At its core, The Duke of Burgundy is about two people looking and hoping for what anyone looks for in their lover: someone with whom they can be open about their deepest vulnerabilities. Its approach is unconventional, but results are no less profound and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful.
The film, written and directed by Peter Strickland, tells the story of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a couple living on the edge of a woodland in a French dreamscape. Cynthia teaches lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies) and Evelyn is a student. This isn’t quite a May-December romance; Evelyn doesn’t appear to study anything else, and although she’s clearly younger than Cynthia, she is not a starstruck co-ed. Their sex life at home consists mostly of role plays in which Cynthia plays the part of a cold, demanding mistress and Evelyn a clumsy maid.
This is an undeniably erotic film, and BDSM plays a significant part in the story (at one point in the film Cynthia grows suspicious of infidelity when she finds out Evelyn polished another woman’s boots). However, this is a film about people and feelings, not just sex. Cynthia plays the part of a dominatrix but when they let role play cease at night it’s clear the Evelyn is calling the shots in their relationship. Playing the same part day in day out to please her partner drains Cynthia emotionally. Knudsen beautifully conveys her weariness as Evelyn asks Cynthia to get into character one morning when she simply wants to tell her partner how much she loves her. A brilliant sequence showcases a day entirely from Cynthia’s point of view. She’s far more nervous about scolding, spanking, and tying up Evelyn than Evelyn is about being on the receiving end. “Was I too cold?” Cynthia says at the end of one day. “The colder the better,” Evelyn replies. Later, Cynthia reads a note with Evelyn’s requests for the next day. “Cold” it simply says, and Cynthia nearly doubles over with frustration.
For a film so deeply about feeling and sensation, Strickland appropriately approaches the film as a multi-sensory experience. The images are painterly, saturated, and often quite beautiful simply for their own sake. The sounds covey the sense of touch; the tension of a boot being zipped up, the sound of bubbles popping in a sink, and the constant flutter of butterflies’ wings.
The Duke of Burgundy is sensuous but it doesn’t fetishize the characters. The dark eroticism of the early scenes soon convey a sense of monotony as they are repeated, as and both Cynthia and Evelyn’s weariness with the repetition becomes evident. They are constantly in communication, trying to find a balance in their relationship. It might do Hollywood movies some good to see how open and communicative the characters in this film are. This film might have the look of an exploitation at first, but it soon shows itself to be a study in loneliness, and how difficult verbalizing what you want from the person you love can be.
The Duke of Burgundy is not an easy film; at times it tumbles so deeply into dreamlike states that I lost track of what was real and what wasn’t. However, it’s deeply rewarding and surprisingly beautiful. Most movie romances spend so much time setting characters up that we know nothing about their relationship after the “I Love You”. The Duke of Burgundy is about two people working their way through that initial attraction and fall into romance. The focus on BDSM is not to titillate, but to emphasize the significance of communication and compromise in a relationship, and the emotional consequences when one partner ignores or disregards the needs of another. In that regard, it is one of the most affecting and fascinating films I’ve seen this year.
Rob over at Movierob has a terrific series called Genre Grandeur, where guest bloggers are invited to write reviews of their favorite films in a particular genre. Last month’s genre, selected by Natasha of Life of This City Girl, was sci-fi. My choice was John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic, The Thing. You can read the rest of the Genre Grandeur reviews here.
Science fiction is so often about the future, or faraway places. If a sci-fi story raises scary questions, we can take comfort that the situations presented are too far away to really worry about. One reason John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing is so effective as a work of sci-fi and horror is it enters territory rarely approached by either genre. It makes us think of terrors long trapped right here on our humble, present-day planet, just waiting to be unleashed.
The Thing opens with a blast of sci-fi kitsch and quickly plunges headlong into unsettling mystery. The first shot is of a flying saucer crashing into earth, a shot that looks low-tech even by 1982 standards. Then come the opening titles, which appear to burn the celluloid, a bit of irony for a film so engulfed in ice and snow.
