Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Ulla Jacobsson (Anne Egerman), Eva Dahlbeck (Desirée Armfeldt), Harriet Andersson (Petra), Margit Carlqvist (Charlotte), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Egerman), Jarl Kulle (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm), Åke Fridell (Frid), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Egerman), Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Armfeldt)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1955
Country: Sweden
Smiles of a Summer Night DVD
Smiles of a Summer NightWhen most people think of Ingmar Bergman, they immediately think of aesthetically dense, serious, dark films—the kind that virtually define “foreign art.” Images that spring to mind include the hooded white visage of Death from The Seventh Seal (1957), the faces of two women symbolically merging into one another in Persona (1966), or the blood-red rooms representing the interiority of the soul in Cries and Whispers (1972). While these are all crucial films in Bergman’s oeuvre, what many people don’t realize is that many of his early films were comedies, and extremely good ones at that.

In fact, the film that truly made his international career, the one that got him recognition outside of his native Sweden for the first time and earned him the power to make films like The Seventh Seal, was Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende), a romantic farce that was, ironically, written during one of the darkest periods in Bergman’s life. It’s a film that has the outward appearance of something light and dashed off—a comedy of no great weight—but a closer look shows that Bergman aimed to create something almost mathematical, with the characters and their various entangled relationships forming an equation that must solved by the last reel.

The film is set in 1901, and it has an almost deliberately theatrical quality to it, which shouldn’t be surprising since Bergman said he originally thought of it as a play, rather than a film. It is designed in the traditional of the drawing room comedy, in which the upper crust muddle their way through life and romance amid beautiful settings. Bergman displays a penchant for writing great dialogue, which goes a long way in redeeming the artificiality of the situations, which is de rigueur in this genre.

When the story opens, everyone is with the wrong partner, and by the end they will be correctly paired with the right one. The main character is Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), a successful, if somewhat boring attorney. Frederik thinks he knows everything there is to know about love and life, which causes him to be sarcastically dismissive of the romantic and spiritual woes of his son, Henrik’s (Björn Bjelfvenstam). Henrik is a theology student who has fallen for the advances of Petra (Harriet Andersson), his father’s lusty young maid.

Having been widowed several years earlier, Frederik has recently married a virginal child bride, 19-year-old Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). Anne adores Frederik, but almost as a little girl adores her father, and she is panged with jealousy when they go to a theater production that stars Frederik’s former lover, the older and much saucier Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). Desirée is a worldly woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

Desirée’s current lover is Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), a pretentious and quick-tempered military officer who doesn’t take it well when he finds Frederik at Desirée’s house late one night. Count Malcolm is married to Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), who is only a few years older than Anne, but is already jaded in love (“See how quickly it can happen?” Bergman seems to be saying). In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, she unleashes a barely restrained, deeply bitter tirade again men in general and her philandering husband in particular. Yet, she is still so in love with him that she cannot bear to lose him. It’s the great paradox of love in which pain and passion are so intertwined that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

In a calculated scheme to win Frederik back, Desirée conspires with her eccentric old mother (Naima Wifstrand) to throw a weekend party in which all the aforementioned characters will stay at the same manor, thus ensuring that partners will be swapped. Part of the joy of Smiles of a Summer Night is how Bergman orchestrates the mechanics of the romantic entanglements, ensuring that each person ends up the one he or she most deserves by the end of the film. Obviously, this includes a great deal of infidelity and the potential heartbreak that goes with it, but, as the old saying goes, you can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs.

Perhaps because he was in such a dark place in his personal life, Bergman toys with the darker side of romance throughout Smiles of a Summer Night. For example, there is a scene in which once character is so distraught that he attempts to hang himself, but only succeeds in falling from the ceiling and accidentally hitting a hidden button that triggers a mechanism by which a bed from the other room, which happens to be occupied by the true love of his life, comes through the wall into his room. It’s a hilarious riff on the old deus ex machina ploy of ancient theater. Bergman also manages to derive laughs (and suspense) from a game of Russian roulette between Count Malcolm and Frederik, as silly and pointless a duel as there ever were.

Bergman peppers the film’s comedy with rites of humiliation, in which virtually every character is brought low at some point. Frederik bears some of the worst of this humiliation, particularly the scene in which Count Malcolm forces him to walk home from Desirée’s house wearing only a nightshirt and a nightcap. Some of the humiliation is more poignant than funny, as when Anne seems to be ready to give up her virginity to Frederik, only to be put off by his murmuring Desirée’s name in his sleep. Of course, like pain and passion, humiliation is all part of the game of love, and Bergman has his finger squarely on the pulse of the foibles of human romance and all its entails—both wonderful and horrible.

Smiles of a Summer Night Criterion Collection Director-Approved DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioSwedish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsVideo interview with Ingmar Bergman
Video conversation with film historian Peter Cowie and Jörn Donner
Original theatrical trailer
24-page booklet with essays by John Simon and Pauline Kael
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateMay 25, 2004

The new high-definition transfer, which looks very good throughout, has been taken from a new 35mm print and is a strong improvement over Criterion’s previously available laser disc. The black-and-white image, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is clean and nicely detailed with great contrast. Digital restoration has removed most visual blemishes, leaving the image clear and virtually spotless.

The film’s soundtrack, presented in its original Swedish monaural, was transferred the 35mm optical soundtrack prints. It is clean and clear throughout, highlighting Bergman’s minimal use of music and focus on dialogue.

The supplements are a bit light, but intriguing, beginning with a brief video interview of Ingmar Bergman shot just this year right before he sat down to view the film for the first time in many, many years. Film historian Peter Cowie also conducts a new video interview with Jörn Donner, who produced Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). Also included is the film’s original Swedish theatrical trailer, and the nicely designed insert booklet contains two lengthy essays on the film, one by Pauline Kael and one by John Simon.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and AB Svensk Fimindustri

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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