Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bergman: The Bard of Malmo


Today I went to the Charles Theatre to watch Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende, 1955), the second screening in the Ingmar Bergman Revival series there. This was the film Bergman made right before what most critics consider to be his masterpiece, The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1957), and is notable for being a romantic "comedy" by a director renowned for his brooding seriousness (and it doesn't get any more serious than playing chess with Death for one's life, as in The Seventh Seal). It was also the film that inspired Woody Allen's 1982 homage A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (fittingly, like Bergman there was always a serious side to Allen's comedies and, likewise, a comedic side to Bergman's dramas - note the importance of Jof the happy-go-lucky actor and his clownish acting troupe in The Seventh Seal) and Steven Sondheim's stage musical A Little Night Music (1978).

And, sitting in the crowded Charles Theatre watching this sex farce, the simple truth of Bergman's art hit me over the head: Bergman is the modern Shakespeare. And not simply because Smiles of a Summer Evening is based ever so loosely on the Bard of Avon's A Midsummer Night's Dream and shows the same ability to move easily back and forth between comedy and drama as in so many of Shakespeare's greatest plays. For as masterful as his direction is, as exquisite as his lighting and cinematography (by Academy Award-winning lenser Sven Nykvist) is, as wonderful his casting and direction of actors is, it's the words that make Bergman films stand the test of time. What wonderful dialogues his films have, subtitled words ripe with meaning filling the screen like economically precise couplets from Shakespearian sonnets, telling texts that encapsulate the gist of human foibles, emotional frailty and existential angst in plain language deceivingly as simple as Fortune Cookie aphorisms yet as heavy as a Taco Bell Chalupa.

For example, here are some notable quotables from Smiles of a Summer Night, courtsey of imdb:
Mrs. Armfeldt: Why is youth so terribly unmerciful? And who has given it permission to be that way?

[Carl Magnus' wife has just told him that his mistress may be involved with someone else - he says to his wife]
Carl Magnus: I can tolerate my wife's infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger.

[Later, his mistress tells him that his wife may be unfaithful - he says to his mistress]
Carl Magnus: I can tolerate someone dallying with my mistress, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger.

Charlotte: Men are horrible, vain and conceited. And they have hair all over their bodies.

Petra the Maid: And then the summer night smiled for the third time.
Frid the Groom: [to the audience] For the sad, the depressed, the sleepless, the confused, the frightened, the lonely.

Mrs. Armfeldt: Who are we inviting? If they are actors, they will have to eat in the stables.

Carl Magnus: I shall remain faithful until the great yawn do us part.

Desiree Armfeldt: For once, I was truly innocent.
Mrs. Armfeldt: It must have been early in the evening.

Desiree Armfeldt: I hit him on the head with the poker.
Mrs. Armfeldt: What did the Count say then?
Desiree Armfeldt: We elected to part amicably.

Desiree Armfeldt: Why don't you write your memoirs?
Mrs. Armfeldt: My dear daughter, I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs.

Mrs. Armfeldt: Beware of good deeds. They cost far too much and leave a nasty smell.

Mrs. Armfeldt: Your children are very beautiful, especially the young girl.
Fredrik Egerman: The young girl is my wife, Mrs Armfeldt.
Mrs. Armfeldt: I believe you lead a very strenuous life, Mr Egerman.

Bergman's extensive experience working in theatre in Malmo, Sweden is on full display here, for Smiles of a Summer Evening is basically a play recorded on film, hence its relatively easy transition to Sondheim's Tony- and Oscar-winning A Little Night Music.

The film assembles the usual bevy of beautiful Bergman babes (Ulla Jacobsen, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Anderson, Margit Carlqvist, and even a young Bibi Anderson in a cameo) and their male actor foils to act out a plot that, as in so many Bergman films, shows how the supposedly enlightened Upper Classes let reason, pretense and morality get in the way of life's (sexual and romantic) pleasures and are miserable as a result, whereas the simple Lower Classes (Petra the maid and Frid the stable groom) frolic and make merry since they are footloose and fancy-free from the constraints of book-bound intellectualism. If it feels good, they do it.

