A SEXY FROLIC ABOUT THE SPORT OF LOVE.
In 1955, Ingmar Bergman was in need of a hit and the director promised the studio not to make another tragedy. As he was in financial trouble, a comedy seemed like a sensible option. The only problem was that Bergman was not in great shape; the lack of money and the fact that he was breaking up with Harriet Andersson had caused severe stomach troubles that made him lose weight. Still, what amused him about the new project, Smiles of a Summer Night, was the “mathematical” challenge of introducing four couples, mix them up and then try to “solve the equation”.
Eventually, when learning that the movie won an award at Cannes and got very positive word of mouth abroad, the studio learned to like it. Today, Smiles of a Summer Night is one of the all-time great romantic comedies.
In a turn-of-the-century Swedish small town, middle-aged attorney Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to a 19-year-old woman, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). Also living with the couple is Fredrik’s son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) who is the direct opposite of his father – a very earnest young man, studying to become a priest, Henrik has no experience with women… but certainly desires them, as Petra (Harriet Andersson), a lustful household maid discovers. At the same time, Anne can’t help feeling attracted to Henrik – and envious of a much-admired stage actress called Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) whom Fredrik once had a passionate affair with. Desirée has suddenly reemerged in his life… but as Fredrik soon learns things change over the years. Not only does Desirée have a small child, but also a lover who is not easily dismissed.
Smooth balance between romance and darkness
Sounds confusing? It isn’t, really. Bergman introduces his characters in clear but not overly obvious ways, as well as a few surprises along the way, but also maintains a smooth balance between romance and darkness. There is certainly a healthy dose of the latter, or this would be a decidedly different beast. For instance, we have a suicide attempt that turns into comedy… and a quite disturbing scene between Jacobsson and Margit Carlqvist where the latter convincingly professes hatred for her husband.
Those sentiments run as an undercurrent throughout the film, adding extra punch to the witty dialogue – which is exceptionally well written, especially in a marvelous encounter between Fredrik and Desirée where they talk about age and the nature of their former relationship. This is banter of the finest quality, sharp, funny and revealing. Some of the best lines are reserved for Naima Wifstrand as Desirée’s mother, a highly independent woman who tells her daughter that one should never listen to what anyone says about anything. Bergman also pairs up Petra with a coachman. The couple ends up providing commentary for the drama or farce that plays out on a late summer evening when everybody gathers for a party at Mrs. Armfeldt’s; that’s when the titular three smiles are explained and Bergman offers a smidgen of solace for “the sad, the depressed, the lonely”.
The elegance of the bourgeois setting (beautifully presented by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, composer Erik Nordgren and costume designer Mago) becomes a contrast to the wicked aspects – and the cast illustrates both sides, led in particular by Björnstrand, Dahlbeck and Jarl Kulle as Desirée’s current lover, a foppishly aristocratic army officer who is immensely proud of his jealousy.
Not every critic fell in love with the film upon its release; some of them labeled it “pornographic”. A ludicrous charge. I prefer to call it a perfect marriage between cynicism and sensuality, which is the stuff of most great romantic comedies made since.
Smiles of a Summer Night 1955-Sweden. 108 min. B/W. Produced by Allan Ekelund. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer. Music: Erik Nordgren. Costume Design: Mago. Cast: Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Egerman), Ulla Jacobsson (Anne Egerman), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Egerman), Eva Dahlbeck (Desirée Armfeldt), Naima Wifstrand, Jarl Kulle… Margit Carlqvist, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Gösta Prüzelius, Mona Malm, Lena Söderblom, Mille Schmidt.
Trivia: Original title: Sommarnattens leende. The film inspired a Broadway musical, “A Little Night Music” (as well as its 1978 screen adaptation), and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982).
Last word: “Svensk Filmindustri earned a huge amount of money on it, and so they gave me free rein. It was very strange […] but since the success of ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, I’ve never had anybody interfering in my business. I’ve always done whatever I wanted. In a way, it was a bit sad because there wasn’t always a Lorens Marmstedt, someone with whom I could discuss my scripts. Which I would have been happy to do… have a professional to discuss them with.” (Bergman, Criterion)