In Halloween, John Carpenter began by jolting audiences out of their seats with a disturbing first-person murder sequence unlike anything most moviegoers had seen before. With The Thing he took the opposite approach; the film opens on a dog sprinting through the snow, a helicopter in pursuit. A man inside the chopper is trying to shoot the dog with a rifle, but he’s no sniper. The dog runs into an American research camp. The chopper lands and the man with the rifle pursues, shooting blindly. One of the Americans shoots him. A loose grenade explodes, destroying the chopper and killing the pilot. The Americans are left with carnage, fire, and the dog, and a hell of a lot of questions.
The Thing doesn’t feel compelled to answer every question. Its method of describing why something is happening is to provide just enough detail to make the how that much more sinister. A when the dog starts to melt the other dogs and take on a profoundly disgusting doppelganger form, well, we don’t need to know much more than “it’s from space” and “it’s a shapeshifter” to be scared.
The result is a beautifully micro-focused entry into a genre that is usually so comparatively macro in scope. Even the film The Thing most owes a stylistic debt to- Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien– uses the vastness of space to create its sense of isolation. Alien’s working class heroes are functionally astronauts, in a society where space travel is blue-collar work. The characters in The Thing never signed up for the reaches of outer space. They are right here on Earth. The horrors unleashed upon them don’t emerge from space, but from the frozen ground.
So is The Thing really a sci-fi movie, or just a horror movie that uses science fiction as its launching pad? One of the reasons it has stood the test of time; better, I think, than Carpenter’s most famous film, Halloween; is that the two genres blend so beautifully. The Thing features quality scary moments (elevated by the spectacular practical effects work of Rob Bottin) that linger in our minds as much for the questions they raise as the grotesqueries they portray.
The film’s tension is not from the usual “is the killer around the corner” horror set pieces. It relies on two simple constants: that “the thing” could be any of the characters at any time, and that, knowing this, the characters begin to unravel. It’s my favorite sort of science fiction, hypothesizing how people might react to an out-of-this-world situation. On a grand scale, writers can speculate how civilizations might form on a newly colonized planet, or how Earth might change if we made contact with an alien civilization. But Carptenter keeps his focus tight. His monster survives and kills. The characters are trapped and have no escape. He sets things in motions and lets them play out.
The Thing is a grisly masterpiece of high tension where death lurks around literally every corner; whether it’s shapeshifting aliens, coworkers deranged from paranoia, or the bitter cold elements that ensure this concoction stays in place. It’s a crash course in genre mixing. Sci-fi is so rarely this visceral and brutal, and horror is so rarely this thoughtful and deeply paranoid.
Take your most cherished, important relationship. Draw a line from now back until the day you met. What do you see? Memories. A collection of past events that shape your relationships. The present is fleeting and the future isn’t here yet. We use the past to try to shape what comes next. What if the very beginning of your relationships were suddenly changed? Adjust the angle of any line just a bit and it no longer aligns with what it used to. By the end of the line, it’s in an unrecognizable place. 45 Years, an extraordinary film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is about a couple whose four-and-a-half decade marriage is shaken by an adjustment to that line, a literal unearthing of a tragedy that occurred before they met.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are less than a week away from their 45th wedding anniversary when he gets a letter. It’s in German, but he can make out enough of it to get the news. Fifty years ago, he went to the Alps with his girlfriend, a German woman named Katya. She fell into a crevasse and died, her body disappearing in ice and snow. He moved on, married Kate. They are now living in apparent contentment. Then comes the letter, letting Geoff know that Katya’s body has been found, preserved in the ice.
Over the next few days, Geoff and Kate attempt to reckon with this news. Geoff vacillates between going to see Katya’s body in Switzerland and not. Kate tries to live her life as if nothing has changed until she can no longer. It’s clear that Katya was one of the two most important people in all of Geoff’s life. It’s possible that she is still the most important.
What a stark, human story this is. Its premise is so specific and odd (based on a short story by David Constantine) that it could easily have run off the rails into melodrama. But Courtenay and Rampling deliver such measured, vibrant performances that the film feels like it’s happening in the present moment. Their marriage isn’t suddenly upended by this discovery. The ramifications develop more slowly. Geoff needs time to discover just how much his grief over Katya’s death still affects him. Kate needs time to figure out how much she needs to reevaluate her position in Geoff’s life, and how much what he never told her about Katya matters to her.
