Smiles of a Summer Night
May 25, 2004
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is primarily known for making arty, philosophical movies like The Seventh Seal (1958) or character-driven melodramas like Scenes from a Marriage (1973). This makes Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) something of a curious anomaly because it is a lavish period piece cum romantic comedy. The Criterion Collection has given the film first class treatment with a stunning new transfer.
Smiles of a Summer Night concerns the convoluted relationships between a wealthy family at the turn of the century. Frederick (Bjornstrand) is an attorney still infatuated with his ex-lover, the beautiful actress Desiree (Dahlbeck). He is currently in the midst of his second marriage to the youthful Anne (Jacobsson). Henrik (Bjelvenstam), Frederick’s son from his first marriage, is attracted to the family maid, the sexy Petra (Andersson). Carl (Kulle) is a Count and doesn’t like Frederick sniffing around Desiree, his latest mistress.
“Love is a loathsome business,” says a character at one point. Everyone is unhappy with his or her current lot in life. Frederick can’t relate to Anne’s youthful vitality. He is drawn to Desiree because they are much closer in age and share the same world-weary attitude. Frederick is a pompous twit who thinks he has it all figured out. Bergman constantly deflates his confident air by making him look silly, like when he falls in a big puddle or when Desiree puts a little nightcap on his head while he waits for his wet clothes to dry.
Bergman does not solely rely on physical humour. The film has very sharp, witty dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Jorn Donner. Desiree scolds Frederick for his past infidelities when she says, “You valiantly amused yourself with scores of other women,” to which he replies, “But you were the headquarters.” Frederick and Carl verbally spar with clever dialogue full of double entendres. The women also get in on the act. Anne and Petra talk about sex and losing one’s virginity and the former says, “Nearly everything that is fun is not virtuous.” Petra replies, “If so, hurrah for vice.”
All the characters converge to a sprawling country estate where they go for picturesque boat rides, walk the vast, beautiful grounds, and then have dinner in an immense room ornately decorated. It is the pinnacle of decadence and Bergman captures it all with a loving attention to detail. There is an air of civility but underneath, the characters play mind games with each other and seething resentment is palpable.
Bergman introduces his film and talks briefly about how it was a turning point in his career because its huge financial and critical success gave him the creative freedom he had always wanted.
“Peter Cowie and Jorn Donner” is an interview conducted with the film’s screenwriter. Donner points out that the movie was a revelation at the time. It showcased a comedic side that no one expected from Bergman. This is a good extra that examines the adroit screenplay and why the film works so well.
Rounding out the disc is a theatrical trailer for the movie.
Bergman perfectly captures the lazy, idyllic summer days of this rich family and their troubled relationships. He does this with a comedic touch that is entertaining and yet doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. Bergman may be skewering the pomposity of the rich but there is also humanity to these people. They still have the same foibles and desires that we all have and this makes them, ultimately, redeemable and interesting to watch.