which almost perfectly matches the original print. Sadly, the film lacks any audio commentary, but given that it is so straightforward a work from the usually complex Bergman, this seems wholly appropriate. In short, this is the rare Bergman film to simply be enjoyed, rather than studied, and that, in itself, is not a bad thing, for Smiles of a Summer Night has more than enough simple pleasures to justify a grin... or three!
Editor Note: Thinking about buying Smiles of a Summer Night or another film today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!