You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
From a historical perspective, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night isn’t an obscure film, it’s a landmark achievement. After it premiered at Cannes in 1956, it put Bergman on the map, opened up the international floodgates for art film exports, and sent those auteur-loving Cahiers critics to their typewriters, lauding its mastery. Four years later, across the Atlantic, Pauline Kael was still beaming with positive regard: “Late in 1955, Ingmar Bergman made a nearly perfect work—the exquisite carnal comedy Smiles of a Summer Night.” For decades, theater producers tried to adapt it, unsuccessfully, until Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler finally acquired the rights and wrote “A Little Night Music.” That musical is, perhaps, the narrative’s most long-lasting incarnation. From another perspective, however, Smiles is a bit of an anomaly. For Bergman The Capital-“A” Auteur, with his long-standing oeuvre, it’s an odd duck out and lightyears away – aesthetically, narratively, thematically, what have you – from his other odd duck out, the avant-garde classic Persona. In our cultural imagination, The Seventh Seal is “Art School 101,” along with, maybe, Wild Strawberries. These two films leave Smiles lost in their career-defining wake.
The most unusual aspect of Smiles announces itself in its frilly opening credits: “en romantisk komedi av Ingmar Bergman.” How strange it is to see Bergman’s name attached to a romantic comedy! Bergman was never completely comedy-averse (Fanny and Alexander combined Christmas and fart jokes, after all), but his brand of dour existentialism tends to grow into all-consuming maelstroms of anxiety and woe. If your ideal Bergman is the brooding, godless modernist of Winter Light and The Silence, Smiles will come as a bit of a shock: the angsty Swede is ready to let loose and have some fun. Well, not exactly. And, in fact, Bergman’s morose predilections both refine and deepen Smiles of a Summer Night. In her piece, Kael lauds how “boudoir farce becomes lyric poetry.” This is right, but not completely. It’s not that boudoir farce becomes lyric poetry so much as boudoir farce is revealed to be lyrical poetry when you look close enough. Bergman’s steady hand, never too quick to cash in on a cheap laugh, reveals how the human spirit – or soul, or whatever you want to call it, the very source of our farcical love lives – is beautiful and jolly and insecure and selfish and mournful. Sometimes it’s all of these things at once, by degrees. Smiles of a Summer Night is best classified as a Comedy of Manners, a member of that sexually licentious genre full of playful, flirtatious give-and-take, double-entendres, double-crossing, slapstick, and class-consciousness. (I’m not going to describe too much of the dense plotting here; the structure is familiar, it can be found elsewhere on the all-knowing Interweb, and the film’s revelations are closely tied to its charm.)
As a theatre man, Bergman surely read his fair share of Molière. But you also feel the impact of Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game on Bergman’s directorial toolkit. During its 17th century zenith in particular, the cleverly verbose and transgressively shallow Comedy of Manners always felt more like the work of a naughty dilettante than a real social critic. It tickled the bourgeois lifestyle rather than pummeling it to the ground. You can nibble on the hand that feeds you, but you can’t chomp it off; landowners were theatre benefactors, after all. As the ruling class died out (literally), Renoir, between two World Wars, turned the familiar genre in on itself. In his merciless hands, fighting lovers seemed more pathetic than clever. They were frighteningly ruthless, not laughably pompous. Needless to say, French audiences were livid. Bergman isn’t so keen to burn it all down, but he owes an important revelation to Renoir: the boudoir farce is a surprisingly slippery, malleable beast. In agile cinematic hands, it can go deeper and darker and farther than you might assume. Take an early sequence. Fredrik Egerman naps with his young, still-chaste wife Anne. In his half-awake, half-asleep state, he leans on his wife and begins to caress her. She is surprised and flattered until he beings to mutter a telling name: Desirèe. I’m not sure how old this trope – the man saying the wrong woman’s name during lovemaking – is, but we all know what happens next. The woman jumps up, yells at the sick, pathetic fool, or cries and storms off. It’s played for maximum laughs. But what does Anne do? She sits up slowly and looks at her husband. She lets him sleep. Tears fill her eyes and she glances off into the distance. It’s a lingering, intimate moment; we feel Anne’s embarrassment, shame, and ultimately – indicated by that stare into the off-screen horizon (perhaps toward her stepson Henrick’s room?) – her longing for a more fitting husband. It’s a soft, empathetic moment. And it’s not created by undermining or reappropriating a genre trope, but by taking a cliché situation and mining it for genuine pathos. There are lots of small moments like these in Smiles of a Summer Night, and very little hyperbolic camera mugging. Most of its farcical, over-the-top moments are fleeting and self-reflexive. When Frederick first visits Desirèe and hears her new lover, the jealous military man Count Malcolm, banging on the door, he asks: “Should I hide?” Her response: “We’re not on the stage, Frederik dear.” He cries: “But this is still a damned farce!” And, just in time for the extradiegetic trumpet cue, in stomps Malcolm, stage left. Yet even Malcolm, the most two-dimensionally theatrical character of the bunch, is pared back – he’s a glaring, dignified sort of macho brute. He functions as a silly, but defiantly levelheaded, barb at the fin de siècle modern man with his glittering dossier numerically measured achievements, from men he’s killed to women he’s slept with. (You half-expect him to nod at his crotch and blurt out: “Ten inches, gentlemen!”) Even though Bergman doesn’t give Malcolm much to do besides strut about, defending his manhood, Malcolm functions as a serviceable foil for more nuanced characters.