Their conversations about the topic are realistic. They feel rooted in the decades of their relationship. Not one word sounds like a writer trying to manufacture drama. Kate tries to be pragmatic at first. Geoff tries to act like the news is only a fleeting worry. Their nightly conversations in bed reveal truths neither wants to acknowledge. Their attic becomes a sanctuary of secrets for them both. Kate realizes that Geoff is looking at old pictures of Katya in the attic while she sleeps, and demands to see them. She looks at a photo, puts it down, and goes back to bed. For a moment, both of them betrayed their true feelings more than they intended, and she seems frightened by that.
45 Years leans heavily on Courtenay and Rampling to carry it, to give us an understanding of their marriage in only a few scenes, and to invest us in it. They deliver. Consider a scene where Geoff wonders aloud if the library has books about climate change. In the next scene, Geoff and Kate are in a cafe, with Geoff reading a large book on the subject, talking about an impending glacial tsunami. You could argue that the dialogue is symbolic about Katya, whose body was found in a glacier. However, my biggest takeaway was how absolutely convincing, even charming these two were as a couple, and how realistic this scene was. Characters are so rarely allowed to talk to one another about the silly little things real people talk about. Their gestures and mannerisms carry decades of understanding, love, and frustration.
Later, there is a stunning sequence when Kate finds old slides with pictures of Katya. She looks at them through a projector while Geoff is out of the house. Rampling’s reactions to the images feature some of the best acting you’ll see in a film this year. Her heart seems to break three ways, betrayed only in slight shifts in her eyes.
The ambiguity of the ending of 45 Years might frustrate some. I thought it worked. The final shot is a stunner, a gorgeous, dialogue-free unbroken take that aims for poetry over definitive conclusions. 45 Years does not attempt to answer if Geoff and Kate’s marriage is forever altered, or even destroyed, by the re-introduction of Katya into their narrative. The story takes place entirely in the days leading up to and during their anniversary party. The full effect of Katya cannot realistically play out in that time. This isn’t a story about the aftermath of a tsunami; it’s about how the ripples of the beginning of the story become the visible crest of a wave at the end.
I figure I’ll give myself until the end of February (the end of the new release graveyard, basically) to keep posting reviews of last year’s films. Until then, there are still some terrific movies that need seeing. Amy is one of them.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy opens with home video footage of a 14-year-old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Her voice is startling: rich, beautiful, and robust. I imagine any music producer hearing this snippet would clamor to find out more about this girl. Then something far more grim struck me: at 14, Amy Winehouse was more than halfway to her death. Never deviating from footage (much of it home video shot by Winehouse and her friends) Kapadia builds a narrative from this moment, when Winehouse was so full of promise, to the realization of that promise as she catapulted to superstardom, and finally her self-destruction and death at age 27 from alcohol poisoning.
I remember well when Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” was all the rage. I was a sophomore in college, immersing myself in music for the first time as I took jazz vocal lessons and sang with musical ensembles. Her ascent coincided with my first deep appreciation of music. “Rehab” was my favorite song for some time. I wasn’t alone. It was so catchy and energetic that it overtook any room in which it was played. Everyone in the room had no choice but to stop and listen. My younger sister, however, couldn’t listen to the song. It was too bleak for her. She saw through the veneer of defiant buoyancy and saw underneath a song about self-aware self-destruction laid bare for the world to see. In hindsight, I think she was right. Today it’s hard not to see “Rehab” as a confession from someone who was not long for the world.
Celebrity documentaries are a tricky business. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hagiography, spouting platitudes and downplaying the subject’s life off the stage. Go too far the other way, and you run the risk of seeming disingenuous: stardom and the price of fame is an inescapable aspect of any superstar’s life story. Kapadia’s great achievement with Amy is finding balance. Every frame of the movie is about Amy Winehouse. Voiceovers are kept to the soundtrack; there are no cuts to talking heads. We get the sense of the flow of a lifetime. It’s devastating that that lifetime can be covered in only 2 hours.
