In a great many ways, whether people know it or not, Ingmar Bergman’s films are the predominant stereotype of the “foreign film,” and Summer with Monika, out now on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, is his entry into the then-burgeoning “classy eroticism” genre. Telling as it does the story of a young couple who runs away from the world of man to live in nature (and we all know what THAT means), it may feel a bit old hat to a modern audience, but when viewed through the lens of 1953, it’s not hard to find its more incendiary qualities. The nudity is certainly part of it, though it’s a much more brief than its reputation would insist, but the sexual overtones make it almost more explicit than if they had shown anything. This is a picture drenched in sex, the longing for it, the having thereof, and the results thereafter, both on a person’s soul and on their body.
So yes, if you planned on just a fun sexy romp during Swedish midsummer (though that section is so astoundingly beautiful that one would be easily forgiven for seeking it), Bergman’s going to ensure you get quite a bit more than that. There are consequences to all actions, and it’s not hard to see from the start how little Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) truly considered their escape plan, from the practical considerations of food and shelter to more seemingly-abstract questions like, “what if she gets pregnant?” Bergman isn’t some schoolmarm out to warn you of the dangers of living, but he’s not one to shy away from the complexities of simple experiences, and the lifelong ramifications of such small decisions is something he’ll continue to explore throughout his career.
Bergman knows where these impulses come from, however, and legitimizes Harry and Monika in a surprising way, making this more an ode to youth than a cautionary tale. He highlights Harry’s oppressive, droll daily goings-about and Monika’s unbearable working and living conditions. It’s difficult to imagine now a workplace devoid of reminders of sexual harassment policies, and a brief scene showing Monika at work illustrates how much more cruel it was than a crude remark here or there. Monika’s male coworkers grab at her in every spare moment, and she’s almost raped in a disgustingly gleeful manner. When she gets home, she’s stuck with a drunk father who beats her, and a family of six(? It’s difficult to tell) crammed into two rooms (she and her brothers sleep in the kitchen) in a cramped, noisy, dirty neighborhood.
These are circumstances from which anyone would want release; it’s almost secondary that Monika is a bit of a brat, but that too is the case. Bergman lives in these sorts of complexities, idealizing a lifestyle he personally could not bear (when he and Andersson, his lover for some years, went on vacation together, he’d hole up in their room while she went sunbathing and socializing) while recognizing it takes a certain type of person to quit a job they desperately need and set sail for…nowhere. And that this type of person might not be the most reliable romantic companion. And while a lesser director, especially a man, would pin all the fault on the woman (Monika does initiate much of the plan), Bergman and Ekborg craft more than a victim in Harry, quietly underlining the guilt and self-loathing that comes from indulging base desires past the point of no return. Though Andersson is easily the star of the show, Ekborg is the soul of the film.
But…man, Andersson. It’s not simply that she is magnificently attractive; history has shown that’s not enough. Andersson could wrestle to the ground anything Bergman threw at her, and even if one were just to trace her roles over the next three decades and only take a stop every ten years (from Monika to Through a Glass Darkly to Cries and Whispers to Fanny and Alexander), you could hardly believe you’ve seen an actress of such commitment, bravery, and resolve. She’s asked to do considerably less on each end than she is in the middle, but Summer with Monika is star-making in all the ways pictures can be. It exhibits every ounce of Andersson’s charm while giving her moments to plumb the depths of agony only an 18-year-old girl can feel she has. At turns petty and hateful, warm and sensual, Monika is the near model of the twilight of one’s teenage years.
In many ways the ultimate coming-of-age film, Summer with Monika uses the changing of the seasons to represent aging not just in an immediate sense (the experience of spring, summer, and fall, the time over which the film takes place, is not dissimilar, I gather, from childhood, youth, and adulthood), but our feelings towards those seasons. We may accept that fall must come and revel in the promise of spring, but we’ll always long for summer.
Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer ensured we would, too, and Criterion has done a splendid job bringing their vision to life. More than even the thematic demarcations of phases in Bergman’s career, a sharp line divides the work he did with Fischer, who made twelve films with Bergman from 1948 to 1960, and the work he did with Sven Nykvist, who shot every film Bergman made over the following twenty-two years. While the latter presented a more stark vision, burying heavy whites and blacks into shades of gray, there was a warmth to Fischer’s higher-contrast work that Bergman would never again regain, even in color. Criterion’s visual treatment accentuates that, and presents the film with razor-sharp detail, nearly entirely free of damage. Grain is present to varying degrees depending on production concerns (outdoor shoots, as this was, tended to produce rougher images the older a film is), but is always there to remind you you’re watching a film.
