Ingmar Bergman: (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night
Smiles of a Summer Night

My relationship with the films of Ingmar Bergman has been analogous to that with a popular elder at a new church: I respect the title and all, but I usually find myself squinting when people tell me he’s more than just deathly serious.

In truth, I had to think hard about where that impression came from, exactly, as I approached his article, “What is Making Films?” Within the last year I’ve re-watched The Seventh Seal and Winter Light, though I thought initially the latter was a first viewing until the plot and characters became so familiar I knew I had seen it somewhere before. I have a VHS copy of Fanny and Alexander in a box in my closet that I bought about five years ago for $2 from a store liquidation and I keep saying I’m going to watch it sometime. After wracking my memory awhile, I managed to recall watching Cries and Whispers, an experience that did little to abate my fear that Bergman had nothing to offer me but angst. At least Woody Allen, whose films I similarly disdained, would make me crack the occasional smile. It also didn’t help that in the last year or two I had discovered the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Robert Bresson, and found in them a spiritual depth and variety that made the straw man Bergman of my limited experience seem so passé.

How quickly I turn from an eager student into a critical snob!

It is probably a good thing, then, that I chose Smiles from a Summer Night as a companion viewing to reading Bergman’s “What is Making Films?” Originally printed in the July 1956 issue of Cahiers du Cinema, “What is Making Films?” is a general rumination that is not contextualized (as far as I can tell) by the release of a particular film. Naked Night is the only film mentioned by title in the piece, and I could not find it on DVD or VHS. So I selected the film that was closest in time to when the article was written, and according to the filmography I consulted that was Smiles of a Summer Night.

Plotted and peopled more like a Restoration comedy (think Congreve’s The Way of the World) than a chamber drama, Smiles tells of four couples too hung up on their morals and morale to know with certitude exactly who they are in love with. Frederik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), a young (still) virgin he wedded after the death of his first wife, but still longs for his former mistress, Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). She is currently with the vain and conceited Count Carl Mangus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle) whose own wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Margit Carlqvist) is less naive than Anne but no less devoted after her fashion. Throw in Frederick’s son, Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a tightly wound theologian who divides his time fairly evenly between reading Martin Luther and lusting after his stepmother and the family maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson), and you have all the necessary threads to weave a sex farce comedy or sentimental soap opera.

Who would have thought that comedy was the way into liking Bergman?

In his introduction to the reprinted article in his film anthology, Andrew Sarris writes that a large part of the “magic” and “mystery” of Bergman is that “there are serious overtones to his lightest scenes and a suggestion of amusement at his gravest moments” (33). That is certainly true of the pivotal scene of Smiles of a Summer Night, in which Henrik prays no longer to be saved from temptation but rather from his own wretchedness caused by it: “Oh Lord! If your world is full of sin, then I want to sin. Let the birds nest in my hair. Take my wretchedness from me. I can’t stand it any longer.” As he is met with silence and climbs the onto the mantle to hang himself in despair, anyone who ever had to memorize the trifold definitions of irony in English class knows he is going to fall and accidentally spring the hidden door that will deliver the object of his longing to him from the adjacent bedroom. From that point on the denouement is mercifully swift since there are only limited ways in which the plot can be resolved with consistency, and the comedy has been to light to this point for the film to jump genres at the last moment.

The plot being conventional, the point in it that intrigued me the most was the careful (and somewhat implausible) insistence that Frederick had not consummated his marriage with Anne. It was almost as though marriage was the social-conventional union that could be broken without impugning the morals of the characters but that there is still some vestige of spiritual significance attached to the sex act that would have made it hard to stomach Anne eventually cuckolding her husband with his son. I remember my mother telling me once that Emile de Becque had to die in South Pacific because for all the film’s finger wagging about racial tolerance, the 1958 audience that wept for the star crossed lovers would not have tolerated a mixed marriage. I’ve always wanted to not believe her, and at any rate Swedish mores in the 1950s and American ones may not have been identical. I couldn’t quite shake the impression, though, that there was something just a little antiseptic in the film’s scandalous reveries.