The narrative, in short is this: Rogue lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has an unconsummated marriage with young virgin bride Anne (Ulla Jacobsen), who is in love with her stepson Henrik (Bjorn Bjelveenstam), a would-be theology student who, though trying to fight temptations of the flesh, still messes around with the maid Petra (Harriet Anderson), who messes around with everybody. Fredrik Egerman still carries the torch for his old flame, the actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), who loves Fredrik in turn but is also the mistress of Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). Desiree has a son named named Fredrik, who may or may not be their love child. To further complicate matters, the Count's wife Countess Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is friends with Anne Egerman and both young women detest Desiree because their men are diddling with the old gal. Only Frid, a groom employed by Desiree's mother, Mrs. Armfeldt, and Petra, the Egerman's maid, have clear consciences, because they are simple and carefree and don't try to fight their natural instincts. "Natural" is the key word here, for it is left to the working class groom Frid to explain the three phases of the titular Summer Night's "smile" - the first, from Midnight to dawn, is the smile of lust, when one follows the biological dictates of their aroused loins; the second "smile" is the post-coital contentment of intimacy that expresses it self in some form of commitment (being a couple, being betrothed, etc.); and the third "smile" of the night is more of a smirk, one reserved, in Frid's words, "For the sad, the depressed, the sleepless, the confused, the frightened, the lonely." In other words, it's Nature's smirk for those not getting any.

After watching Smiles of a Summer Night, I realized that not only is Bergman the modern Shakespeare, but no one ever presented sex and relations between the sexes with more honesty. Forget all the other European (especially French) art film attempts at depicting intimacy and lovers. Bergman doesn't need gratuitous sexual depictions to get his point across. His actors speak dialogue that could have been written by Homer, Virgil or Jean Cocteau, steeped as the words are with truths and insights on an almost mythological level. This is Adult filmmaking at its best, not Adult "dirty" but Adult in the sense of bearing the maturity that only comes with experiencing life to its fullest - its ups and downs, triumphs and failures, follies and ephiphanies.

When all is said and done, Smiles of a Summer Evening is the film that put Bergman on the international critics' map - even before The Seventh Seal (and another 1957 film, Wild Strawberries) sealed his place in cinematical history for good. The rest of the revival series look good, as well. I only wish they could have found a 35mm print of my favorite, The Magician.
A Short Aside: By the way, it's a shame the revival series didn't include a screening of the humorous short film De Duva (The Dove) (1968); though hard to find, there is a 16mm print of this 15-minute film available for loan at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Nominated for an Oscar in 1969, this riotous spoof parodies three of Ingmar Bergman's films - Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, and The Silence. It also marked the first film role of Madeline Kahn. Speaking in mock Swedish, with English subtitles, a retired physicist with a hernia recalls, while sitting in an outhouse, a garden party he attended as a youth. In a game of badminton rather than chess, Death loses his intended victim because of a hilarious obstacle ... a dirty pigeon that poops on him! Director George Coe was one of the original cast members on the first three episodes of Saturday Night Live. And script writer Sid Davis, who also plays the role of Death, is perhaps best known as a director/producer of educational scare films notorious for giving school children nightmares (such as traffic safety films containing actual accident footage and films warning of child molesters). De Duva is extremely hard to find outside of Pratt's 16mm film print. It was once available in VHS format on Classic Foreign Shorts, Vol 1, but currently is out of print. Check Buy Indies at or Facets Multimedia at for updates on its availability status.(George Coe and Anthony Lover, 1968, 15 minutes, b&w, 16mm)

Related Links

Ingmar Bergman Revival Series (Charles Theatre)


Blogger TV said...

I just watched this movie and I think you wrote a great review! I actually checked out the movie b/c of the Charles's review. They used this quote:
"One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering."

11:21 PM  

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