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SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Margi Carlqvist, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Jarl Kulle, Ake Fridell, Bjorn Bjelvenstam, Naima Wifstrand
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  May 25, 2004

“How could a woman ever love a man?”

“A woman’s view is seldom based on aesthetics.  And one can always turn out the light.”

Film ****

1955 didn’t begin as a banner year for Ingmar Bergman.  His marriage was ending, his career was in jeopardy after making two box office disappointments in a row, and his health was troubling him (he had psychosomatic stomach pains and had lost a lot of weight).  It was hardly the ideal scenario from which to pen a comedy.

But if you believe the Mel Brooks’ line that comedy is born from pain, perhaps it isn’t too big a stretch to accept that Bergman wrote and directed Smiles of a Summer Night, an absolutely charming and whimsical romantic comedy that not only won the hearts of audiences everywhere, it provided a happy ending to his own personal drama with its big win at the Cannes Film Festival, which allowed Bergman his first foray into international success and acclaim.  It was a comfortable place for him, because he never really left it again.

This was a film that showcased an entirely different side of Bergman:  his humor.  It may have been apparent here and there throughout his career, but for modern audiences, it might be a bit of culture shock to consider a picture like this from the man who gave us the brooding existentialism of The Seventh Seal, the somber treatises of faith in his religious themed trilogy, or the introspection of Wild Strawberries.  The craftsmanship was still apparent, but the tone was disarmingly light, as his script hearkened to the best of Oscar Wilde and Moliere, but still managed to sound distinctly Bergman.

Call it a chamber comedy or a bedroom farce, if you will…it’s the story of four men and four women who are mismatched in their romantic pursuits.  Bergman pairs them off in terrific enlightening scenes that clearly demonstrate who should be with who, then brings them all together in a clever and possibly magical way so that they can discover this for themselves.

Fredrik Egerman (the always reliable Bjornstrand) is a lawyer and a widower, who took the extremely young Anne (Jacobsson) for a second bride, but perhaps sooner than he was ready to…they never even consummated their marriage.  He has a young son Henrik (Bjelvenstram), a melancholy lad unsure of his own heart.  Though he’s preparing to enter the clergy, it seems as though he’d be a better match for Anne than his father.

For Fredrik still carries a flame for his old lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt (Dahlbeck).  They seem like a good couple who never really solidified owing to circumstances.  He visits her in the middle of the night, but ends up in an awkward situation when her current beau Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Kulle) also arrives.  How Fredrik ends up leaving the situation in Malcolm’s nightshirt I’ll leave for you to discover.

The characters are all plagued by misplaced affections and insecurities…but hey, this is a comedy, remember?  When Desiree’s mother (Wifstrand) invites all to her house for a stay, it becomes the perfect situation for all the right people to end up together, including Malcolm rediscovering love with his wife Charlotte (Carlqvist), and even a couple of domestics getting in on the romantic action with an all night romp in the hay.

This is the kind of simple, sunny comedy that just makes you smile from start to finish.  It finds pleasures in simple words and actions, but while Bergman charms you with his wit, he also warms you with his delightfully cynical take on human nature.  We can see ourselves in these people, and that’s why their trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs are so satisfying.

Comedy wouldn’t always be a mainstay in Bergman’s career, but this 1955 gem survives as a testimony to the fact that there was more than one side to the auteur, and that one of cinema’s most prolific creative minds had a wonderful sense of humor as well.

Video **1/2

This is a mostly solid offering from Criterion…the picture can’t help but show a bit of aging artifacts here and there, but they are mostly few and far between…a speck here, a spot there.  Darker scenes show a bit of residue on the print and a little more grain and murkiness, but lighter scenes come across with cleaner and crisper senses of contrast, and a fuller range of black and white tones.

Audio **

Like most mono soundtracks, this one is satisfactory if not exemplary.  Music and dialogue seem clear throughout, with minimal dynamic range, but the track is decidedly light of noise for an older picture.

Features **

Ingmar Bergman himself offers a few thoughts on the movie by way of introduction…nice touch!  There is also an interesting conversation on the film between historian Peter Cowie and Bergman collaborator Jorn Donner.  Rounding out is the original Swedish trailer and a booklet containing essays by Pauline Kael and John Simon.

Summary:

Smiles of a Summer Night is a wonderfully effervescent comedy lovingly crafted by the inimitable Ingmar Bergman.  This one is a must see for all serious cinema lovers…kudos to Criterion for making it available on DVD.

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