Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Margit Carlquist, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jarl Kulle, Åke Fridell, Björn Bjelvenstam, Naima Wifstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gull Natorp, Birgitta Valberg, Bibi Andersson
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Swedish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 26/12/1955

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Smiles' to Go

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first came to Bergman back in the 1980s, as a teenager. I rented an old VHS tape of Wild Strawberries, and it quickly became one of my most formative great movie experiences. Even though the movie told the story of an old man looking back on life, there was something so universal about its emotions, and so beautiful about its flow. I've seen many Bergman films since then, and have loved most of them, but if someone were to describe him as "depressing" or "downbeat," I couldn't argue much. How I managed to miss out on this early movie, made just before his breakthrough arthouse hit The Seventh Seal, I do not know. But Smiles of a Summer Night is as delightful a romantic roundelay as has ever been made in world cinema; even the title is wonderful.

Smiles of a Summer Night is easily compared to a buoyant, agile movie like Max Ophuls' La Ronde (1950). It follows roughly a half dozen characters, with a couple more in the periphery, as they switch partners in a ridiculous, but romantic way. Set around the turn-of-the-century, it begins with Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), a lawyer married to a young, pretty wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). He clearly adores her, but we learn that they have no sex life; she's too naïve to turn him on. Frederik's grown son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is home from school, studious and sullen, and he seems to have a kind of connection with Anne.

Meanwhile, an old flame of Frederick's, the accomplished actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) is in town, and Frederick arranges to take Anne to the theater. She learns about her husband's infatuation with the actress when he mentions her name in his sleep. Late at night, he goes to visit her in her dressing room. There meets Desiree's other lover, the married Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), who is eager to fight a duel with Frederick. Finally we meet the Count's bored wife Charlotte (Margit Carlquist). All this leads up to the film's main point: a weekend at the summer house belonging to Desiree's wise, brutal mother (Naima Wifstrand). Along for the ride is the Egerman family maid, the sensuous and carefree Petra (Harriet Andersson), who seems to be the only one that regularly enjoys sex.

Bergman perfectly juggles witty dialogue, with striking visual sequences, such as the bed that slides through the wall, or the lovers cavorting near the windmill. Altogether, it's a supremely confident work, which ironically makes it more relaxing and fun. Yet, what seems like such a light romp is actually quite rich and astonishingly well balanced, not unlike Lubitsch, but with more weight. No one character is a buffoon or window dressing; everyone here has his or her own reasons and logic. In one powerful sequence, two lovers decide to run away in the night, and two more characters decide to help them. The sequence plays mostly without dialogue, and it's interesting to note the unspoken complicity; everyone just knows that these two are right for each other. The jilted husband also enters the scene, hidden from the others; he's not a buffoon, nor a villain. His face registers hurt and betrayal, but also, perhaps a kind of resignation? As if he, too, knows that the new match is better.

Bibi Andersson, who went on to greater fame in Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona, appears in an early role as an actress in Desiree Armfeldt's play. The Criterion Collection released a 2011 Blu-Ray version of their 2004 DVD. The extras are all the same, except for an improved picture and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Otherwise, we get a video introduction by Bergman, a video conversation between Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and writer Jörn Donner, executive producer of Fanny and Alexander, a trailer, and a liner notes booklet containing an essay by the cranky theater and film critic John Simon and a 1961 review by Pauline Kael.

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