There are always limits to how thoroughly a documentary can examine its subject. If you simply recite a glut of facts, you don’t end up with a watchable movie, and you don’t do the story justice. Amy makes no attempt to be a “tell all”. Its aims are clear. Odds are, you know Amy Winehouse as a musician who skyrocketed to fame, became tabloid fodder, and died young. In interviewing her friends, family, and closest colleagues, Kapadia aims to have us empathize with someone we likely hadn’t before. There are no justifications of Amy Winehouse’s self-destructive behavior. But it’s one part of a person. Winehouse’s surge to fame feels like a suffocating blanket. She seems woefully unprepared to handle the burden of it. Shots of paparazzi swarming her with flashbulbs feel like a horror film. Her collapse into bulimia, drug addiction, and alcoholism was covered with intense glee by the entertainment press. I felt stings of guilt as footage that I no doubt once gawked at and forgot now seemed like a harbinger. When a standup comedian mocks Winehouse’s haggard appearance near the end of her life, it’s crushing, not just for the callousness of the words, but because odds are we probably found it funny at the time.
As I wrote before Amy is not a hagiography. It is a reminder of how easily we dehumanize other people, even as we admire their talent. When Winehouse died, that too was what we paid lip service to. “Such talent, wasted,” is the go-to sentiment when an artist dies too soon. And then we move on. We reserve our deep sympathies. We compartmentalize. It’s easy to forget that everyone has a story worth telling, worth knowing. Even if you know nothing of Amy Winehouse, I imagine you would still find Amy to be compelling and terribly sad. It’s all too human a story. Some people are blessed with extraordinary artistic abilities. Some people die young, under tragic circumstances. Too often, they are the same person.
THAT’S RIGHT, MY FAVORITE LITTLE-SEEN MONDAY MOVIES ARE BACK. It’s been too long.
On the wings of watching some very bleak films recently (Sicario, The Gift, and Amy are not a trio you want to watch back-to-back-to-back if you want laughs), I wanted to highlight a filmmaker whose greatest skill is keeping his sense of humor no matter how dour the material is on its surface. I’ve seen two films by Adam Wingard. His 2011 film You’re Next is my favorite horror film of this decade thus far. It manages what so few in the genre have: it’s equally funny and intense without ever winking at the camera or otherwise openly going for laughs. It’s aware enough that the horror genre often rests on the precipice of comedy. Horror stories are often absurd, and almost anything that’s absurd can be funny, depending on the presentation. Wingard is terrific at finding that balance between the two, and edging one way or the other without going too far.
In many ways, his 2014 film The Guest is even more ambitious. It doesn’t wear its genre as plainly on its sleeve. Its plot could easily have been played as a straightforward thriller. But Wingard can’t help but inject a healthy dose of black comedy. When the film is at its darkest, it’s also often at its funniest. In a time when so many films are exercises in enduring misery, The Guest is a welcome reminder that humor and horror are often meant for one another.
The Guest doesn’t telegraph its intentions at first. Like You’re Next it centers around a family. The Petersons are a family of five in New Mexico. Recent tragic events have reduced them to four. The eldest son, Caleb, was a soldier, killed in Afghanistan. The parents, Spencer and Laura (Leland Orser and Sheila Kelley) are in the last, longest stages of grief. Their 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) keep to herself and out of the house. The younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer) is in high school, where he is regularly and mercilessly bullied.
Like You’re Next, Wingard spends some time letting us get to know the family before blood begins to flow. They are recognizably dysfunctional. In You’re Next, that dysfunction is disrupted by a crossbow bolt through the window at dinner, The Guest takes its time. The disruption takes the form of David, a handsome young drifter played by Dan Stevens. David says he was a soldier in Caleb’s unit. He said he promised Caleb that if necessary, he’d check on his family, help them out if needed. The parents are drawn in by David’s impeccable politeness and kindness. They let him stay indefinitely.
David’s behavior is an odd mix of calm sincerity and intense, forceful action. Anna takes him to a party, where her friend Kristen is threatened by an ex-boyfriend. David brutally beats the ex, learns where he can easily buy guns, and quietly leaves with Anna, who is more than impressed. Upon finding out that Luke is being bullied, David takes Luke to the bar that his bullies frequent. He goads the bullies by buying their girlfriends drinks and then fights them all at once, leaving them broken and writhing. If David were simply impossible to beat in a fight, that would be a hoary cliche. It’s his behavior before and after the fight that’s interesting. Consider how impeccably he plans out the entire maneuver, from his choice of drinks to how he talks the bartender out of calling the police. David is machinelike, not simply in his invincibility, but in his efficiency.
