by R. D. Finch
With the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock, no film director made as many great movies as Ingmar Bergman. And no director in movie history has more of a reputation for seriousness than Ingmar Bergman. Marital strife, parent-child conflict, childhood trauma, identity confusion, spiritual crisis, madness, war, above all death—think of a somber, disturbing, or depressing subject and chances are Bergman made a movie about it. Yet among all those serious films he is so well known for, in 1955 he made one of the most delightful romantic comedies ever filmed, Smiles of a Summer Night.
In Sweden, the time around the summer solstice, when it stays light nearly all night long as it does in all such northern latitudes, is a special time of year. This is a time for the celebration of fertility and the time when magic is believed to have its greatest power over humans, just as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the film, which takes place sometime early in the twentieth century, we are introduced to four men and four women who come together at a rustic weekend house party in midsummer, a traditional time for losing one’s inhibitions and indulging in emotionally risky behavior. Fredrik Egerman is a self-centered middle-aged lawyer who for two years has been married to Anne, a naive 19-year old. The marriage has never been consummated because of Anne’s fear of sex, and Fredrik, who has resolved to wait until she is ready for sexual relations, is growing restive. When he learns that his former mistress, the actress Desirée Armfeldt, is in town appearing in a play, he can’t resist going to see her. Accidentally learning of her husband’s renewed interest in Desirée, Anne understandable becomes deeply upset.
Their situation is complicated by several things. Fredrik’s grown son from his first marriage, Henrik, a rather priggish, sexually inexperienced theology student, is clearly in love with his stepmother Anne. The actress Desirée’s current lover is a possessive, compulsively competitive Count and officer in the Swedish Army who is determined to humiliate Fredrik and drive him away from Desirée. His wife the Countess, a woman nearly as haughty as her husband, has been embittered by the Count’s infidelity, dismissing love as “a loathsome thing.” Completing the ensemble are the Egermans’ mischievous, highly sexed maid Petra—she has already seduced young Henrik—and the philosophical coachman she encounters during the country weekend, Frid, a man whose lustiness matches her own.
Desirée comes up with a scheme to gather all these people together at her elderly mother’s country house for a midsummer weekend party. After she has brought her players together, she then proceeds to use her sense of the theatrical and her knowledge of the psychology of love and sex to orchestrate a romantic farce in which her cast acts out an elaborate sexual game of Change Partners. Her mother plays her part by providing for her guests at the midsummer dinner a special wine reputed to have an aphrodisiac effect on those who drink it. This is the magic that bewitches the guests and allows Desirée to guide events to a felicitous conclusion in which romantic difficulties are resolved and everyone ends up paired with the appropriate sexual partner.
In Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman takes a decidedly light-hearted view of sex and love. He presents sex as a game not to be taken too seriously, a game of pursuit and conquest analogous in the use of strategy by its players to a military campaign. Treating sex as a toy, his characters are in love not so much with the object of their desire as with the idea of love itself. For a male film writer and director, Bergman always showed unusual sympathy for the women in his movies. In Smiles of a Summer Night it’s the women who maintain a sensible attitude toward sex and love while the men, more driven by their libidos than by good sense, generally behave like fools. Left to their own devices, the males in the picture make a mess of things. It’s Desirée, conspiring with her mother and the Countess, who sorts out the muddle created by the men and manipulates the situation to the outcome that is most satisfactory for everyone.
With its complex skein of relationships and the way its characters pair off then separate, shuffle, and re-form into new pairs, this is in every sense an ensemble movie. But if pressed, I would single out three members of the cast for special attention. As Desirée, Eva Dahlbeck is intelligent, poised, and shrewd. She comes across like a goddess in Greek mythology who descends from Olympus and proceeds to maneuver people not only for her own amusement, but to ends that are best for themselves. Gunnar Björnstrand, who made nineteen movies directed by Bergman, plays Fredrik Egerman as a stoical middle-aged man whose life experience has inured him to the frustration, humiliation, and even rivalry of his own son that he must endure to continue playing the game of love. Finally there is Harriet Andersson, who brings to Petra the maid the earthy eroticism and freedom from sexual inhibition that the better educated and better-off people in the movie crave but seem too self-conscious to attain.
For those acquainted with Bergman’s work, the most surprising thing about Smiles of a Summer Night is the lightness of his touch here. The picture has the delicacy of an early Lubitsch musical or one of Mozart’s more airy operas, The Marriage of Figaro or Così fan tutte. Subjects that in a different context Bergman would treat with the utmost gravity—the uncertainty of human relationships, sexual jealousy, the plight of overly cerebral people trying to find happiness in life—are treated here as something to poke fun at. Even the moment late in the film when farce seems about to slide into tragedy and you think Aha! At last here comes the Bergmanesque gloom turns out to be played for laughs, a cheeky joke on the viewer. It’s Bergman’s most amiable and playful movie. For once he treats the human condition as the object not of spiritual agonizing, but rather of gentle mockery.
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