Blindspot 2016 #1: Smiles of a Summer Night
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.