Sunday, 17 February 2013

[Essay] - Summer With Bergman

Summer with Bergman

'The Summer Trilogy'

  • Summer Interlude - 1951 / Ingmar Bergman / Sweden
  • Summer With Monika - 1953 / Ingmar Bergman / Sweden
  • Smiles of a Summer Night - 1955 / Ingmar Bergman / Sweden

This week I took the plunge back into Bergman with three early films that come together to create his 'Summer Trilogy' (a self-imposed title, but much like his 'Faith Trilogy' the films are connected by an underlying theme and in this case setting.) The period in which the trilogy is made, beginning in the mid 1940s to the late 1950s Bergman was in his most diverse phase, experimenting with film structure and genre before we see the emergence of the key ideologies; women, religion and art, that would define his canon. Even over the course of the four year span that this trilogy was produced there is a noticeable shift in attitude and cinematic techniques as we will come to examine. It is the series of summer films that are responsible for putting Bergman on the continental and eventual international film-making map with the initial controversy surrounding Summer with Monika eventually leading to an American release of under the title Monika: Story of a Bad Girl! by Kroger Bob (a regarded exploitation presenter) with a new running time of 62 minutes now focusing on the films erotically charged shots of Harriet Andersson. But the real success came in the 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night which won 'Film of Best Poetic Humor' at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

The seasons are an important element of Bergman's work, they would feature again in the titles for Winter's Light (1963) and Autumn Sonata (1978). They become associations of the films thematic state, autumn is driven by an overarching mortality, winter one of crisis and ultimate devastation. In that sense they each become a stage in the life cycle that Bergman's world operates on. Although it would feature less prominently spring is a vital component in this time-scale as a figure of birth (even rebirth) and unsoiled life. This new life will grow rapidly into a fully developed, yet inexperienced sexuality exposed by the romanticism of the summer. Yet, summer is the cruelest of all seasons; marked by the intense but short lived euphoria of love, that leads us into heightened passions through the falsities of sun baked countrysides and warm midnights. For Bergman, the season of summer is blanketed in the most wretched beauty, blinding us from the hostilities of the world it offers us a freedom and optimism to its characters that it has no regard to keep.

The first two films in this series, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika take place across the season, allowing the characters to be thrust into isolation and by extension emancipated, they lose themselves in each other and their surroundings. Interlude is defined by a state of bliss that extends into us, only to be sharply and quickly torn out. It would never return, the second entry Monika, is defined with a distrustful restraint. The final film, Smiles of a Summer Night came from Bergman at his lowest point, a period comedy of wit, it condenses the span of the season into just a single night. Though lighter in tone than both of its predecessors it uses the crisp beauty of a summer evening to install a sense of gamesmanship-based humiliation in the face of love and perhaps most remarkably, it closes the trilogy with self-deprecating, if not entirely convincing positivity.   

Summer Interlude, which he made in 1951, is undoubtedly the work of young director, one who is still reeling from open wounds. Bergman regarded this film as an important milestone in his own career as it was the first time he felt an understanding of what he was actually doing. The romance which the bulk of the film is hinged on between dancer Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and student Henrik (Birger Malmsten) is one of hopes, pleasure and naivety. Yet Bergman is hesitant to share in their joy. The camera lingers closely, but it feels at odds with the two. Almost withdrawn, in one sequence as they make love for the first time, the camera pans to the boys dog looking weary and uninterested. Less an extension of their passion, it becomes a presence, observing with an almost cynical foreboding. Shot on the beautiful summer spot Dalarö, the film is drenched in an idyllic summer haze that when coupled with the films segmented structure takes the form of a visual sonnet. Wild strawberries and warm seas are presented with a pure romantic quality through high contrasted tones and defined compositions. Yet in time the mask of summer will crack and through it seeps a dark cloud, the shriek of an owl and the howling wind. Together they condemn this love to tragedy. It comes too quickly, Henrik's death leaves us winded, disarmed and confused. It culminates in Marie's outward and spoken rejection of God at the films climax. It is a rash response to a great and immediate pain that only someone as callous as God could be responsible for. 

What I viewed as a cruelly, even unfairly cynical film was made all the more effective upon learning that the film is based off an intense but short lived summer romance Bergman had at 18 with a girl who later contracted polio. The films 'dance rehearsal' framing device becomes a form of confession, Marie has distanced herself from her fellow dancers and lovers to shield herself from possible pain, focusing entirely on her art. And art, like everything in Bergman's world is marked by mortality. Her time as a dancer is limited before she is brushed aside and forgotten, as the ballet master caked in clown make-up reminds her. He is reflective figure of self-doubt, lingering behind Marie and Bergman in the mirror. The dance itself is shot with a fragile, softly lit 'music-box' tint, bringing it down to a personal delicacy. A truly beautiful sequence it success is Bergman's own, as his style is now developed and his technical understanding proficient. The film's ending is similar to the later Wild Strawberries; ambiguous, though positive in tone with Marie turning to her current boyfriend who (after reading Henrik's diary) now has a better understanding of her. Will their relationship survive? Probably not, but it is the step towards her personal catharsis that is important. The open wounds have begun to mend, though they will never heal completely. 