Harriet Andersson has received deserved praise for playing Petra, the sensuously vulgar maid, but Eva Dahlbeck delivers my favourite performance. Although Desirèe is a stage actress, Dahlbeck plays her with the bright, deadpan poise of a natural Studio System movie star. When she modulates from joy to resentment to blossoming anger, Dahlbeck leans into the cadence of the Swedish language with a positively musical agility: drawing out the long, open “aahhs” and “ehhs,” trilling through the sharp, biting consonants. It’s a performance so coy that it absorbs you before you’ve even noticed its potency. And this film knows a fair amount about coy, potent seduction. Roger Ebert summed it up: “The film is entirely about adultery.” Well, sort of. The film centres on adultery, sure, but it’s about the part of us that finds it difficult to love anyone, period. We find our way to this theme through Frederik’s son, Henrick. Although he’s a theology student, Henrik finds himself helplessly drawn to Petra. He reads Martin Luther compulsively, as if the louder he insists on theology, the more he will be able to escape his own “worldly” desires. (Someone should probably tell him that the Bible actually values sex, and even contains a whole book of sexual love poetry – but that’s neither here nor there.) Since he merely writhes and sulks, Henrick isn’t a particularly nuanced character, but he’s a fitting cypher for Bergman’s own Protestant guilt. He’s an amusing parody of Bergman himself. During Smiles’ production, the many-mated filmmaker was in the muck of a painful divorce. In his own words: “I went away to Switzerland and had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night or kill myself.”
As Henrick probably knew, Luther coined term for one of Smiles’ main themes: incurvatus in se, roughly translated as: “curved inward on oneself.” When we are “curved inward,” we only see value in things to the extent that they serve our own personal needs. “Curved inwardness” is a form of claustrophobic, annihilating self-love, resulting in an inability to serve or even care for others. We even want God for our own selfish ends. Lutheran self-love is the virus that claims these characters, but Henrik is the only one who truly wrestles with it. Fredrik tells Henrik that self-love is one of the joys of youthfulness, but it’s lost in old age when “one gets strange ideas over the years… like gentleness, kindness, consideration and love.” Desirèe calls Fredrik out on his bullshit: “You’ve never had any friend but yourself.” He responds: “You’re the same!” and she replies: “I have the theatre, dear sir. And my talent”––as if that’s less narcissistic, somehow. “She/he loves only her/himself,” is a common jab in Smiles. With asides like these, Bergman digs into the Comedy of Manners’ black heart with a light, agile touch. This sets everything up for Bergman’s lovely conclusion. Classical Comedies of Manners usually end with over-the-top love fests, as everything is made miraculously right by the Generous Gods of Narrative Gifts. But here again, Bergman’s darker tendencies enrich the genre.
Smiles is never insistent on an easy, transcendent love available to all people under every circumstance. Rather, it insists on a series of smiles: brief moments of joy and unity among generally self-centred individuals. We may not all find ourselves altruistically clasped in each other’s arms all the time, but, in our own ways, in our own times, we may find ourselves loosening that self-preserving grip on our own souls. We may find ourselves reaching out in some genuine, tender way – even if that looks like playfully beating up a drunken land servant on a haystack. Kael wrote: “In this vanished setting, nothing lasts, there are no winners in the game of love; all victories are ultimately defeats — only the game goes on.” It’s easy to don this cynical perspective when approaching Smiles, but, in doing so, we miss the genuine sweetness that gives this film a brighter, and, ultimately, more sophisticated worldview than many of Bergman’s pitch-black existential affairs. As Christian Wiman observes in My Bright Abyss: “What belief could be more self-annihilating, could more effectively articulate its own insufficiency and thereby prophesy its own demise, than twentieth-century existentialism? To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight.” The beauty of Smiles of a Summer Night is not its cynicism, its love game in which “all victories are ultimately defeats,” but its awareness of fleeting, interpersonal beauty in a world where, as Desirèe’s mother puts it, “one can not protect a single human being from any kind of suffering.”