Penchant for violence aside, David might appear to be a welcome entry into the Petersons’ lives. Anna and Luke both take a deep liking to him, and the feelings appear to be mutual. It’s when bodies start to turn up that Anna starts to get suspicious. David is clearly responsible. That David is “not everything he seems” goes without saying. It’s in the things he actually is that The Guest is so surprising and clever. I won’t spoil it here, but The Guest doesn’t just justify the hilariously over-the-top bloodbath that is its ending; the explanations are so outrageous that the entire last act feels like a 4 AM brain storm. In this case, that is a compliment. Some terrible things happen to these characters as David realizes that Anna is closing in on his identity. This could easily be a dire, charmless experience. But Wingard seems plenty aware that this material shouldn’t be presented with a stone face. Many scenes are deliberately silly, always with style. Dan Stevens’s performance is key. He sends up the cliche of the charming, smiling psychopath by underplaying it. He’s less a charismatic killer than a guy who seems to want to be nice but who can’t seem to help leaving bodies in his wake.
The Guest is entertaining in many more ways than a description of its plot would convey. Yes, it ends with a storm of violence, but Wingard knows that that alone is not inherently entertaining. Maika Monroe is a very likable lead as Anna, a profoundly average 20-year-old thrust into a ridiculous situation to which she responds with surprising aptitude for survival. And Dan Stevens is good in ways that you might not appreciate at first. It’s a performance of seemingly few notes, but he is clearly playing them all in delight.
It shouldn’t be possible for a good film to become a bad one in one scene. The awful ending of Psycho doesn’t keep it from being an all-time great. But then, the ending of Psycho doesn’t invalidate and wipe out all the good that came before it. It let the momentum of the movie come to a crashing halt of tedious exposition, but that exposition didn’t say “by the way, here’s how everything you liked about the movie is now a lie”. The good parts of Psycho remain good, no matter how it ended. The same cannot be said of The Gift, a film with an ending that meticulously sabotages all the good that comes before with swift and brutal efficiency.
The Gift, starring, written, and directed by Joel Edgerton, is something close to a marvel for its first 90 minutes. It drew me in, surprised me, and engrossed me. It was a candidate to be one of my favorite films of the year. And the the ending happened. Like with Psycho, good movies sometimes have bad endings. The ending of The Gift is not simply bad; it aggressively undoes everything good about the film that came before. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
There is enough skill and quality in this film that merits more than lip service. It tells the story that starts out feeling all too familiar. An affluent yuppie couple- Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall)- have relocated from Chicago to Simon’s hometown in Southern California. Their new home is one of the those glass spaces carved into the canyons. All that view makes them expensive, I suppose. While shopping for furniture, a man approaches Simon, claiming to know him. Simon needs a few beats to remember. It’s his old high school classmate Gordon (Edgerton), better known as Gordo. Simon, feeling plenty awkward, disconnects with that always misguided line when trying to not talk to someone: “let’s catch up later”. Gordo takes him up on it, leaving them a bottle of wine and showing up for dinner.
Gordo is socially awkward, and Edgerton plays this well. No over-the-top affectation. Robyn, an introvert herself, empathizes with him and scolds her husband for mocking him behind his back. He sees a desperate hanger-on. She sees a needy but harmless soul. If this weren’t a thriller, we’d likely see agree with her. Initially we think that Robyn is a cliche, an all too trusting character who lets someone sinister into her life through naivety. Gordo regularly visits the house uninvited. He hesitates to answer when asked if he has a family, or what he does for a living. He hints that something happened between he and Simon years ago. We think we know where this movie is going.