That spark of optimism that Summer Interlude ended on has since disappeared when we open Summer With Monika (1953). The film follows the relationship between shop assistant Harry and factory girl Monika who run away together for a summer. The film made a star of 20 year old Harriet Andersson, whom Bergman was having an affair with (one that would last three years.) This immensity of his passion for her seeps into the intense sexuality that leads his camera. He shoots her mainly at mid-shot to frame her curvy figure or in soft focus close-up, to capture the sultry sensuality in her eyes and mouth. It was hugely controversial upon release for featuring a highly erotic nude scene. Andersson exudes a natural vitality, and the film still sizzles 60 years from its release. There is a sexual emancipation brought about the rejection of society by the main characters. Yet occasionally a harshness enters Bergman's tone as a group of children run passed calling Monika 'chubby.' It is a reaction to Andersson's beauty brought out by the masculine insecurity that dominates this films proceedings and his other 1953 work Sawdust and Tinsel.

The films opening act takes place within Stockholm, which is shot with a claustrophobic and smothering vibe, silhouetting the buildings as ominous sky boxes and trapping the characters with cramped sets, dim lighting and physically and morally corrupted people. Their escape to the Archipelago comes as a visual relief, featuring a similar, although more restrained, rhythm and tone than the earlier Summer Interlude. This restraint is illustrative of Bergman's older and more distrustful gaze but also of the couples inability to free themselves from this society. The summer itself is colder and their constant need to better their situation or look for food leaves visible weathering on the faces of Harry and Monika. Yet the real reason for their return to the city and eventual cause of unhappiness is brought about by Monika's pregnancy, is Bergman suggesting this is the price to pay for fleeting passion and sexual emancipation? (He himself had five children by the time of this film.) Or is it merely the rule of his world that love is a brief performance before the curtain is pulled back on an otherwise uncaring reality. I find it quite a suspicious film, in one incredible close up Bergman condemns Monika and by extension Andersson to infidelity. He holds this shot as she turns from her lover to look past the camera, her gaze is one of acknowledgement. She recognizes the camera as our judgement, she accepts it with her guilt but it doesn't matter, this is what she has to do be free. There is a striking reflectivity Bergman imposes his desire to leave commitments behind onto Monika's flight, and our reaction of biblical damnation is Bergman's own perceived shame.

After the release of Monika Bergman found himself in a bad place, riddled with pains and weight loss, both his affair and marriage were ending, he was threatened with dismissal by his production head because of the financial failings of his work. It was while in Switzerland he decided to write a film 'just for fun' based on an ancient Chinese proverb; a son who falls in love with his fathers second wife. The result was Smiles of a Summer Night.

Though with this final entry the summer itself takes a back-foot to the main theme of 'life's a theatre', the links between the films remain as tangible. Summer becomes a stage for the events to unfold filtered through the three 'smiles' of the hazy northern light. The film echoes the structure of a 19th Century scandal comedy with the upper middle class couples trading partners throughout the course of a party in a large country mansion. (Think Rules of the Game without the politics.) Though the film is undeniably a comedy in the classical and contemporary sense; the tone is one of theatrical wit and the ending is one of perceived happiness, it is birthed from the conflicting anxieties and pain that Bergman was experiencing at the time of it's conception. Each of the characters, with the exception of Desiree (who is in a sense perfect) suffer a form of humiliation, one that is usually of a sexual nature such as Fredrik's son Henrik's failed sexual encounter with the free spirited Petra. With that in mind the film can be read as an expansion on the suspicions that Bergman was forming in Summer With Monika, the women here are seen as conspiring gods, forming alliances in order to trick their men with sex being the obvious reward by which it is measured. The film is littered with sexual connotations and imagery, from the virgin Anne being brought through the secret tunnel and into the arms of Henrik to the charged Russian Roulette becoming a vehicle for masculinity. These images amount to an insecurity on Bergman's part, one that coincides with the break down of both of his relationships. 

It is stagecoach Frid who presents us with the films key discussion of summer. His tiered 'smiles' break down the season and tie it with Bergman's earlier summer films. The first smile is for the young lovers of the world, which Frid reminds us is a curse just as much as it is a blessing once the euphoria has worn off. With this film it obviously a direct relation to Anne and Henrik but one cannot overlook this as a reflection on both Marie and Henrik from Summer Interlude and Harry and Monika from Summer with Monika. The second smile is for the jesters and fools, represented by Petra and Frid, there is an element of jealousy in Bergman's tone in this second smile. Through their lack of education and concern they achieve a sort of workmanship happiness that frees them from the problems of the middle class. This smile is something which Bergman idealized, but could never achieve as a very shrewd thinker. A fact he attests to through the falseness of Frid's proposal to Petra, is Bergman punishing the characters through his own frustrations, or does he believe that they will eventually succumb to the mortality of love just as the rest of the world? The final smile is for Bergman himself, it is a sobering dawn only witnessed by those frightened of love. It is, in essences the end of Bergman's summer. The haze that blinded us to the harshness of the world has been lifted and a bitter coldness now settles in it's place, with it will come the smog from the city and the cruelty of the world.

There is an obvious development that charts its way through Bergman's Summer Trilogy, from Marie's reaction to Henrik's death at the end of Summer Interlude, the series is marked by a complete absence of God. For Bergman love is merely an earth-based pleasure, and just like summer, it is one of mortality. The wounds inflicted upon him would never truly heal, and the negativity of Monika would begin to spiral out of control and into his personal life. Yet remarkably he channels it into a reflective and even distanced piece in Smiles of a Summer Night. Though less interesting than it's predecessors as a cinematic piece, it is an absolute necessity in Bergman's canon; the movie that allowed him to keep making movies. The summer may be a cruel season of intense passion and false hopes but one must take solace in its existence. When it ends, take the hurt, the betrayal and the humiliation and meet it with as much serenity as you can. Should there ever be a fourth summer smile, it will be another one for Bergman, a reflective smile from film watcher to film maker, one of complete immortal gratitude.


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