I was also rather taken with the audio track on the film, one of the cleanest I’ve heard from a film as old as this (nearly sixty years ago it was released!). Almost no hissing or warbling. I’m as guilty as the next guy of overlooking audio on home video, but tracks like this, as simple as it may be when stacked against This Means War or somesuch, remind me how wonderful these uncompressed tracks can be.
The special features on the disc are brief, but more than worthwhile. The one I was most intrigued by, which discusses Summer with Monika’s history on the exploitation market (it was re-cut by American distributor Kroger Babb, highlighting the sexier scenes), ended up a little disappointing, it does provide some background information on the way sex was handled in the era of the Production Code. The piece is led by Eric Schaefer, a film scholar and one of my college professors, and while he’s more than enthusiastic to discuss Babb, it seems like there just isn’t much to talk about with regards to Monika.
Nonetheless, the other features more than make up for it, and for Bergman fans, the disc is worth owning for these alone. While Bergman died in 2007, many of his key collaborators are still with us, Harriet Andersson among them. In a wonderful twenty-two-minute interview, film scholar Peter Cowie (it just wouldn’t be a Bergman release without Cowie!) discusses with her the experience of making Monika (which was far from her first role, but certainly her breakthrough) and subsequent professional and personal relationship with Bergman. Andersson is very open about all of it, admitting that she wasn’t always privy to Bergman’s thematic and intellectual ambitions, but trusting that between the two of them, they’d create something worthwhile. She also explains Bergman’s personal appeal in a way that made sense, as I know I’m not the only cinephile who wondered how he kept getting together with so many stunning women. Anyway, it’s a wonderful piece, and I’m so glad Criterion took the time to let it breathe, as it’s hard to say how many more opportunities we’ll get to hear from one of the screen’s greatest actresses.
But the real highlight is Images from the Playground, a half-hour documentary incorporating behind-the-scenes footage from Bergman’s shoots (Bergman also had a silent, handheld camera at his side) and interviews with Andersson and Bibi Andersson (no relation), another frequent Bergman star. For Bergman fans such as myself…there are no words. Bergman’s films have lived inside me for the past five years in an unexpectedly intense way, and I’m not discounting my personal attachment to them from my love of this piece. Quite the opposite. To see images from his films, yet not from those films, is to see whispers and refractions of indelible works of art, glimpses of past experiences and emotions. Almost a waking dream. Again, if you don’t hold similar affection for Smiles of a Summer Night or Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal or Through a Glass Darkly (to see Harriet Andersson laughing uncontrollably on the set of a film she spent mostly screaming is unreal) or Persona or Monika and on and on and on (The Magician! A Lesson in Love! Sawdust and Tinsel!), I don’t suppose the experience will be the same. But you’re also treated to the surreality of seeing Victor Sjöström pretending to drive a car while a rear projection rolls on behind him, an image I’m sure any cinephile would find rapturous.
We also get an introduction to the film by Bergman, shot for Swedish television, but as these things go, I’d advise waiting to watch it until after you see the film. Bergman does mention that it was the first movie he watched when he first got his DVD player, which is kind of adorable.
And there’s the booklet! Can’t forget that. Film scholar Laura Hubner contributes an essay, which focuses on a perhaps unnecessary mission to redeem Monika. She’s a complicated character to deal with, certainly, but any of her less salient qualities make her all the richer. Like I said, Bergman doesn’t treat this as a cautionary tale, and Monika isn’t a “corrupted youth,” which Hubner too often treats her as (though, in fairness, this is the reputation that resulted from the film’s tour on the exploitation circuit, and it’s difficult to discuss the film outside of that).
Luckily, we have a characteristically exuberant article by Jean-Luc Godard immediately following it. The more I read Godard, the more I love his work (both in print and cinema), and the more I realize he would have been totally ignored had he been writing today. “Not measured enough!” they’d cry. “Too hyperbolic!” But for Godard, cinema was intensely personal, and criticism inherently polemic. His writing is intensely refreshing, reminding us just how beautiful film can be.
Finally, we get a fun piece in which Bergman interviewed himself upon the film’s release to dispel some preconceived notions about the picture, which had already garnered a bit of infamy even before its Swedish release. Bergman is always noted as having a sense of humor by everyone he worked with, and it really comes out in this piece. It’s not going to have you rolling in the aisles, but it’s sharp, self-aware, charming stuff.
And that’s that. It’s a wonderful disc for a beautiful film. What more could we ask of Criterion?