Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Sexual and romantic comeuppances abound in Bergman’s landmark comedy of manners

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Eva Dahlbeck (Desirée Armfeldt), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Egerman), Ulla Jacobsson (Anne Egerman), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Egerman), Harriet Andersson (Petra), Margit Carlqvist (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Jarl Kulle (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm), Åke Fridell (Frid), Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Armfeldt), Jullan Kindahl (Beata), Gull Natorp (Malla), Gunnar Nielsen (Niklas), Birgitta Valberg (Actress), Bibi Andersson (Actress)

An Ingmar Bergman comedy? Surely a contradiction in terms, right? Like Da Vinci spraypainting graffiti or Austen writing a jingle. The Swedish master is near synonymous with glacial, Scandi-misery, not material that will be transformed into a Sondheim musical. But yet: Smiles of a Summer Night was the big smash-hit that guaranteed Bergman lifetime artistic independence (he followed it with the one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries that made him untouchable as Sweden’s premiere Artist). A Bergman comedy was never going to be a Ray Cooney farce, and while there are pratfalls and farce here, this film is an exploration of manners with more than hint of Shaw and Wilde, mixed with echoes of filmic greats like Ophüls and Renoir.

Set in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden, the film follows the romantic and sexual entanglements of a series of would-be couples. Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a respected middle-aged solicitor, who hasn’t consummated his two-year marriage with 19-year old Anne (Ulla Jacobssen). This is partly due to her anxiety about sex. But really both of them are in love with someone else. Fredrik with his old mistress, celebrated actress Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). Anne with Fredrik’s young son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) who is also in love with her. Henrik is flirting with house maid Petra (Harriet Andersson), who doesn’t seem averse to a relationship with any member of the Egerman family. Desirée is having an affair with Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is considering infidelities of her own just to get his attention.

All of these potential couples merge, swop and work out their feelings overnight at the country house of Desirée’s mother (Naima Wifstrand) during one of the longest days of the year, where the sun hardly sets and people traditionally stay up until dawn. There is more than a touch of the theatrical about all of this – particularly with Bergman’s arch, intelligent dialogue – with the country house as a setting beautifully formal and strangely other-wordly. You can sense the theatrical influences here – Bergman had just directed a production of The Merry Widow – with the characters riffing with Wildean wit and insight, in typically Shavian set-ups.

What we get is a high comedy of manners, that’s also coated in a rich, insightful poetry that gives it a great deal of meaning. There is farce here – including a room with a switch that drags a bed from a neighbouring room (with occupant!) into it. There are several funny lines – many from Jarl Kulle’s hilarious heartless count, who doesn’t care who flirts with his wife until someone actually takes him at his word. There are pratfalls – Henrik has a superbly bleak bit of pure farce near the end that tips into erotic joy (“If the world is full of sin, then I want to sin”). The pompous Fredrik is constantly humiliated, from falling in a puddle to being thrown out of Desirée’s apartment in nothing but a borrowed nightshirt and a pair of slippers. There is no end of sexual suggestiveness, from Harriet Andersson’s gorgeously flirtatious maid (“Hurrah for vice!”) to hints about Mrs Armfeldt’s past (“I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).

Being Bergman though, this is the sort of romantic comedy that ends with a duelling game of Russian roulette and where we learn as much about human nature as we enjoy the scripted bon mots. Namely, that people – especially men – never seem to know what they want. Fredrik spends a huge chunk of the film persuading himself he is deeply in lust with Anne – although its pretty clear that he’s barely interested. Marriage and relationships in this case are gilded cages that lock people into things they barely want. They don’t even lend themselves to communication – the Malcolm’s marriage doesn’t seem to be based on any communication at all.

So, no wonder it needs a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream style madness to try and sort it all out. Before that short night, the characters all down a particularly intoxicating wine that they are warned will bring down all their restraining impulses (whether that’s true or not, it certainly does). It’s part of a plot by Desirée – a superb Eva Dahlbeck, serene and glamourous, but also a battle-axe force-of-nature who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it – to resolve all complications for the (her) best, carried out in partnership with Caroline, a woman she’s far to savvy to let something petty like sleeping with her husband get in the way of useful friendship.

Contrasted with all these slightly restrained middle-class people who struggle to understand or express their real feelings, or (like the Egermans) seem to feel a slight guilt at sex anyway, we have the more earthy and free Petra, radiantly played by Harriet Andersson. Andersson gives Petra a flirtatiousness that sees her go from unbuttoning her top to attempt to seduce Henrik, to rolling in a bed with Anna. While the upper classes engage in a formal dance, she seizes life and opportunities – and ends up well-matched with the equally down-to-earth chauffeur Frid (an exuberant Åke Fridell), who like her doesn’t muck around when there is a chance to grab a bit of joy.

Not like the Egermans. Fredrik – a beautifully reserved Gunnar Björnstrand – should want Anna, but all the starring at her photos in the world won’t stop him muttering Desirée’s name while he sleeps. Not that it will allow him to try and rekindle his past relationship with her. Anna (a luminous Ulla Jacobsson), nervous about sex or rather nervous about her feelings with Hendrik, channels her feelings into jealous criticisms of his clothing after catching him naively succumbing to Petra’s flirting. Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam, very funny in his bemused wetness) is so inept in his romance of either woman, he barely seems to know what he wants.

Perhaps Desirée recognises all this is a bit of prime, Theatrical nonsense and tries to solve it all accordingly. After all her whole life is the theatre – from treading the boards, to singing and dancing while walking late at night with Fredrik. And it was for Bergman – that and film, which is why perhaps the film has echoes of Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jue with its country house romantic intrigues and Max Ophüls partner swopping La Ronde. And Smiles of a Summer Night is a beautifully mounted film, shot with a luscious, poetic beauty by Gunnar Fischer.

The whole film is a complex dance – you can see why it was ripe for Sondheim – that also explores profoundly the romantic and gender clashes between men and women. Men who are in a position to take what they want, but have no idea what that is. Women who know far more, but must be smart about how to achieve their goal – or like Petra willing to embrace a wild abandon to live in the moment. It may be a theatrical, drawing-room, sex comedy of sorts: but it’s also a film about humanity and people’s fates, all under the eyes the suggestively supernatural power of a smiling summer night. Perhaps its not such a contradiction of Bergman terms after all.

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