Criterion Corner Reviews: Ingmar Bergman's 'Summer' Lovers

Criterion Corner Reviews: Ingmar Bergman's 'Summer' Lovers

May 31, 2012

#613 SUMMER INTERLUDE (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1951  // #614 SUMMER WITH MONIKA (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1953

“Old age means ugliness. How lucky, Bergman murmurs to us, how lucky that the cinema exists to store up beauty.” - Jean-Luc Godard 

THE FILMS (84/100): It is spectacularly strange to find a Superman reference in a film by Ingmar Bergman. Hearing someone mention the Man of Steel in 1951’s Summer Interlude makes for a jarring moment, like a (sadly hypothetical) allusion to WAM! in a late-era Tarkovsky movie  -- the years line up, but it’s hard to believe that such things could ever co-exist. Superman had been an emerging global icon since Action Comics #1 dropped in 1938, but Bergman’s films, at least for a contemporary audience, can feel so cloistered in the past and private that any overt connection to the world as we know it lands with the violating twinge of a trans-dimensional rift (or, in Superman terminology, like an overlap with the Phantom Zone). The legendary filmmaker’s most famous works are either framed by a brutally bygone era (The Seventh Seal), confined to a psychological meta-space (Persona), or so claustrophobic and closed that the world beyond the frame is slowly choked away and forgotten (Cries and Whispers). And yet, once upon a time, Bergman’s cinema was supple and inclusive, wistful where it would later be resigned, and a part of the world where it would later exist only in response to it. Once upon a time, Ingmar Bergman was young.

The final moments of Summer Interlude are among the least emotionally convincing of Bergman’s career, and while Bergman was still coming to his own as a director at the time, I doubt that the easy convenience of the film’s finale is entirely unintentional. The story introduces us to a cold and fading ballerina named Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson)  as she prepares to star in a glitzy production of Swan Lake (attention Aronofsky fans). On the eve of the show, she receives a mysterious package with no return address -- inside is the diary of her first love, a young man named Henrik with whom she spent an idyllic late teenage summer on a remote Swedish island. The brunt of the film is devoted to flashbacks of the puppy romance they shared, as the Marie of the present -- almost unrecognizable from the young girl who was so quick to joke and smile --  retraces her past, visiting with her uncle in a way that some might find discomfortingly evocative of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  

Summer Interlude is touched with a sense of levity rare to Bergman’s work, giddy and capricious where his later films would most often aspire to be droll. Nilsson was never one of Bergman’s most famous or frequent leading ladies (perhaps because she married another man during the year of the film’s production), but she gives a spirited performance that would become a model for the director’s increasingly enigmatic heroines, the sharp shadows of her face reminding me of a Nordic Celia Johnson. Her Marie is defined by a relentless buoyancy, speaking the words “Is it as tragic as all that?” so often that it practically becomes a catchphrase. It’s the sort of rhetorical question that might seem more appropriately asked of an Ingmar Bergman film rather than in one, but the fall will have her singing a different tune. The formative summer is fluidly captured by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer -- one of the many elements forever binding this film to Summer With Monika -- the shimmering waters, the slow dissolves,  and the occasional effects shots (there’s even an animated sequence!) all working in concert to recall a mess of broken memories that cut Marie just as much as they comfort her. 

The party line on Summer Interlude is that it’s something of a roadmap for where Bergman was heading, the project that galvanized and focused the artistic impulses that he would follow into darker territory for the rest of his life. But the film’s final sequence -- in which Marie’s faith in life (and perhaps God) is ostensibly restored -- unfolds with such a lack of conviction that you can’t help but feel as if it’s pointedly dishonest, and that the more openly dour stories that Bergman would later tell weren’t more disconsolate, but only more removed from a time when despair could still be solved with the right third act reveal. It’s no accident that Marie’s happy ending transpires in the wings of a ballet about an irreconcilable duality, and that Bergman refuses to allow her ultimate happiness a close-up, choosing instead to fold her into a company of indistinguishable dancers, her joy flattened into the scenery. 

If Summer Interlude could be thought of as Bergman’s (500) Days of Summer (and I’m not sure if it really can), then one could think of Summer With Monika as Bergman’s Moonrise Kingdom (an analogy as reductive as it is shamelessly topical). Summer With Monika -- considered by luminaries like Jean-Luc Godard to be Bergman’s major breakthrough -- concerns two young folks (a bit older than Wes Anderson’s twee children, but equally prepared for a life together), as they run away from the civilized world to create and share in a realm of their own design. Harry is a lad with a blonde swish of hair and a blue-collar job. He doesn’t have much of a personality, but he’s got romantic ambition to burn. He falls in love with the mercurial, Monika (Harriet Andersson, for whom Bergman left his wife), who has a full face and full breast and offers them both to Harry once they escape Stockholm in favor of an island paradise on a rock somewhere in the sea. The future is traded for the present, eternity is traded for the instant, and innocence is traded for sex. Harry always behaves how you expect him to, while Monika is feral and untamed, even by eventual motherhood. The two children share a moment in time, and each in their own way rebel against it slipping away from them. 