In one of the film’s most tender scenes, Petra lays against her newfound Land Servant lover. He sits against a tree. His beer stein catches the faint light. Weeping willows bleed into placid river reflections. Petra mumbles, quietly: “Why have I never been a lover? Can you tell me that?” He smiles, stroking her hair: “There are few young lovers in this world. Love has smitten them both as gift and a punishment…. We invoke love, beg for it, cry out for it, try to mimic it. We think we own it, tell lies about it, but we don’t have it.” But as he says this, the dark that surrounds them, hides them, envelops them, slowly, softly turns to dawn.
Conor Bateman: I didn’t expect my first introduction to the filmography of the Swedish master to be a sex comedy from the 1950s but there you go. Though it has an overly staid first act and is slow to get off the mark with regards to effective characterisation, when the plot starts to connect all of the characters together (probably from the scene of the Countess Malcolm shooting the window onwards), Bergman’s film moves into madcap territory, with mostly successful results. Despite the pre-20th century setting, the dialogue remains thoroughly modern and its discussion of sex, love and the follies of men and women are filled with wit and cynicism. In fact, the screenplay is much more impressive than Bergman’s direction, which for the most part frames scenes as if they were a Wilde play (not a bad thing), with notable exceptions in the editing of the figures on the clock and the hilarious ‘bed button’. The shoehorning of the title into the film near its end was regrettable but the usage of the Midsummer night itself was a solid motif, the notion of needing to stay awake fulfilled a need on the part of the female characters to carry out their plans to the end.
Imogen Gardam: There is not much to Smiles of a Summer Night. The film is charming, well-executed fluff, beautifully shot and beautifully filmed. But I can’t help but feel that by attempting to attach more to this “Comedy of Manners”, it is possible to discredit the simple joy of a simple, slight film. David Thomson describes Smiles of a Summer Night as one of several films Bergman did in the early fifties as projects for actresses he loved 1 – most particularly Harriet Andersson, who is genuinely captivating as Petra. For me, the actresses are by far the strongest part of this film – I agree absolutely with Nathan in this regard, I found Eva Dahlbeck completely absorbing as Desirée. Her inherent musicality and deep characterisation drew me in completely, to the extent that I almost began to believe there was more to the film. Where Nathan finds that the coyness of Dahlbeck disguises her potency, I found that it hid, temporarily, the shallowness of the film. You have to question the value of a film that gently mocks the ruling classes in 1955 – while Swedish society certainly maintained some degree of class division, I hardly believe there was much left to burn down by the mid-fifties. Smiles has very little value as social commentary then, or very little relevant value.
I find that Pauline Kael’s summation of the work as an “exquisite carnal comedy” perfectly encapsulates the extent of the work, as that is all it really is. It is exquisite, in its costuming, locations, performance, and precise direction. But it should not be read or viewed as more. Bergman succeeds in making an exceptional work, but it remains at heart a comedy, with no more nobler intentions. During the scene in which Fredrick Egerman puts his young wife Anne to bed after their disastrous night at the theatre, the camera holds on her face as she holds him, speaking to him. Mid-conversation, Bergman brings the camera forward – not quite but almost crossing the line – disconcerting us and making us aware that we are being made privy to a very private conversation between spouses. Our new position in the scene allows us to truly appreciate both Anne’s insecurity and Fredrick’s obliviousness, but more so, we are aware that we are doing so. It’s a very subtle touch, deriving from a very simple cinematic gesture, but it is an important one, and it is owed as much to Bergman’s directorial hand as to the vulnerability the ACTRESS brings to the scene. Despite the mastery of the director and the actors, there is very little substance to the film – couples are jealous, schemes are hatched, dignities are revenged, and everyone ends up with the person they’re meant to be with. There is a bittersweet touch to it all, which is the principle distinction between this and, say, an American take on a carnal comedy. But this is a film that is best enjoyed with no greater aspirations than beautifully executed entertainment, a comedy elevated by Bergman and his actors.