And then, at first, it doesn’t go there. After a few trips down conventional thriller road (hints that Gordo “isn’t all he seems”, and Robyn’s dog going missing for a few days) the film takes a genuinely surprising turn. Robyn, unsettled by her husband’s behavior, investigates his and Gordo’s history. She discovers that there is far more to Gordo than we expected, but not some horror backstory. Real human tragedy. And Simon is, well, an unapologetic asshole, but the type able to hide it from loved ones so long as he has some private punching bags to bully. Gordo was once that punching bag. Other victims of Simon’s emerge, and the plot seems to take on a beautiful sense of poetic justice. It seems like Edgerton has tricked us into watching a thriller and instead gave us a gripping story of Robyn’s empathy and smarts revealing hidden layers in her life. I was stunned, not from plot twists and jump scares, but from genuine surprise at how smart and human and empathetic this story was. When Robyn tearfully confronts Simon late in the film, it’s not out of fear for her life, but out of despair at realizing just what a cruel human being her husband is.
And then, that goddamn ending. To get into how thoroughly The Gift sabotages itself at the end, I need to plunge headlong into spoilers.
I repeat, major spoilers herein
A key revelation in the film is that Simon was a relentless bully in high school who ruined Gordo’s life, spreading rumors that got him pulled from school and beaten to a pulp by his father. Initially, these revelations are part of what make the film so surprising. They justify Robyn’s empathy toward Gordo. The film, to this point, is from Robyn’s perspective. Every new thing she learns about Simon is another nail in the coffin of their marriage. It’s a smart subversion of an old-fashioned thriller setup. Robyn convinces Simon to apologize to Gordo. Instead of apologizing, Simon beats and humiliates him, then lies to Robyn. Gordo leaves a note saying he won’t bother them anymore. Time passes. Robyn becomes pregnant. Simon sabotages a co-workers chance at a promotion so he can get the gig, is discovered, and is fired. Robyn goes into labor. Simon gets a tape from Gordo.
The tape, and a subsequent conversation Simon has with Gordo, more than suggest that Gordo drugged and raped Robyn earlier in the film (a scene where we see her collapse in her room; we are lead at the time to believe that she overdosed on pills, but Gordo’s tape suggests he drugged her). It is also implied that Gordo might have impregnated Robyn. All of this plays out as Gordo taunts Simon over the phone as Simon breaks down into tears. The movie ends. Where to begin.
This ending is cheap and exploitative “shock” material in a film that, thus far, has succeeded in presenting a sense of empathy and humanity. Worse yet is how this ending treats Robyn. Up until the end, she is the film’s protagonist and point of view. At the end, she isn’t even a character. She has no idea what has happened. She doesn’t speak or have a chance to listen or present a point of view. Her agency isn’t just gone, it’s disregarded as if it never mattered. The possibility of her rape is strictly to provide pain for Simon. It’s bad enough that the film so needlessly resorts to using rape strictly for shock value, having already told a complete and satisfying story. That it kicks Robyn to the curb, using her victimization to heighten her husband’s pain, is worse. Finally, the ending renders everything that made the film so good- its focus on and justification of Robyn’s empathy- completely inert. It was all a ruse to get us to this bullshit. Gordo was a predator all along. Robyn was being foolishly naive. The most cynical and stupid tropes of thrillers turn out to be what this movie believes.
The Gift spends 90 minutes subverting our expectations of its genre, turning into a terrific story, and then heedlessly plunges into the very worst aspects of that genre in its final moments. This is a well-acted, technically proficient film. But its story is ultimately cruel, bitter, cynical, stupid, schlocky, and gross. If you’ve ever wondered if one scene can turn a good film into a bad one, The Gift is a case study.
I admit that writing about movies hasn’t been at my mind’s forefront recently, but I’ve decided to push through that. My grandmother would want me to keep up my writing.
Last week I watched the first film on my Blindspot list: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night.
What’s that, you say? Romantic comedy? Bergman?
Yes, indeed, that is what we have here. And it is wonderful.
Smiles of a Summer Night is warm but not sentimental, insightful but not cynical. The warmth is delivers stems from Bergman’s deep understanding of these characters and his willingness to let them interact and talk like real people. Much is said in this film, most of it deeply felt, most of it only partially understood by those listening.
The film feels alive like a good play does*. When a play opens you always feel like you’re walking into someone’s life. In Smiles of a Summer Night, the life we intrude upon is that of Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), a middle-aged lawyer with a grown son and a young wife about his son’s age. He had been married for a long time. His wife died, and he spent some time coping by bedding as many pretty women as he could. One, a beautiful thirty-something actress named Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), he actually had feelings for. However, he called it off with her and instead married Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is not yet 20 when the film begins. They haven’t yet consummated their marriage, and he has no desire to pressure her to do so. He still fantasizes about Desiree, and visits her. Not for sex, but for emotional intimacy and understanding. “You are my only friend, the only person to whom I can show myself”, he says in a moment of vulnerability.