Which leads me, in an odd sort of way, to Bergman’s essay. The most striking element to me was how much of Bergman’s comments focused on the business of film and its effects on the craft of film. Not that it should surprise me all that much–I know Cahiers was instrumental in pushing the idea of auteurship and the relationship of the auteur to the studio and the forces the latter can bring to bear are major themes within that body of criticism. It’s just that I’m so used to the public discourse about such issues being hidden, or, at best spoken of in hushed, shamed tones.

There is a sort of ritual glibness with which contemporary directors or artists these days drop phrases like “artistic integrity” and “creative vision.” Oh, occasionally you’ll get someone like Paul Schrader fired from an Exorcist prequel and replaced by Renny Harlin, and the blunt force with which the money can batter the auteur will become a public reality and not just an overt threat. For the most part, though, one gets the impression that “creative differences” almost always means the craftsman was unreasonable or hard to work with and nobody who hasn’t been fired ever felt (much less succumbed to) an overt or implied threat.

In a brief interview included on the Criterion DVD, Bergman says that Smiles of a Summer Night was a “turning point” for him “in every way”:

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.

There was a tension, then, not just an ambivalence, about the director’s interaction with the studio that also popped up in “What is Making Films?” On the one hand, he says “it would be worthwhile if a scientist would one day discover a system of weights or measures capable of computing the amount of natural gifts, of initiative, of talent and creative force which the film industry has mangled in its machinery” (36). On the other hand, he acknowledges that “to shoot a film is to organize an entire universe” in which the money is one of the chief elements (41). Too much eye make up on a sentry forcing a scene to be reshot at the cost of $15,000 (one wonders what that figure would be today) may be an “idiotic” example of the “irrational” factors that must be organized and controlled in order to allow the auteur to even approach his vision, but money is above all things real, and idiotic or not, a force without which the vision cannot be realized.

Missing someone like Marmstedt probably had more to do with seeking collaboration than support. Bergman writes nostalgically about the anonymous workers who rebuilt the Chartres Cathedral (44) and says he wants to be, like them, someone who contributed to a piece to something tangible and eternal, something bigger than himself.

Is art that something? The modernists thought that it was…or hoped that it would be. By the middle of the 1950s, though, faced with the mounting atrocities, social injustices, technological oppression, and encroaching nihilism and despair that permeated the 20th century and which neither modernism, existentialism, nor hedonism could sufficiently counter nor answer, even someone entranced from childhood by the power of art and imagination must have doubts about the limits of film’s use and meaning:

Without saying that this should cause you to prejudge my beliefs or my doubts–which in this context are not important–I think that art lost its significance to life at the moment when it separated itself from worship (religion). It broke the umbilical cord, and it lives its own separate life, surprisingly sterile, dulled and degenerated. Collective creativity, the humble anonymous man are relics, forgotten and buried, destitute of value. […] The fear of the dark that characterizes subjectivism and scrupulous conscience has become the great thing, and we run finally into the dead end where we argue with each other on the subject of our solitude, without any of us listening to the others or even noticing that we have pressed so close to one another as almost to die of suffocation. (44-45)

To conclude this entry by taking it back to the film, I see in Smiles of a Summer Night recognition of the impotence of the “scrupulous conscience” but I’m not sure I see the concomitant rejection of “subjectivism.” There is a kind of ennui that drives Frederik’s hedonism and makes it easier to dismiss, but only when he tries (half-heartedly) in vain to pass on life lessons to his son do we see the characteristic hollowness at the heart of subjectivism.

There is something Romantic as well as romantic about making love, freely given and appropriately chosen, that brings to life the soul deadened by scrupulous conscience while lifting free the one chained and fettered by disdainful subjectivism. Patricia Myers Spacks once suggested at a seminar I was at that people in Jane Austen novels always get the marriage they deserve. Who the author (or auteur) weds his character to is one of the quickest and easiest ways for discerning what his or her attitude is towards their life philosophy and actions. It is in the comic reassurance of a happy, if unconventional, end that I find Bergman’s earlier work more palatable than the insistent doubt that characterizes his other films that I’ve seen. The benevolence of God is seen not just in sparing the life of Henrik but in giving Frederik, Anne, the Count, the Countess, and even Petra the loves and lives that make them happiest.

And who doesn’t want to think that is what we all deserve?

Bergman, Ingmar. “What is Making Cinema?” Interviews With Film Directors. Ed. Andrew Sarris. New York: Avon, 1967. 33-45.

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