Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bergman Marathon :: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

(As most people with even a passing interest in film already know, the legendary Ingmar Bergman recently passed away. It seems obscene, but I had never before seen a Bergman film. With his passing, and by way of tribute, I have decided that it's about time that I catch up with this auteur. This review will be the first of several reviews, or rather miscellaneous notes and comments, on several classic Bergman films. Whenever I begin to explore a new filmmaker, I like to begin close to the beginning in order to get a sense of the artistic trajectory of his or her career. Smiles of a Summer Night was one of Bergman's first international successes, so I will begin here.)

Smiles of a Summer Night is about love, sex and society and how the three interact, complicate or complement each other, and about what (if anything) can bring happiness to more-often-than-not unhappy people. Like most great films, there is no true precision when it comes to identifying the generic label of Smiles - it is a drama, a comedy, a period piece and a comedy of manners. It is all these thing, and it is seamlessly so. The film follows four perhaps mismatched couples as they try to understand their lives and their desires, all of whom find themselves exposed to each other and vulnerable during one weekend in the country. In its depiction of the dark waters of human emotion, Smiles of a Summer Night is not quite uplifting, not quite depressing, but gently straddles the line between the two, leaning sometimes towards a breezy sense of romantic ennui, sometimes towards a renewed sense of life and lust. None of this is to say that Smiles lacks focus, as if it cannot quite make up its mind about what it wants to be or say. Rather, the film seems to be saying that the enjoyment of love, sex and society is complicated and perhaps even foiled by imposed issues of class and morality and the anxieties, pressures and neuroses that are created by both.

Like Stanley Kubrick will later do, Bergman seems to suggest that much of society - with its rituals, rules and highly wrought codes of manners - is essentially sterile, mostly devoid of life and vigor. These rituals, instead of facilitating human enjoyment only seem to frustrate it. Smiles of a Summer Night, however, is not nearly as fatalist or as nihilistic as Kubrick's films. Bergman's bourgeoisie drift about, plagued by doubt and regret, seemingly content and yet haunted by past infatuations (like the character of Fredrik Egerman), they plot and scheme in order to get their own way (like Desiree Armfeldt and the Countess Malcolm), they are tormented by the strict morality imposed upon them by society and religion (like Fredrik's son, Henrik). It is the lower classes, the maids and the butlers who, like in so many Shakespearean plays, manifest a careless bawdiness and an innocent carnality, who live outside the strictures of polite society, who give themselves over to warm sensual pleasures, it is these who get any sort of enjoyment and fulfillment from life and yet even this enjoyment is coloured by a slightly melancholy tint of realism, by the awareness that life and love are rarely perfect and so one might as well make the best of it.

The internal conflict between the rituals of society and the desires of the flesh is vividly encapsulated in the character of Henrik, Fredrik's conflicted son who cannot find peace in the strict religious life he has chosen for himself. In one scene, Henrik, vexed by his own self- and church-imposed virtue, prepares to commit suicide while from a window he enviously watches the uninhibited Petra the Maid and Frid the Groom flirt, giggle and dance. Henrik, in spite of himself and his rigid sense of morality, is in love his his father's young virgin wife Anne (whom Fredrik, still in love with a former mistress, has not yet made love to). At the moment of despair and suicide, however, Henrik is saved by a chance turn of events that leads him, not only to a personal revelation, but also into the arms of Anne, who, young and eager and sexually ignored by her husband, has apparently been in love with him all the time. Mutually disregarding social convention, the new young lovers elope, leaving Fredrik not so much angry at the betrayal as simply bewildered that he has misunderstood love for so long (a betrayal, it is probably important to note, that goes against law and not flesh, since the marriage of Anne and Fredrik had never been consummated).

But perhaps the quintessential scene from Smiles of a Summer Night is the final one, in which Petra, while literally rolling in the hay, playfully forces Frid to swear that he will marry her. "Swear by everything you hold sacred," she demands, to which Frid happily replies, "I swear by my manhood!" Bergman, at least on this film, seems to have settled on lusty, rustic, full-bodied sensuality as the ideal pleasure in life. Here, on the outskirts of society, sex and love and playfulness combine to create a warm, earthy ideal in which men and women, without the pretense of ritual and convention, simply enjoy one another. I don't think that Bergman is saying high society needs to get off its high horse and play in the dirt; I think that he may be saying that the dirt isn't really all that dirty and should be raised up too.

With Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman created a sly, slightly subversive look at polite society. It is a parable of love that just barely refrains from being didactic. The film actually resembles several of Shakespeare's own comedies: a certain carnivalesque atmosphere presides over the entire film, conventions are upset, jealousies are aroused, duels ensue and, in the end, everyone ends paired together as they should be. Even this early in his career, Bergman shows real artistry and he finds a why to make what is essentially a very "talky" movie seem dramatic, compelling and quite exquisite. Since this is the first Bergman film I have seen, I do not yet have a body of work against which to compare this film. Perhaps I have misread several of Bergman's concerns; if I have, that's all part of the fun of discovering new landscapes. However, this much I can say: based on viewing this film, I am very much looking forward to exploring more of his work. The human heart is a fascinating thing, and getting to know an artist's understanding of it, regardless of whether or not you agree with him, is always an intriguing and compelling project. One could do a lot worse than spend some time with Ingmar Bergman.

experto crede: a strong recommendation, especially for those looking for comedy or romance with a slightly philosophical bent

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