Brooding, melancholic, depressing . . . not at all! At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, Smiles of a Summer Night won the award for Best Poetic Humor, the perfect award for this picture. So this is the second reason I want to start with this film: despite his reputation, Bergman wasn’t all seriousness and sadness, and it pays to remember that. The Criterion cover shows a couple reveling the glorious new dawn.
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Along with the disc, we get a nice booklet featuring an essay by John Simon about Bergman’s career building up to this film. Also in the booklet is Pauline Kael’s review of the film.
Conversely, if the sleeping Fredrik had not muttered Desirée’s name just as Anne was ready to yield to him, all the mismatched people might have stayed—uncomically—together.
You’ve made me feel much better about starting with this Bergman, then, Max!
The film is entirely about adultery. Most unusual for Bergman, it is a comedy. It flirts at times with screwball, but chooses more decisively to use the kind of verbal wit that Shaw and Wilde employed. One of its lines ("I can tolerate my wife's infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger") sounds like Wilde to begin with, and even more when it appears later in a different form ("I can tolerate my mistress's infidelity, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger").
Thank you, Trevor, for suggesting this! We were surprised by it and enjoyed it. It put me in mind of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Despite being a farce, however, it had traces of Bergman’s later ideas. But it is hard to imagine how he made the leap from comedy to tragedy. Do you know anything about that transition?
But Malcolm orders Fredrik to leave the house with what he has on and minus the nightgown. Fredrik has no choice and accepts the humiliation as he walks back to his home in his underpants. Days pass and Desiree goes to visit her mother Mrs. Armfeldt in a large estate up in the country. Her mother is found in bed playing solitaire as her daughter Desiree tells her that her and Malcolm decided to finally end the affair. Mrs. Armfeldt asks her daughter what happened and Desiree says:
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First, Smiles of a Summer Night was the film that brought international success to Bergman. Though he was still a young filmmaker, beginning with Torment in 1944, over the course of a decade he’d already directed 15 feature films. In fact, that he had been so prolific but failed to gain a large audience had taxed Bergman, and it’s hard to get into a discussion about this film without also discussing the depression Bergman was apparently suffering when he wrote it.
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Bergman had a past directing in the theater (and was, in fact, directing in the theater when he made this film). You can see that influence in this movie. I don’t know much about his work in the theater, but I imagine he had a round career, working with both comedy and tragedy. As for his films, when this came out he had already worked plenty with the themes of alienation, frustration, despair, etc. And not all of them had a sad ending.
So, while the supplements are not as great as we might be used to, spoiled as we are, but this is a tremendous film and a great presentation.
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Betsy, if you were thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy then you’re right on track. Allen was more than thinking of Smiles of a Summer Night when he made that.
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When the gun finally goes off off-screen the women believe something horrible has happened, until Malcolm walks out with a smile on his face and informs them that he only loaded the chamber of the revolver with soot saying, "Would a nobleman risk his life for the sake of a shyster?" Desiree is furious at Malcolm's cruel trick and goes in to comfort Fredrik while Malcolm says to his wife, "You're all ridiculous. You, Desiree and all the others. Unfaithful and lascivious."
"He became your father later, I said. Aren't you listening? My God I loved him so!"
Desiree says these lines while staring at Anne's husband and so Anne starts to cry and asks to go home. When arriving home Petra helps Anne to bed but Anne realizes that Petra and Henrik had sex. Frederik enters the dining room and sits down to have a drink saying to his son, "I didn't know playing guitar was part of a clergyman's education." Henrik says he is very unhappy but his father says he shouldn't be because he is young, has champagne and a girl who is decidedly attractive.
But as ignorant as Anne is about sex, she is curious and, perhaps, willing. There’s a moment during the nap when Fredrik looks like he may be making his move, but then he slips up, obviously mostly asleep, and says the name “Desiree.”
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After stripping down and entering the bath, (off-screen of course) Desiree asks Fredrik, "Am I as beautiful as I was? Have the years changed me?" Fredrik says that she as just as beautiful and desirable as ever. After getting dressed Desiree invites Fredrik back to her home as her, Fredrik and Desiree's servant Malla leave the theatre. When strolling down the street Desiree's starts to sing while Fredrik falls in a puddle, completely drenching his clothes.