Saro Lusty-Cavallari: Smiles Of a Summer Night is perhaps the film that best lives up to this columns name, regardless of our eventual feelings towards the film, we have to see the movie that put Bergman on the map and arguably created the arthouse circuit. Yet ‘have to’ and ‘want to’ are definitely very different things in this regard. I’ve always struggled with Bergman; as much as I can appreciate his formal strength, I can’t think of any other major director who alienates me more and its particularly problematic here. Bergman converts what would typically be a manic comedy and makes it a lyrical stroll through humanity and relationships. Yet I struggle with both sides of the equation, I find it difficult to engage with Bergman’s observations here profoundly as his usual earnestness and philosophical detours just put me at arms length and of course as a comedy it’s not particularly funny.
I’m glad that Nathan brings up how large the theatre looms in this film beyond being a literal presence. The rather trite comedy of manners are obviously an influence but the rich characterisation and random tracts of casual philosophising could be lifted out of a turn of the century realist play. But the classic Shakespearean comedy is the structure that I think is being played to most here, we even have the Shakesperean fool archetype. Those plays were also interrogating ideas of identity and relationship, slipping from bawdiness to melancholy like Bergman does here, yet they possessed (or at least do when performed well) and incredible sense of zest and energy. The great comedies, be they trite or filled with depth, have an infectious energy and for that reason I find Bergman’s work here just too cold to love, no matter proficient he is.
Isabelle Galet-Lalande: All I could think of while watching Smiles of a Summer Night was how much it felt like the more cynical and raunchy European twin of Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas of the 1950’s. I only found out afterwards that the film was released in 1955, the same year as Sirk’s kitsch masterpiece, All that Heaven Allows, which makes a lot of sense. Combining technical virtuosity with total intellectual fluff, these are the film equivalents of the soufflé: they’re just so pretty that you want to dig deeper and figure it out, but you leave feeling fundamentally unsatisfied. As Nathan points out, this is a must-see – and I did enjoy it – but I suppose I expected more one of Bergman’s rare comedies. In this highly theatrical set piece, the maddening contrivance of mid-century bourgeoisie is played out by a couple of naïve, aesthetically pleasing characters. Achingly good performances aside, this is run of the mill fare – and it all could have been taken so much further.
Technically, the film is a delight: in an early scene, a wedding photographer places photographs of Fredrik’s young fiancée on a table. At steady intervals, the photos shift from long-distance shots of the couple, to close-ups of Anne’s white dress, décolletage, then face. As if viewed through a rotoscope, the perfect Victorian bride is rendered a reality, frame by frame. It’s a charming nod to the way we used to see the world, a literally stilted view of film and femininity. The film is dotted with similar visual feats, not altogether unexpected from a master of black and white. However, as a film that centres around four of the most stunning and talented women to grace Bergman’s camera, I was curious to see how their roles would develop. The director’s camera lingers over their features, but they are never given the narrative space to do much else than whine, gossip and seduce – the yawn-inducing Fredrik and Count Malcolm are given a far too generous share of screen time. Bar a sizzling, homoerotic pillow fight – no, really – between housemaid Petra (the magnetic Harriet Andersson) and the sexually frustrated Anne Egerman, there is very little to distinguish these characters from any other stock melodrama of the period. Only the sheer quality of filmmaking makes this, like any Sirkian bodice-ripper, a cut above.
Kenneth Kriheli: I came to Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night some time after I’d seen Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the second of the two adaptations of this film. Here more than ever, Bergman is down to earth with his ability to leave a bad aftertaste on the tongue of humanity, one of the things Allen certainly admired and inherited from “The Man Who Asked Hard Questions”. But this film in particular relies more on pen and paper than on cinematic craft, which is strange considering that Bergman’s previous films, such as Sawdust and Tinsel and Summer with Monika, had already proven his knack for mise-en-scène and deriving drama from it. Bergman was a wonderful screenwriter, as good as he was a director, but the dialogue here is too obsessively immersed in the 19th-century theatrics of its period setting, as is the whole film, consequently. From discussions of morality and senses of wit to the staginess of the sets — a bed rolled into a room through a thin wall, Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand) jumping after Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck) into the darkness to splash butt-first into a puddle, etc.— Smiles is too noticeably dependent on the format of a play. I think most of this belongs on a theatre stage; just featuring it and referring to it afterwards doesn’t do it justice. If only as an afternote, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud, which may be the ultimate in cinematic staginess and dialogue-based melodrama, at least achieves said effect in utilising both frame and actors through either motionlessly delivered lines or stationary long takes.
Smiles Of a Summer Night was distributed on DVD by Hopscotch in Region 4 (Aus) and is viewable on Hulu + as part of The Criterion Collection. Join us next week to see our takes on Nagisa Oshima’s notorious In the Realm of the Senses.