Directly repudiating Summer Interlude, Summer With Monika becomes more fancifully psychological as it’s flattened by its coldest truths, Bergman’s characters engaging directly with his camera so that all they’ve lost can crystallize around them (Godard calls one of Monika’s most formally jarring close-ups “The saddest shot in the history of cinema”).  Whereas the heroine of Summer Interlude was involved in the arts, the eponymous Monika obsessively attends them, at one point claiming that the cinema is the thing she misses most about the city. Harry, on the other hand, is a proxy for the viewer or Bergman himself, limp, undefined, and completely at the mercy of his mind’s eye. 

As the film progresses and Harry broadens into the upstanding dolt we always suspected him of being, Monika’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, the irreconcilable gap of understanding between she and Harry mocking the boy for the past he thought he could somehow preserve in amber. Gunnar Fischer, at Bergman’s behest, shoots Andersson with all the attention his love for her required, and Summer With Monika is arguably more engaging as a keepsake than it is a piece of narrative fiction. Monika is too wild a character even for Bergman’s control, and her temperament has a tendency to distract from the film’s drama rather than dimensionalize it, but in the moments during which Harry’s flashbulb memories and impulse decisions color the rest of his life, Summer With Monika feels as immediate and true as anything Bergman would ever make. If Summer Interlude suggests that you can’t go home again, Summer With Monika takes things a step further, Bergman looking you right in the eyes as he reveals that home isn’t even where you left it. 

THE TRANSFERS: Summer With Monika doesn’t seem to have provided Criterion with much of a challenge, so far as the creation of this new digital transfer is concerned. The film’s 35mm camera negative was in immaculate shape, and the Blu-ray is practically flawless, with perfect contrast, a light layer of grain, and a total absence of print debris. Summer Interlude, on the other hand, appears to have required less of an update than a full-on rescue mission. The original negative was scratched to hell and riddled with mold, and a recently discovered 1966 negative suffered from “severe shrinkage,” which translates into white vertical lines running down the right side of the image in a way that’s noticeable but seldom distracting. A Frankenstein’s monster of the two different negatives, Criterion’s transfer is so pristine that its backstory is hard to believe. The image is perhaps a bit softer than that of the Summer With Monika disc, but still impressively sharp, filmic, and absent from all frustrating flaws save for the occasional buckling and scratches on the edge of the picture. You won’t find much to complain about. 

Summer Interlude: 80/100

Summer With Monika: 97/100

THE EXTRAS: Well, the first thing you should know is that all of them are on the Summer With Monika disc. It’s no secret that one of these two films is considered to be far more significant than the other, and Criterion’s decision not to split the supplements across these two releases certainly reflects that (of course, it may have been difficult to find bonus material pertinent to Summer Interlude). 

First up is a 4-minute intro to the film by Bergman himself. Recorded in 2003, the clip features the filmmaker sitting in his private screening room and waxing nostalgic on why he always had such a particular fondness for Summer With Monika (something about meeting Harriet Andersson when she was in a negligee and fishnet stockings). The little interview is conducted by Bergman Island director, Marie Nyeröd. Then you’ve got a hefty new 24-minute interview in which Peter Cowie chats with Harriet Andersson herself, who now closely resembles a Swedish Diane Wiest. She’ll make you long for a bygone era of movie-making, and then she’ll tell you about her first kiss with Ingmar Bergman. Finally, there’s Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, which is a 12-minute video interview / essay with film scholar Eric Schaefer in which he discusses how and why Summer With Monika was first sold to American audiences as a hilariously tepid exploitation film.

Summer Interlude: 0/100

Summer With Monika: 75/100

THE BEST BIT:  Lovingly introduced by Martin Scorsese, Images from the Playground is an affecting 28-minute collection of Bergman’s home videos, shot by the man himself on a 9.5mm Bell & Howell camera that he purchased from a little camera shop in Stockholm. He’d compulsively record the day-to-day life of his film sets as a sort of moving journal, and the archival Bergman interviews that have been layered over the footage articulates how Bergman regarded all the equipment as his favorite toys, referring to himself  as an eternal grown-up trapped in a long man’s body. It’s exquisitely personal and romantic stuff, as even Bergman’s home videos feel like an extension of his cinema, essential viewing for hardcore fans.  

THE ARTWORK (87/100): Criterion has unified these two releases with a shared aesthetic, evocative black-and-white stills from the films overlaid with their respective titles in big, colorful type. At first blush it might look a bit plain, but the still, iconic feel nicely captures the extent to which both of these movies are centered around flashbulb moments that their characters could never keep so well. The packages are color-coded (blue for Summer Interlude, yellow for Summer With Monika), and handsomely austere straight through the interior design of the plastic cases. 

Visit the Criterion Corner blog for a look under the covers.

THE ARBITRARY VERDICTS: Two Bergman films that shouldn’t be forgotten. Summer With Monika is the more essential package (and the more expensive one, to boot), but Summer Interlude is an equally rewarding trip back in time.  

Summer Interlude: 77

Summer With Monika: 84

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