"I've known him as long as anyone except my sister," she told me one afternoon at Cannes. "We worked so closely together and then we were friends so much longer; we did two films when we loved and now this and then we have a daughter together and we are still friends. You lose and you love and then lose again and this has been a relationship where we never lost.
What makes this film theatrical? That its main elements are not so much kinetic as confrontational, that the focus is not so much on an action, something expansively visual, as on something verbal, confined to a look, a tic, a quirk accompanied by words that tickle, sting, provoke, or soothe—and stay in place. This, too, is what there is plenty of in Smiles of a Summer Night: an emphasis on the tightness of the acting area rather than on its expansion and constant change.
Marvelously acted and full of wit, this is a very fun romantic comedy that manages to be exceedingly light and a touch grave:
This movie never fails to charm me, and I can confidently say it never will. Set at the turn of the century (19th to 20th), it begins by introducing us to Fredrik Egerman, played by the great — and I’ll keep bringing him up as I go through more of Berman’s films — Gunnar Björnstrand (one thing I like about Bergman is his use of the same actors over and over again; they are great actors, and it’s fantastic to see them bring out different roles as they age).
"The one who threw me out the window, of course. The other one was a dolt. He never could do anything amusing."
Between his two marriages, Fredrik had an affair with a prominent stage actress, the beautiful Desiree Armfeldt, but she broke off the relationship. Desiree now has a young son named Fredrik, born shortly after her affair with Fredrik Egerman. (It is implied, but never directly stated, that little Fredrik Armfeldt is the son of Fredrik Egerman.) Desiree is now having an affair with an army officer, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. The Count's wife, Charlotte, is an old friend of Anne Egerman.
Smiles Of A Summer Night (1956 Reviewed 1957)
Before arriving home Egerman stops to pick up photos that were just developed of young Anne. When arriving home he is greeted by Petra (Ulla Jacobsson) his sexy, and saucy maid. His repressed son who is in school to be a theology student is there reading with Anne. Anne is excited when her husband gives her theatre tickets and she excitingly wonders what she should wear.
I really can’t think of anything else Bergman did that matched this level of comedy and farce, but it’s at one of a spectrum that, while heavily balanced on the tragic, does not neglect the comic.
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Anne is alerted, because on the afternoon before the play they took a nap, and he unwisely said Desiree's name in his sleep. That night after the play, he and Anne go to bed and we discover that she is still a virgin. This causes him frustration, although he doesn't want to "hurry" her. After she falls asleep, Fredrik slips out for a rendezvous with Desiree, worldly and witty, who teases him about his young wife, and the possibility that she may become attracted to the young Henrik.
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It is difficult to imagine Bergman writing such dialogue, but those who knew him said he had a sense of humor that was the equal of his periods of depression and despair. Even this film has some dark moments, as when the Count's wife Charlotte has a bleak monologue about males: "Men are horrible, vain and conceited. They have hair all over their bodies." That speech occurs at a point before the wine kicks in.
This is where the film’s theatricality manifests itself most powerfully. Whereas film always smacks a bit of the documentary, of photographed reality, the theater tends to remind us of puppet theater, of an omnipotent author-puppeteer pulling so many strings. That in Smiles of a Summer Night you can always feel Bergman cannily in control never quite lets you forget that outside this playfulness there lurks, precariously held at bay, a reality that is no laughing matter.
Henrik suddenly can't control his impulses and grabs her to kiss her, but she pulls away and slaps him, smiles and walks out of the room. Henrik is so sexually frustrated that he attends to play the piano to get his mind off his sexual desires. Half asleep in bed, Fredrik starts to kiss Anne and mumbles, "Desiree, how I've longed for you..." Anne gets up and doesn't know what to think at her husband's comments.
A comedy of wit, then, which tends to take the form of one-upmanship. Somebody says something silly, and another’s smart riposte tears the person down. Or the one says something clever, and the other trumps with something cleverer. The result: humiliation, trivial though it may be, but certainly greater if what is lost is an actual or potential lover. For where is humiliation—or, in effect, loss—greater than in the game of love?
Fredrik isn't happy with his son Henrik's profession and says, "How thoughtless of me to buy only two tickets. But I suppose comedy is all too worldly for a man of God." Anne and Fredrik catch some rest before the show and leave Henrik alone. When Petra walks and flirts in front of Henrik he says to her, "Stop walking like that. You sway your hips, Petra."
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