*This story did end up on Broadway; Stephen Sondheim adapted it into his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music”.
Certainly his son is incapable of providing any emotional support. Young Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is studying to be a clergyman, and pontificates about morality, most likely because he is terrified of women. Fredrik’s maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson), plays him like a fiddle and lures him to bed. Petra is extremely close with Anne and tries to offer advice for when the time comes for her to lose her virginity. We sense that the two are more earnestly attracted to one another than to anyone else in the movie.
One reason Desiree and Fredrik’s relationship is now platonic is that Desiree’s current paramour, a soldier named Magnus (Jarl Kulle), is both absurdly jealous and willing to duel at a moment’s notice. A scene where Magnus finds Fredrik alone with Desiree is both very tense and very funny. Magnus is married to Anne’s friend Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), and the two converse quite openly about their affairs. Neither is all that happy about the others’ infidelity. Their affairs have become a sport that neither can win.
For no apparent reason other than “this will be fun for the movie to do”, all the characters assemble for dinner at the home of Desiree’s mother, Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand). The old woman knows full well what she’s getting into inviting all these desperately concupiscent people under one roof, on the longest day of the year. The characters celebrate the solstice by staying up all night, talking, brooding, plotting, dreaming, about sex, romance, and fidelity. Amid the chatter there is barely any time for them to act on what they talk about.
There is such richness to this film’s dialogue. Most scenes consist simply of one on one conversations. These conversations don’t simply move the plot along. Every one is rich and revealing. Fredrik confides his anxieties about his marriage to Desiree as she undresses after she performs a play; their mutual comfort effortlessly conveys their familiarity. Anne and Petra talk frankly about sex; Anne is full of questions for Petra, who is happy to share her insights. Magnus tells Desiree that he doesn’t mind if Charlotte cheats on him. He then tells Charlotte the same, only about Desiree. There’s little doubt he minds very much in both cases. Fredrik toils in the background, desperately reading scripture amid the ribaldry.
When they all arrive and Mrs. Arnfeldt’s house, she sits back over the proceedings almost contentedly. She presides over their dinner table conversation like a referee, guiding the action but showing no desire to dictate any terms. The topic of choice? Charlotte’s bet with her husband that she can seduce Fredrik in fifteen minutes. He takes the bet and they all take a drink of wine. It’s going to be that kind of night.
Amid the conniving and bickering, Andersson gives my favorite performance in the film. Her Petra is the film’s heartbeat, radiating joy and a lust for life. While everyone else is slowly working themselves to a boil inside Mrs. Armfeldt’s manor, Petra is getting hers with Frid (Åke Fridell), a portly servant whose jolly hedonism matches Petra’s.
Who ends up happy and who doesn’t isn’t really the point of this film. Bergman’s far too perceptive a filmmaker to fixate on happy endings. He crafts a terrific ensemble of characters and traps them under one roof together. So much of the film’s sense of fun is simply seeing a new pairing of characters talking on screen. Their conversations are so alive. We have no idea where they’ll go. At one point Anne and Petra suddenly burst into giggles during a chat and throw themselves onto a bed, rolling in delight. It’s such a spontaneously delightful moment. In another scene, Anne is discussing marriage with Charlotte, who suddenly delivers a monologue about her troubles with her husband and with men in general. It’s a burst of despair, and Margit Calqvit’s eyes are focused just barely off the camera. She’s not talking to us; we’re right there and she can’t see us, and the effect is alarming.
Smiles of a Summer Night doesn’t shrink from its characters’ sadness, but its overarching tone is warm and, surprisingly, optimistic. Some characters remain paired with the person they began the film with, others run off on whims, and still others don’t seem to give a damn so long as they get a roll in the hay before the sunrise. The shortest night of the summer works its spell on everyone. They don’t all true love, but that’s a lot to ask for in one night. Sometimes, understanding yourself and everyone around you a bit better will do just fine.